Question: "Why do Muslim women have to wear a hijab?"

Answer: The word hijab means “curtain” or “hiding, obstructing” in Arabic. Hijab can also refer to the Islamic dress code itself, in which case it conveys the level of modesty displayed by a Muslim woman. In the Islamic tradition, women wear scarves (hijabs), which cover their hair and frame their faces as a form of modesty when in the presence of men who are not close relatives. Depending upon the country and the Islamic influence of the region, this wearing of headscarves and other loose-fitting clothing also called hijab may be either legally enforced or considered a woman’s choice.

As a dress code, the hijab can require anything from a simple hair scarf to a total body cover that allows only eye slits. The various articles of clothing that hijab might demand are as follows:

• The hijab is a square scarf that covers the head and neck, but leaves the face free. This is the most common type of covering seen in America.
• The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf that covers the head but often leaves the face and neck free.
• The khimar is a long, cape-like scarf that wraps around the head and hangs to the middle of the back. It covers the head, neck, and shoulders but leaves the face clear.
• The chador is a long cloak that covers a woman’s entire body all the way to her feet.
• The niqab covers the mouth and nose but leaves the eyes clear. It is worn with a khimar or other head scarf.
• The burqa covers the entire face and body, leaving a small mesh screen through which the woman can see.

All of these manners of dress are considered hijab, and in some Muslim cultures they are optional. Some Muslim women claim that wearing the hijab helps others focus upon their intelligence and character, rather than judging external characteristics such as wealth, beauty, or sexuality. From the Al-Islam website, which calls itself “a site of Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Da’wah and Guidance in Saudi Arabia,” the purpose for a woman wearing a hijab is to free her from the lustful gazes of men. The hijab (and other loose-fitting garments) limit the attention on the female body and redirect it to the face.

This sentiment contains hints of the truth of 1 Peter 3:3–4, which says, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” An Islamic woman is taught that the enjoyment of her beauty is for her husband only, so many Muslim women consider the hijab a way to honor their husbands as well as show devotion to their religion.

However, other devout Muslim women object to the mandatory hijab, stating that such a requirement is found nowhere in the Qur’an. While acknowledging that modesty is required, they argue that the more extreme interpretations of the Quranic verses only vilify women as objects of male lust. They challenge this condescending view of women, stating that hijab in the Qur’an refers to “separation or division,” not a headscarf. They point to history where dictatorial and political Islam imposed this rule in efforts to gain control over a people and subjugate its women. When Islamic extremists take over a region, they usually impose hijab for women right away. So some Muslim women see the hijab as a reinforcement of Islam’s reputation for oppressing and silencing women.

The argument over hijab illustrates the futility of religion in our attempts to please God. Religion always imposes external behaviors on its followers, using fear or false hope as the incentive. The Jews in Jesus’ day were creating external rules for others and insisting that no one could know God without following them to the letter (Matthew 15:9). When Jesus Christ came, He shattered those requirements of human tradition (Matthew 15:2) and fulfilled the divine Law on our behalf (Matthew 5:17; Galatians 3:10–11, 24; Romans 3:28). Whether women wear hijab or men pray five times a day, no one can please God except through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16–18; 14:6; 20:31; Romans 3:20; 8:8).

God’s Word gives us guidance in how to live, but we seek holiness because we want to please God, not in order to be accepted by Him. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not the Allah of Islam (1 Corinthians 8:5–6). In Jesus’ high priestly prayer, He said, “Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Being His disciples (Luke 9:23) means we desire to obey Him, while recognizing the impossibility of doing so at all times. The beauty of Christianity is grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). Islam cannot offer grace. Hijab cannot offer grace. All the good works of every religion are worthless without new life in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 10:9–10).