Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed is President of the Islamic Research Foundation, and a Professor at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
Literally, hijab means "a veil," "curtain," "partition" or "separation." In a meta-physical sense, hijab means illusion, or refers to the illusory aspect of creation. The most popular and common meaning of hijab today, is the veil in dressing for women. It refers to a certain standard of modest dress for women. The usual definition of modest dress according to the legal systems, does not actually require covering everything except the face and hands in public; this, at least, is the practice which originated in the Middle East.1
While hijab means "cover," "drape," or "partition;" the word khimar means veil covering the head, and the wordlitham or niqab means veil covering the lower face up to the eyes. The general term hijab in the present day world refers to the covering of the face by women. In the Indian sub-continent it is called purdah, and in Iran it calledchador, because of the tent like black cloak and veil worn by many women in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. By socioeconomic necessity, the obligation to observe the hijab now often applies more to female "garments" (worn outside the house), than it does to the ancient paradigmatic feature of women's domestic seclusion. In the contemporary, normative Islamic language of Egypt and elsewhere, the hijab now denotes more a "way of dressing" than a "way of life," a (portable) "veil" rather than a fixed "domestic screen / seclusion."
In Egypt and America, hijab presently denotes the basic head covering ("veil") worn by fundamentalist / Islamist women, as part of the Islamic dress (zayy islami, or zayy shar`i). This hijab-headcovering conceals the hair and neck of the wearer.
The Qur'an advises the wives of the Prophet (s.a.a.w) to go veiled (33:59). In Surah 24: ayah 31, the Qur'an advises women to cover their "adornments" from strangers outside of the family. In the traditional and modern Arab societies, women at home dress quite differently compared to what they wear in the streets. In this verse of the Qur'an, it refers to the institution of a new public modesty, rather than veiling the face.
...When the pre-Islamic Arabs went to battle, Arab women seeing the men off to war would bare their breasts to encourage them to fight; or they would do so at the battle itself, as in the case of the Makkan women, led by Hind at the Battle of Uhud. This changed with Islam, but the general use of the veil to cover the face did not appear until'Abbasid times. Nor was it entirely unknown in Europe, for the veil permitted women the freedom of anonymity. None of the legal systems actually prescribe that women must wear a veil, although they do prescribe covering the body in public, up to the neck, ankles, and below the elbow. In many Muslim societies, for example in traditional South East Asia, or in Bedouin lands, a face veil for women is either rare or nonexistent. Paradoxically, modern fundamentalism is introducing it. In others, the veil may be used at one time, and European dress at another. While modesty is a religious prescription, the wearing of a veil is not a religious requirement of Islam, but a matter of cultural milieu.2
The Middle Eastern norm for relationships between the sexes is by no means the only one possible for Islamic societies everywhere, nor is it appropriate for all cultures. It does not exhaust the possibilities allowed within the framework of the Qur'an and Sunnah, and is neither feasible nor desirable as a model for Europe or North America. European societies possess perfectly adequate models for marriage, the family, and relations between the sexes, which are by no means out of harmony with the Qur'an and the Sunnah. This is borne out by the fact that within certain broad limits, Islamic societies themselves differ enormously in this respect.3
The Qur'an lays down the principle of the law of modesty. In Surah 24: An-Nur: 30 and 31, modesty is enjoined upon both Muslim men and Muslim women:4
"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: and they should not display beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they must draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husband's sons, or their men, or their slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their ornaments."