Observing modesty to obey God: The Tudung Story
By: Shaik Kadir
Many tudung-clad Muslim women in Singapore are professionals, school teachers, civil servants and entrepreneurs as well as madrasah students and tertiary-level students and even educated housewives. The tudung, worn in various and varied style, is a common sight and is well-accepted in our Singapore society.
The tudung, a Malay word, or jilbab, an Arabic word, is the Muslim woman’s headscarf, worn to conform with the Islamic dress code, called hijab, that requires covering the whole body except the face and hands in observing modesty.
The hijab is part of observing the practices of Islam as Islam is a wholesome way of living that includes believing in God and obeying His commands on social life. (Islam is a way of life that asks the Muslim to believe, rationalise and practise. Faith alone is not enough in Islam. Being a practical way of life, Islam teaches people to have faith in God and carry out His commands: believe and practise righteousness.)
In Islam, modesty is a virtue – it is “dressing of the body” as well as “dressing of one’s attitude”. Therefore, the Quran’s instruction to “practise righteousness” includes not showing off, not putting down others, not being boastful but being charitable and generous, showing compassion and kindness and so on in one’s attitude in life.
Islam provides guidance in any aspect of living from how Muslims ought to wear (hijab way) to what they ought to eat (halal way) and how they ought to interact with justice in social, business and all other dealings (taqwa way). Taqwa embraces the practice of righteousness through God-consciousness: “Verily, the most honoured in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous.” (49:13)
In advocating societal modesty, Islam teaches Muslim men and women to portray good image in public. One of the ways is to cover their aurah (parts of the body that should not be exposed). The woman’s aurah woman is her whole body except the face and hands.
The hijab expresses devoutness. Women of other religions too express respect and reverence by covering their heads and wear appropriate dresses during religious functions like marriage, funerals and special prayers. Muslims are obliged to express their devotion to God continuously in their daily lives (including their five-times a day prayers for which they also wear appropriately even when they are alone in their own rooms).
A Muslim woman in hijab is simply obeying the commands of God to attain and enhance her spiritual purity. Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was always depicted in paintings in hijab – covering her head and her body. And Mary is mentioned in the Quran in high esteem as a woman “Above the women of all nations.” (3:42) In Islam, Mary and her son, Jesus Christ, as well as all the other numerous prophets of God and their followers before the formal establishment of Islam were Muslims (people who follow the commands of the One God as taught by their respective chosen men of God, known as nabi and rasul or simply as prophets in the English language).
In the Quran, God says that a believing woman should “guard her modesty and not display her beauty.” (24:31) In the elegant expression of the Quran, this verse asks a woman to avoid displaying her body if she is a believer in God.
Thus, in “guarding her modesty”, the Muslim woman keeps away from transparent clothes, body-hugging dresses, short skirts, short pants, high-slit skirts and sleeveless and low-cut blouses. She wears any blouse that covers the arms right to the wrists and pants or skirts that cover the legs right to the ankles.
To observe modesty, the Muslim woman is taught that the earlier in her life she starts wearing Islamically-approved attire (hijab), the better it is for her well-being both in the worldly and spiritual sense. So, often, she begins wearing hijab upon reaching puberty as advised by Prophet Muhammad who said: “A girl who has attained puberty should start covering her whole body except her face and hands.” Other Muslim women, depending on their individual level of knowledge of Islam, religious awareness, social opportunities, or from the time they performed the Haj (pilgrimage in Mecca) or Umrah (minor pilgrimage) would begin to wear the headscarf at some point in time of their adult life.
Once a person begins wearing the hijab, or the tudung specifically, it would be difficult, even awkward, for her to remove the tudung for certain profession that requires her to wear a uniform without a headgear. But often alternatives are found or allowed (with suitable adjustments) by employers employing tudung-clad women. For example a plain brown tudung would be allowed for staff wearing brown uniform.
Hijab-clad Muslim women who participate in international sporting events like the Olympics are also allowed to wear appropriate hijab. The first athlete to ever take part in the Olympics wearing a hijab was sprinter Ruqaya Al-Ghasara of Bahrain in 2004. Then, in 2008, in the Beijing Olympics, 12 of them wore Islamic garbs. Since then, Muslim sportswomen in hijab has become commonplace.
US fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, an African-American Muslim woman, in an entry on the Women’s Media Center, said: “Sports is something you can do in a hijab. You shouldn’t let your faith compromise how athletically gifted you become.”
Hijab for any specific sport is no longer a concern in today’s context. Enterprises have come up with suitable hijab for Muslim sportswomen in almost all sports.
Muslim women who had been asked why they wear the hijab had given various and varied reasons that include:
- “There is no compulsion in Islam, yet, you see more and more women are wearing the hijab nowadays. This happens because of Islamic awareness or awakening. As more Muslim women become educated, they learn more about Islam from the Quran. They read about Islam and attend lectures on Islam. Therefore, they understand Islam better.”
- “I dress the way I do for religious reasons. People will accept you for what you are, what you stand for and the contributions you make.”
- “The hijab provides the Muslim woman the right to keep her body sacred and not made to be exploited and gawked at by men, even in advertisements. One such advertisement of a car shows a half-naked woman leaning against the car with the words ‘Test drive me’. Thus, Islam’s advice to women to observe modesty is actually to provide status and respect to them.”
- “In Islam, every woman is given the opportunity to attain the highest level of piety at all times. There is no restriction as to the colour, fashion or cultural origin of the dress. As a Muslim woman can be of any race – Indian, Arab, Malay, European, African, Chinese, American or Filipino – she can observe the Islamic dress code in any way she desires.”
- “The dress code of Islam is actually a liberating force for women. Definitely, wearing Islamic dress, which includes the headdress, does not deter our thinking ability or our intellectual capability. The Muslim woman observes the Islamic dress code to obey God and to uplift and maintain her spiritual purity.”
- “A Muslim woman observes the Islamic dress code to earn the love of God, safeguard her modesty as well as promote decency in the society.”
- “Since I wore the tudung (headscarf), many good things happened to me. When I wear the tudung I am more respected. When my waiting male fans in Shanghai saw me wearing the tudung, they hesitated and asked me first whether they could embrace me. Of course, I said, ‘No’.” (Nur Shahila Amir Hamzah, popular singer, who started wearing the tudung after returning from Umrah, a minor pilgrimage in Mecca, as reported in Berita Harian.)
- “Man in the early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I’m wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times.” (Tawakkul Karman, the first Arab woman and youngest Nobel Peace Laureate when asked about her hijab by journalists, as reported in Haute Hijab.)
There are many highly educated Caucasian converts who cover their heads. Among those who are seen with the hijab and involved in speaking for Muslim understanding are:
- Ms Lauren Booth, English broadcaster and journalist, who is the sister-in-law of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
- Ms Yvonne Ridley, British journalist and war correspondent, who was once captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
- Ms Myriam Francois Cerrah, former British actress, who is now (2012) due to complete her PhD at the University of Oxford.
- Ms Susan Carland, Australian. She teaches gender politics and sociology at Monash University, Melbourne.
- Dr Ingrid Mattson, Canadian, who is professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary, USA. .
You may see them speaking in conferences, TV forums and interviews on Islamic issues from postings on the Youtube. (Just type their names on Youtube search and you will be able to get to the postings.)
Muslim women heed God’s advice on modesty in different ways based on their respective cultural background. In Inner Mongolia, where I visited, almost all the Chinese Muslim women in a social gathering were wearing identical hat-like white headgear. Some women in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan cover the whole body, including the face, but this is a tradition of certain communities, not a universal instruction from the Quran. Islam does not instruct that all Muslim women in the world must wear white head-cover or wear black robes or cover their faces.
The full-face veils such as the niqab, which has just a slit for the eyes, and the burqa, which has a mesh screen over the eyes, are not specifically mentioned in the Quran. Muslim scholars say they are, in fact, cultural origin, dating back before the advent of Islam. Women, even men, in desert regions, such as in Africa, the middle-east and the Indian sub-continent, cover their faces from fine dust and dust-storms. But, the costume of any race or culture or fashion choice can be worn as long as it fulfils the requirement of the Islamic dress code of modesty.
There are also Muslim women who do not wear the tudung but that does not mean that they are less Muslim. They may perform their daily solat (prayers) and fast in Ramadan. Although they do not wear the tudung, they may be modestly dressed, wearing long-sleeved blouses and long pants as well as the baju kurung or Punjabi suit. They wear the tudung when they go for terawih prayers in Ramadan and when they attend Islamic functions. Some of these women, when asked, do say that they would use the tudung sooner or later.
A blog, The Islamic Garden, under “Requirements of the Muslim woman’s dress”, mentions that anyone can wear a headscarf – gypsies, fashion models and certain non-Muslim communities. But it takes much more than that to fulfil the conditions of the Islamic dress-code. The hijab is an entire way of dressing and behaving in accordance with Islamic teachings to obey the commands of God.
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