The Islamic headscarf connection: A modesty badge for the Muslim woman in hijab

The Islamic headscarf connection: A modesty badge for the Muslim woman in


Singaporeans of all racial and religious groups congratulate and salute Madam Halimah Yacob on her appointment recently as the President of Singapore. They are honoured to have her as Singapore’s first female president.

And indeed Singapore Muslims are proud that she wears the hijab (Islamic dress-code). The hijab is worn to conform to Islamic guidance for decency, modesty and Islamic values.

President Halimah Yacob was a unionist, politician and Speaker of Parliament. TV screenshot photo on the right shows Mdm Halimah taking her oath of office on 14 September and the other photo, from World Bulletin, 19 September 2017, is captioned: “Singapore’s first woman president — and the first to wear a headscarf — Halimah Yacob, hails from Singapore’s Malay minority, the first to come from that group in 47 years.”

As more and more Muslim women become educated all over the world, more and more of them use the hijab, it’s most prominent part being the headscarf or tudung in Malay.

Youngest doctor in the world: “Iqbal El-Assaad is a Palestinian Muslim woman who was set by the Guinness World Records as the youngest doctor in the World.” She started her medical education at Cornell University’s Qatar branch, when she was just 14 years old and graduated with an Honours Bachelor degree in Medicine in 2013 when she was 20.

AirAsia pilots in hijab (AirAsia Inflight Magazine Travel 3 Sixty, August 2017 issue), and popular Malaysian singer Siti Nurhaliza who started wearing the hijab upon her marriage in 2006. Siti was listed as among the world’s top 500 influential Muslims. (AsiaOne, 6 October 2015)

In Singapore it is common to see tertiary students, school teachers, civil servants, professionals and entrepreneurs wearing the tudung, worn in various and varied style.

Singaporean Shereen Williams, 35, was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her community work in Wales where she resides now with her Welsh husband. (“S’porean honoured for community work in Wales”, The Straits Times, 10 July 2017) The photo on the right shows Miss Noorul Wasima, 23, a student at the National Institute of Education (NIE), being awarded the Best Trainee Teacher Award at the Most Inspiring Tamil Teacher’s Award ceremony on 2 September 2017.(“Tamil Teachers lauded at award ceremony”, The Straits Times, 3 September 2017.) The photo in the middle, bottom, shows Ms Noor Syafizah Mahadi, 20, a student of the Singapore Polytechnic. She is a lifesaver who donated her bone marrow to a patient living overseas through the local Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP). (The Straits Times, 16 September 2017) (Photos: Page-shots of The Straits Times)

Singapore Professor Jackie Y. Ying, 50, a Chinese convert to Islam, who is the executive director of the Institute of Bio-engineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), was awarded the Mustafa Prize in the Top Scientific Achievement category in Teheran, Iran, in 2015. The young lady in the bottom photo is her 15-year-old daughter, Chan Hsi-Min. (The Straits Times, 25 December 2015, and Berita Minggu, 10 January 2016.) (Photos: Page-shots of The Straits Times and Berita Minggu)

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, Peace Be Upon Him. There are also references on hijab for both men and women in the Qur’an, especially in Chapter 24, Verses 30-31.

Still, the Qur’an (Word of God) does not specifically make it a command for Muslim women to cover the hair, unlike the command to perform solat (Islamic prayers performed five times a day) and the month-long fast in Ramadan which are obligatory. But, Muslims hold to the term “hijab” which means “conceal” or “hide from view”. The term refers to the way a Muslim woman dresses to hide the bosom and any part of the body that attracts male strangers, with the addition of using the headscarf to hide the hair and neck.  Thus, using the headscarf, according to some Muslim women, is a personal choice for a total hijab. One could just ask: “Being a Muslim, if I wear mini-skirts and plunging neck-line blouses, other Muslims can easily see that I am in the wrong in the Islamic sense; but if I wear the hijab and in addition the headscarf, would other Muslims see me as Islamically wrong because I wear the headscarf which is not a clear-cut command in the Qur’an?”

Most 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.

International sportswomen in hijab…

Hijab-clad Muslim women who participate in international sporting events, even in the Olympics, are allowed to wear appropriate hijab sportswear. The first athlete to 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: “Sports is something you can do in a hijab.”

US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, an African-American Muslim woman, (above) 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.”

More international sportswomen in hijab…

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.

Malay Muslim participants at the Mass Zumba Exercise 2017 for all Singaporeans on 24 September 2017 at the “Our Tampines Hub”: “Wearing the hijab is no deterrent to our daily routine or doing exercises, even such as in this vigorous Zumba,” says Mdm Khairon Mastan, a participant seen in the top photo on the right wearing blue blouse with a stripe.

Mdm Khairon Mastan and her friends.

More friends of Mdm Khairon Mastan.

Mdm Khairon Mastan with her daughter-in-law, Shuhaila Sidik (in grey tudung) and Shuhaila’s sister, Rashima, both school-teachers. The child with Mdm Khairon in the photo on the left is her 3-year-old granddaughter, Nur Iffah Muhammad Imran, while the child in the photo on the right is her 4-year-old grandson, Adam Rayan Dula.  The tudung-clad girl is Mdm Rashima’s 9-year-old daughter, Arinal M Zuhal.

There are numerous 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.  She is the sister-in-law of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

• Ms Kristiane Backer, British, was one of the very first presenters on MTV (Europe) in the early 1990s. As she reached the height of her success, she realised that something very important was missing. In her famous book, “From MTV to Mecca”,  she relates the story of her conversion to Islam.

• Ms Yvonne Ridley, British journalist and war correspondent, (below) was captured in 2001 by the Taliban in Afghanistan. She converted to Islam soon after her release.

In 2008, Ms Yvonne Ridley (above) was voted the “most recognisable woman in the Islamic world” by Islam Online.

• Dr Myriam François-Cerrah, British, is a research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, University of London.

• Dr Ingrid Mattson, Canadian, is professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary, USA.

• Dr Susan Carland, Australian. She teaches gender politics and sociology at Monash University, Melbourne.

Converts to Islam: Top photos, from left:  Ms Lauren Booth, Ms Kristiane Backer and Dr Myriam Francois Cerrah, and bottom photos, from left: Dr Ingrid Mattson and Dr Susan Carland.

You may see these Caucasian women 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 videos.)

Converts to Islam from all over the world love wearing the hijab. One of them, a Japanese convert, Mdm Keiko Soeda, said: “More people are realising the reason behind the use of the hijab. When we value certain things, we love them. This is just the case with the hijab.  Many people are starting to realise this.”

She added: “We are not oppressed or forced to wear the hijab as some non-Muslims think.  We choose to wear the hijab on our own choice. Even western converts and highly educated Muslim women love to wear the hijab because of its Islamic value and to follow the ideals of Islam.”

Japanese converts: Photo on the left shows Mdm Keiko Soeda (Japanese convert) with Mdm Khairon Mastan (Singaporean Indian Muslim), and that on the right shows Mdm Keiko Soeda (extreme left) with her Japanese friends. Mdm Soeda says: “We took this photo with my Japanese friends right after our tea gathering at Arab Street near the Sultan Mosque.”

Singapore Chinese converts: Photo on the right shows, from left, Nur Sumaiya Tan with her baby, Janice Ee, Joyce Ee, Mrs Ridzuan Wu and Mdm Salmiah Sayadi, who teaches Islamic prayers to female converts, at the Muslim Converts’ Association Singapore (also known as Darul Arqam). The photo on the left shows the two Ee sisters and Mdm Iman Wong.

Muslims of European countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Chechnya.

More photos of Muslims of  European countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Chechnya.

Muslims in China. Photo on the right shows a view of Chinese Muslim women performing their Islamic prayers (positioning in straight rows, shoulder to shoulder) in a mosque with Chinese architecture.

Singaporean Muslims in Sydney: Main photo shows Ms Munirah Shaik Kadir (standing at extreme right), a final-year PhD candidate in Sydney, and her friends at the Muslim Women’s Welfare of Australia’s Annual Ramadan Dinner in June 2017. Attached Internet photo shows Australian Dr Susan Carland, who lives in Melbourne, giving a talk on her conversion to Islam at a different venue.

Muslim women heed Islam’s advice on modesty in different ways based on their respective cultural background. In Inner Mongolia, for example, almost all the Chinese Muslim women in a social gathering were wearing identical hat-like white headgear (when the writer of this article had an occasion to visit them).

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 Qur’an. 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 Qur’an. 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 decency and 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) with head-covering and fast in Ramadan. Although they do not wear the tudung in public, 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 or read the Qur’an to show respect.

Qur’an reading: It is respectful for Muslims to read the Qur’an wearing the tudung.

Westerners speaking about their journeys to Islam.

Muslim women who had been asked why they wear the hijab had given various reasons that include:
• “There is no compulsion in Islam to wear the tudung, 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 Qur’an. They read about Islam and attend lectures on Islam. Therefore, they understand Islam better that those Muslims who had never attended Islamic courses.”

• “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.”

• “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 Qur’an in high esteem as a woman “Above the women of all nations.” (Qur’an, 3:42)”

• “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, Thai, European, African, Chinese, American or Filipino – she can observe the Islamic dress code in any way she desires or in her cultural dress. In Singapore, Muslim women love to wear the baju kurung, a Malay traditional attire, with long blouse and sarung with the addition of the tudung.”

• “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 in observing modesty and to uplift and maintain her spiritual purity.”

• “A Muslim woman in hijab is simply obeying the commands of God to attain and enhance her spiritual purity by covering her whole body except the face and hands.”

• “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.)

• “The hijab does not prevent a Muslim woman from acquiring knowledge or from contributing to the betterment of human society.”

World Hijab Day (WHD) is an annual event founded by Nazma Khan in 2013. The event takes place in 140 countries worldwide with the purpose to encourage women of all religions and backgrounds to wear and experience the hijab. Organizers hope World Hijab Day will “create a more peaceful world where global citizens respect each other,” the Express reported. “WHD focuses on fighting bigotry, discrimination, and prejudice against Muslim women.”

My granddaughter, Nur Iffah Muhammad Imran, trying out the hijab.

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.”

Indeed it is, thus what is really important is for the Muslim woman (as this article’s focus is the woman’s hijab, though the Qur’an provides advices on both men and women), is her righteousness and modesty. The Islamic dress code for a woman is a total package that deals not only with clothing but also with her speech, manners, behaviour, demeanour and attitude. What is required for the person in hijab is not seclusion from society but  contribution to society, even in a small neighbourly or community way,  towards its peace, harmony and progress.

Shaik Kadir
1 October 2017

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