Hijab…a code of conduct, not just a cloth

The hijab has come to mean a head-covering in the Western world, particularly that worn by Muslim women. However, its actual meaning is so much richer. It is a modest approach to life, encompassing clothing and behaviour. Here’s my recent article on the topic first published in the Times Colonist’s Spiritually Speaking here.


It is a piece of fabric…rectangular or square or sometimes even round. It is made from cotton or silk or a range of synthetic materials. It can be plain or printed, textured or embroidered or even beaded.

In all the infinite number of variations, one thing holds constant: it is one of, if not, the single most divisive piece of clothing known to humankind today.

Worn universally by Muslim women, the piece of cloth that at minimum covers their heads is known in the West as the hijab. But it has just as many names as it has variations.

Interestingly enough, hijab does not mean head-cover in the Islamic context. It is only in Western terminology that it has become synonymous with a headscarf. The word hijab in the Islamic context actually refers to a modest dress code for both women and men. It comes from the arabic word hajaba which translates to a barrier, as in a barrier between the body and the rest of the world. It includes many different pieces of clothing including the headscarf (more accurately called khimaar) or a gown (jilbaab).

In much the same way that the name has been usurped and transformed by its portrayal, so too has the reason and motivation behind it. It has been dragged into politics time and time again, with the emerging islamophobic rhetoric positioning the hijab as a form of oppression and subjugation. This has prompted those who support a woman’s right to wear the hijab as well as those who wear it themselves to respond that it is an expression of their identity and their choices.

But removing the political squabbling brings us back to the hijab itself…why do women wear it?

To put it quite simply, the hijab is an expression of worship. Similar to other Muslim acts of worship such as praying five times each day or fasting in Ramadan, wearing the hijab is a direct relationship between a person and God/Allah. It is a source of reward for her spirituality and one that is a part of her expression of faith.

Countering the narrative over the hijab in the public sphere here in Canada is connected to its portrayal. The narrative has been rewritten by those who wish to use it for their own political gain; they want the hijab to be a political expression making it an easy target. But it is not. It is not an expression against any other religion, nor is it a political statement against any government. It is an act of worship. The people who wear it come from across the political spectrum and lead a variety of lives.

Canadian Muslim women are the largest targeted group in Canada when it comes to outright hate and discrimination on the streets, sometimes in the form of violence. People listen to the rhetoric and incubate that feeling of the hijab as a threat to their safety. But maybe it is time for society to listen to a different set of voices when discussing the hijab…the voices of the women who choose to wear it and who go through the triumphs and hassles of everyday life as a visible Muslim.

It is noteworthy that Canadian Sikhs are the next largest group that wears a religious head-covering on a daily basis. And while the context is the same, the discrimination and violent hate is on a far smaller scale. A question that we in 2018 should ask: why? Does it have to do with the society where male voices are heard while female voices are too often spoken over or for?