Written by Theresa Corbin

I asked myself, “Self, what is the first question (and often the only question) people ask you about your religion?” Then self said, “hijab!”

Photo used under Creative Commons from Ranoush
Photo used under Creative Commons from Ranoush

To be clear, hijab is not a headscarf. Hijab is a standard of modesty for men and women as was revealed by God in the Quran (Quran 24:30-31). But many people use the word hijab to mean the headscarf some Muslim women wear. 

Whatever you call it—hijab, head scarf, garb, head wrap, turban, and some more insulting things which I will not mention here—it is the first thing people notice. I am kinda tired of talking about it, explaining it, defending it. It is not the most important part of Islam or Iman (faith).

But Western attention focuses so much of what it “knows” about Islam on the way Muslim women choose* to dress that it is important to continue to talk about, explain, and defend. *If a woman is wearing a headscarf to please her husband or father, this is not from Islam. 

The day to day questions I receive from perfect strangers about my headscarf can range from innocent and curious to downright mean, but what all the questioning boils down to is: “Why do you wear that?” And my first thought of course is to give a smart-alecky response like: “Oh, I love to wear converse because they give me that I don’t give a crap look that I love so much.”

But then I rein myself in—I know they are referring to the gorgeous accessory I use to cover my hair—and I respond by rote: “For God and Modesty”.

Four little words. That’s all. It sums it up, but falls short.

If I gave the full answer/history/misconceptions to passing strangers, I fear I may be committed or burned at the stake :/ (In the small southern cities in which I have resided, Muslims are scarce. So, the lack of knowledge is understandable, but unfortunately xenophobia is rampant).

So let’s get down to brass tacks with my longer, but still short-ish explanation of the headscarf people inaccurately call hijab.

No! not another definition! Yes, kind reader, another definition.

Hijab  [he JAB] (n)- 1. A style of dress for women and men that expresses modesty and a devotion to God. 2. A word that often is used to mean headscarf which is a cloth that covers the hair, ears, neck, and chest worn in public by Muslim women who wish to please God and be recognized as a believing woman. 3. A piece of cloth that reveals innocent enough ignorance sometimes accompanied by bigotry when worn in public.

To the Western world the hijab/headscarf that some Muslim women wear has a connotation of oppression, male-dominance, female silence, suffering, and subordination. You know, all the dark and shady things that have come to represent The East in The Western psyche.

*Point of contention/personal pet peeve: Islam is not an Eastern religion. Sure it started in The East, just as Judaism and Christianity did, but it is absolutely a world religion. However, the hijab/headscarf is normally tied up in the Western mind with all that is Eastern.

For most Muslims, the scarf and modest clothing represent strength, piety, confidence, a sense of self-worth, and a woman’s right to have full ownership over her own body and not be viewed as a sexual plaything. 

For me, when I first encountered Islam, I was of the Western thinking in regards to women dressing modestly, for no other reason than this was some kind of programming to which I had been subconsciously subjected. However, as a young woman, I knew the crushing insecurity that came along with being put on display at all times, as a subject to be critiqued by all who crossed my path. I knew I was expected to mold my appearance for unattainable approval. And I was crushed my the weight of it all. 

I became increasingly frustrated by the harassment and disrespect I received as an American woman dressed as a typical American woman. I was perceived as available. And was so rarely treated with respect that should be shown to any human being no matter how I acted, or what words I spoke, or what I achieved. Sure, some women enjoy this kind of attention, but it was not for me.

Then I did something weird. I listened. I listened to a Muslim woman answer my very own question of “why do you wear that?”

And the answer was so obvious and attuned to my own nature that I was shocked when she said, “So that I can be recognized as a woman who believes in God and should be respected and not harassed. So that I can be spared the cross hairs of the male gaze. So that I can give consent to who see me and who does not.”

When I found out what hijab was really about, I wanted to allow myself these rights. It took time and a lot of courage, but I finally started observing hijab in 2001, and I LOVE allowing myself this freedom.

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7 thoughts on “Hijabology

  1. Much to comment on. I really enjoyed this piece. My favourite ‘bits’ are when you’re doing your word-definitions (and word plays). I love how you initially define the term literally, and then go on to describe how the term is ‘used’. And with that I particularly love the irony you use to undercut the description (and raise attention to other perspectives that are at play,) What is great with your your attempt to try and reclaim the meanings of things we can by defining them for ourselves. Alhamdulillah.


    1. Thank you ModWestMuse for not only reading, but also for taking the time to give such wonderful compliments. I have felt for a long time that Muslims allow the western world to define them, and they remain silent to a large extent or they try to complicate their explanations with complex Islamic theory and untranslated Arabic phrases. I hope that Allah allows me to be successful in making clear and concise dawah through this blog. Ameen!


  2. Well said, Sr. Theresa! I really enjoyed reading this very much, especially your explanation at the end. I’ve never heard anyone explain it that way, but it’s right on target. You’re doing a great job here on your blog.


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