By Musdah Mulia

I do believe that understanding religious teachings from a broad perspective will help a person have a more sage and wise response to the diverse religious attitudes and behaviors of believers. Religion is not merely a stack of holy texts, but also a series of moral lessons that can be discerned through contemplation and intense discourses of those holy texts. The moral lessons can only be properly understood though  contextualization of texts. This includes texts on the subject of the headscarf.

The number of Indonesian women who have opted to don the headscarf has increased since the reforms era, particularly after the issuance of a number of regional by-laws that obligate the wearing of the headscarf for female civil servants and students. This triggers a critical question: does the rising number of headscarf wearers relect a more devout religious attitude of the people? The sociological reality is that there is no connection between wearing a headscarf and one’s faith.  There is no guarantee that a woman who wears a headscarf is a pious (salehah) one, and on the other hand, there is also no evidence that a woman who does not wear a headscarf is not devout.  The headscarf is not identical with with a person’s quality of faith and piety.

My studies have shown that there are at least 7 reasons why women wear the headscarf. The first one is for theological reasons. This group of women don the headscarf because they are convicned that it is part of the Muslim dress and thus obligatory. The second reason is habit. Women of this group usually come from pesantren or madrasah (Islamic boarding schools) background. Since they have worn the headscarf since their early teen-age years, they feel uncomfortable when not wearing it. Although they do not consider the headscarf as obligatory, they still wear it out of habit.

The third reason is pragmatism. They wear the headscarf merely to comply to a regulation issued by the government, more so since the issuance of Regional By-laws in various regions obligating the wearing of the headscarf. There is even a village in Bulukumba where there is a sign saying “We regret to inform you that we do not provide services to women without headscarves.” The fourth reason is political. Nearing every legislative election, a number of legislator nominees don a headscarf as a poltiical strategy in order to win votes. In the last presidential election, the issue of headscarves surfaced because the wives of one the presidential and vice-presidential nominees used the headscarf issue as a campaign instrument.

The fifth reason is psychological. There more than a few women who wear the headscarf because psychologically they feel awkward. This is because the majority of women in their community wear headscarves.

The sixth reason is fashion, they wear head scarves to appear more attractive and trendy, as a response to the demands of fashion which is closely related to women. This is evidenced by the increasing number of shops selling muslim wear and boutiques displaying the most up-to-date fashion trends in headscarves and carrying, of course, a hefty price tag. The headscarf is apparently a flourishing ground for capitalism.

The seventh reason is practical. This is found in women in communities who wear headscarves for practical reasons. They say that by wearing a head scarf, they don’t need to dye their greying hair, go to the hair-dresser for a coifure, some even say they have no longer any need to comb their hair.

The eight reason is the desire to imitate. More than a few women wear headscarves for no particular reason, just a desire to follow a trend. For them, wearing a headscarf is nothing more than fashion. When it is in season, they just go along with it.

In my opinion, whatever the reason behind wearing a headscarf, we must respect that decision. We must respect a person’s choice of apparel. Whoever it may be. Every woman has the right to express herself. It is very important to appreciate a woman who wears a headscarf, but on the other hand, we also need to respect those who, out of free choice, take off or decide to no longer wear a headscarf. We must also respect those who are not at all interested in wearing a headscarf.

Historical data on Islam shows that the views of Muslim scholars on the headscarf is strongly related to views on the definition of a woman’s aurat (body parts that must be covered). In this context, the views of the scholars are not homogeneous, but varied. At the very least, these views can be divided into three patterns.

First, the view that sees a woman’s aurat as her her whole body, even her voice is included. Consequently adult women are obligated to cover their whole body without exception which is a doctrine practiced by the Islamic Taliban community. Women are forced to cover the whole body, including their faces and hands so that  the face can only be seen through a small slit made on the face covering.

Second, the view that restricts a woman’s aurat to all but the face and hands . This view obligates a woman to wear a headscarf and cover her whole body except for her face and hands.

Third, the view that defines a woman’s aurat as her whole body except her face and the palms of her hands. But women are only obligated to cover her whole body except her face and hands only when she perform prayers and thawaf (circling of the Ka’abah during Haj pilgrimage). Outside of those two activities, women are free to dress according to the norms of propriety generally accepted by the community. For this group, the hair is not part of the aurat so that headscarves are not obligatory. There is a norm in the laws in Islam that says that not one scholar or religious community can claim their view as irrevovable and absolute. For at the itjihad (the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah) level all views are relative and proportionate (nisbi), and changeable. This means that each scholar and religious community can claim that their view is true, but others can also do the same. In this context it is hoped that every believer can respect the opnion of others, provided that the other person does not force his opnion on others.

In relation to this matter, the Islamic Studies Forum of the UIN Syarif Hidayatullah of 1988 presented the following conclusion: "The Laws of Islam do not refer to the definition of a woman’s aurat that must be covered, but leaves the matter to each individual in accordance with the situation, condition and need. In that case, it is clear that the wearing of the headscarf is not obligatory for Muslim women, but can be considered as a relection of a conscientious attitude in complying with the demands of Islam.

It is important to note, that the only verse in the Al-Qur’an that explcitly uses the word jilbab (headscarf) is verse 59 of surah al-Ahzab. Other verses also touch on the matter of jilbab, but not so explicitly, such as al-Ahzab, 32, 33 and 53; also an-Nur verses 30, 31 and 60. Whereas the hadith most often used as a reference are the hadith of the life of Aisyah and Abu Daud. Both are ahad (singular) hadiths, not mutawatir (successive narration) hadiths. The law experts are generally in accord in their judgment that the ahad hadiths are not sufficiently strong to be used as legal basis.

The scholars agree that the asbab nuzul verse 59 surah al-Ahzab was to respond to the Arab women’s bad habit of beautifying themselves and showing off their bodies. They leave their faces exposed just like the slave women; they also perform their toilet rituals in the open dessert since there were no toilets back then. Then pious women  started to imitate those habits. They were then harrased by wicked men who thought they were slave women. So they complained of the harrasment to the Prophet. Thus the verse came down calling to all the wives of the Prophet, the daughters and devout women to don their headscarves.

Muhammad Said Al-Asymawi said: the legal reason behind the verses on the headscarf, or the aim of the wearing of the headscarf is so that free women could be recognized and differentiated from slave women. The purpose was that free women would not suffer from harrasment. This is evidenced by the fact that ‘Umar bin Kaththab ra. would whip any woman slave using a face covering or a headscarf. This was to differentiate them from free women.

We need to keep in mind that during the Prophet’s era (7th century AD) slavery was considered a natural circumstance. Awareness of human rights was then not yet a global issue. People  were either free or slaves. Slaves did not have full rights as free human beings, they were even treated as commodities or property that could be sold or given to other people. The fate of women slaves was even worse, they were raped and abused without mercy. Islam emerged to liberate the enslaved and other marginalized groups. That is why the teachings of Islam considered the liberation of slaves as a noble deed and promises great blessings. Unfortunately, until the day that he died, the Prophet had not completely succeeded in his mission. The struggle to erradicate slavery succeeded only in the 20th century and was internationally accepted by virtue of the UN Convention on Anti-Slavery.

Wearing a headscarf is not an obligation for Muslim women. That was just a stipulation for the wives and daughters of the Prophet and pious women of that time to cover their bodies in a certain way. The purpose was to avoid harrassment or insulted. So the legal basis was to protect free women.  If we read those texts on headscarves in today’s context we will see that women no longer need to wear headscarves so that they will be identified or differentiated from women slaves; or so that they are not harrassed by impious men. For today, slavery no longer exists, and attire is not a measure of a person’s identity.

Moreover, such a form of protection is no longer needed since today’s security system is so advanced and ensured. Women can move freely in public without any obstacles. Alternatively there are many other ways for women to get repect and deference, through improved education for women, for example, by improving their economic status, empowering them by teaching them life skills and other skills, to fulfill their most basic rights, particularly their reproductive rights. But the most important thing is to educate men to appreciate women. The Prophet firmly says that only pious men can appreciate women. This means that men who harrass women are not devout men. We often forget that Islam obligates both women and men to safeguard their honor and integrity, dress with propriety and simplicity; both should not exploit lust.

An intense study of all the verses and hadtih of the Prophet on the headscarf, shall eventually lead us to the conclusion that the headscarf is basically a means of controlling all forms of sins and debauchery.  The headscarf is thus not related to a specific attire, but is more associated with matters of faith in one’s heart. A pious woman will certainly choose simpler attire that is not conspicious thus distracting attention, and definitely not to show off.

In the context of the headscarf, what we need to advocate is to prevent groups from claiming themselves as holders as the absolute truth. They feel all-righteous and consider other people who differ from them as infidels or non islamic. There should be no groups who discriminate other people using the headscarf as an issue. On the other contrary, we should encourage people, whatever their religious views, to appreciate each other’s choice of attire. Only by appreciating other people’s opinion and choices shall peace and harmony be realized.

Walahu a’lam bi as-shawab.