ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَنْ يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ
Dhālika adnā an-yu‘rafa falā yu’dhayna
This is more proper, that they may be known and thus they will not be abused
(Sūratul Ahzāb, No.33, Āyat 59)
The Holy Quran talks about Hijab in various places. At times it addresses the wives of the Prophet (s) only (Q 33:33). Sometimes it talks to the believing women (24:31). But in the above verse it addresses both the wives and daughters of the Prophet, as well as all believing women. The verse tells them to pull their jilbāb or outer garments over themselves – O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments. Allāmah Tabātabā’ī says in al-Mīzān that this means they should have an outer garment that covers their body and a cloth that covers their hair. It should include covering the neck and the chest. According to Tafsīr-e Namūne the command for Hijab had been revealed before but many women were lax with it. This verse tells them to be more particular about making their garment cover themselves.
Then Allah gives the reason behind the visible identity a Muslim woman would carry with her – she will be known for her beliefs and character through it and will be safe from uninvited attention and abuse. Most people who see her would recognize that she upholds certain values and it becomes a protective barrier around her. The covering of the body is an identity. It dignifies the wearer and proclaims her faith. It helps foster virtue and decency in society.
Relationships between the genders that are halal and legitimate thrive in an atmosphere of control and discipline. Modesty helps to create that type of atmosphere. Although it may be argued that women can be modest without necessarily putting on hijab, the chances of immodesty without hijab are high. When there are no checks and balances in place human beings tend to fail in self-control. Evidence of this is seen in the rampant rise of sexual abuse in our times. Despite all the talk of women’s freedom and equality, society today is in a greater mess in this area than it has ever been before. A society that does not respect female modesty is vulnerable to all forms of abuse of women. Imam Ali (a) says about the protective powers of modesty: Chastity [and modesty] safeguards the self and prevents lowly vices. (Ghurar al-Hikam, H. 5420).
Statistics reveal that 1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Churches, college campuses, military bases, hospitals, medical clinics, etc. have not remained immune from it. A recent article in www.bbc.com on the International Women’s Day (March 8, 2016) reported that a whopping two thirds of UK women are harassed. These horrifying numbers reveal the extent of the problem. That too, after admitting that most cases go unreported. It is not suddenly that society has become like this. It is the slow and gradual erosion of values and a proliferation of sexuality. In this hyper-sexualized culture, even young children are constantly exposed to images and examples of immodesty, thus starting the downhill slide into depravity quite early.
Think about hijab and modesty differently. A recent article on the subject in The Atlantic says: Modesty is about a person, male or female, choosing to foster an inner spirit of humility and dignity, and communicating that in outward, culturally contextualized symbols of dress and behavior. Modesty in society may not stop all forms of sexual harassment. But it will definitely decrease it and increase virtue and decency. This in turn strengthens relationships, families, and ultimately societies.
In commemorating the death anniversary of the greatest of all women, their chief and role model, Sayyida Fatima al-Zahrā (a), let us remember that the principles she chose to live by still hold true for both individual as well as social perfection. Recite this verse and remind yourself of the beauty of an identity that is intrinsically protective.
Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāziī (ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūne
Allāmah Muhammad Husain Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān