A relative of mine asked me about the hijab, and this is what I replied:
The concept of hijab is based on modesty, which as Muslims, is a praiseworthy trait and in this sense of the term it is not gender-specific. It is incumbent on both male and females to adopt and adorn themselves with modesty and decorum when they interact with each other. This should be obvious. This notion of hijab thus goes beyond the outward dictates of the law – it is an inner trait that one adopts. A non-hijabi in this sense can be adorned with the praiseworthy trait of modesty, and a hijabi can be completely divest of it.
The law possesses both an outward conformance and inward reality – the letter and spirit of the law respectively. The ideal is to create an inward and outward harmony. Even a superficial reading of Quranic verses and related hadiths will attest that the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, has always emphasized the balance that is reached by this.
Moreover, one also needs to understand that Islamic Sacred Law, or Shariah, which covers all mundane affairs of human life – buying and selling, dressing, greeting etc – are still actions whether they are in conformance to God’s command or not. That is not the issue. What is important for us as Muslims is the effect that these actions have on our souls. It is this action of transforming an otherwise secular act into a religious one that imbibes it with spirit. This leaves a positive imprint on the soul and aids in the integration of finding solace in God in all human affairs.
To the Muslim, the Shariah is an eternal and transcendant Law and the question of how it became codified and systemized in detail historically is a question that has not been of central importance until modern times.
Yes, there are problems in the traditional Muslim world. But the solution to these issues is not to call for the liberation of women by removing the hijab. These problems exist because local social customs deny women their rights or at best, are partially compromised. Part of the problem is more to do with Muslims who cannot understand the teachings of Shariah on these points, simply because it uses criteria categories borrowed from the modern West. This is more so with Muslim segments of society that call for the emancipation of women through hijab removal more so than Western observers of Islam.
As regards the equality between men and women. This question itself, from an Islamic perspective, is meaningless. It is like discussing the equality of a rose and jasmine. Each has its colour, perfume, shape and beauty. Man and woman are not the same; each has his or her own features and characteristics. Women are not equal to men; neither are men equal to women. Islam does not view each gender role as competing with each other – as modern society does – rather it sees the role of both as complimentary. Each has its own duty and function in accordance to the nature and constitution of each gender.
To live a life in accordance to Shariah, is to live in accordance to Divine Will – what God has willed for human society.
Moving on to the hijab specifically, Muslim women from Jakarta to Casablanca have historically always been donning the hijab. It might have different cultural manifestations that range from the jilbab to the salwar kamis, but the common denominating feature is the sense of modesty and decorum that it comprises. Living in times where gender roles are seen as competing and highly sexualized, it is all the more important to realise what the hijab philosophy is based on.