In recent years, women who wear the traditional Islamic veil or headscarf, or who, in a more general sense, observe “hijab”, have been displayed by western media as “oppressed” or “maltreated” by their religion and/or by their men. Those who maintain this misconception, this prejudice, have absolutely no ground to stand on; nevertheless, the belief is widespread throughout the western world, and has caused observant Muslim women much grief and distress. The truth is, the observation of hijab gives women more liberty and freedom of expression, unlike its nonobservance, (that is, dressing in a conspicuous, revealing fashion) which is not only disrespectful to society, but also demeaning to the woman.
The concept of hijab is nothing new; it had been put into practice long before the time of the prophet Muhammad: images of the Virgin Mary repeatedly depict her with a garment over the head. In fact, most pious women mentioned in the scriptures are represented so. And it is not only Muslims who practice it today: Christian nuns, as well as Orthodox Jewish women, all make use of some sort of a head covering.
But look closer, and you will notice that it is not just the head that is covered: such women wear loose clothing covering the majority of the body, excluding the face and hands. This manner of dress is often accompanied by faithful devotion and righteous values. Though the individual costumes may be different, they all stem from the same philosophy: to protect the woman from unwanted physical attention that would distract her from her goals, and so to allow her the highest possible degree of spiritual and mental growth. So if the custom is so widely spread, why is it that only Muslim women are being singled out as “oppressed”? The Qur’an indicates that hijab is to be worn to prevent women from encountering discomfort:
“O prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men)....