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Hijab, the Muslim Woman's Head Covering

Tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should draw over themselves their jilbab; this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and not harassed.

-33:59 Qur'anic Text, From Yusuf Ali or Muhammad Asad translations

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When Muslim women wear the hijab, they, in fact, feel liberated.
When Jasmine and I walk through the streets of Tetouan, the men whistle, shout, clap, and stare. We hear "Negrita! Rasta! Chinois! Japan! Ooooo-la-la! Wow baby!" Once we heard "Happy New Year!" but we figured that was just somebody practicing English. As single women in a Muslim country, we've had some difficulties adjusting. With Kevin gone as he recuperates from malaria, a we are four unaccompanied women travelling alone, an infrequent sight in Tetouan. Because of different standards of dress, conduct, and behavior, we are seen as being outside the order that defines regular relationships between men and women in this culture.

Vocabulary Box

Jilbab - outer garments, commonly understood to mean loose fitting clothing and, more specifically, a long loose dress or overcoat worn by many Muslim women today

Hijab - originally meant "curtain" or "screen." Now refers to the head scarf or veil worn over the face, neck, and hair.

Zeenah - beauty or charms, can be physical or material.

Hudud - punishment for a violation of the code

Muhajabat - term used to distinguish women who cover their hair from those who do not

Hadith- words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammed

A friend of Abeja's explained to us that this attentive behavior shouldn't be taken negatively. "Most of them are just thinking of you because you're a foreigner," she said. "And they might want to be with you because of your papers." Regardless of the reasons, it is a challenge for me to deal with the constant attention, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm a woman or because I'm a foreigner. Once, within minutes of speaking to two men at a hotel reception, they both proposed to me. One even knocked on my door that night. When I called out "Who is it? Who's there?" thinking it was Jasmine, he said "C'est moi," in a deep voice...AS IF I would open my door to a stranger!!

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Tetouan cafes like this one are dominated by men.
Multiple cafes line the streets of Tetouan, and as in all cities in Morocco, men gather here in the late afternoon and into the evening (and all morning too!) to drink mint teas and strong glasses of coffee while watching the world pass by. I've never seen a woman sitting at one of these cafes, unless it's a Western woman. When I do see women, they are usually walking, with their children or with other women, on their way back home. Sometimes, they are bareheaded, particularly women my age, but more frequently women wear the hijab over their hair. Some of the older women cover their faces so only their eyes show. If we trekkers wear a covering or scarf over our heads, we attract even more attention, so I've realized it isn't the clothing as much as the fact that we are women from a different culture.

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The men watch like hawks as we walk the streets.
The Islamic faith in the time of the Prophet Muhammad liberated many women, giving them the right to own property and the right to make decisions regarding marriage and divorce. In the Qur'an and in authentic hadith, men and women are equal partners. There's an emphasis on justice, freedom and equality for all Muslims, regardless of gender, regardless of beauty, wealth, or privilege, only with respect to a person's character. However, over time, some of those original tenets of the faith have changed because of politics.

The issue of women's clothing has many sides. Some women who wear the hijab feel liberated - they are not prisoners to fashion and they can be judged on their character rather than their physical appearance. As Naheed Mustafa, a young North American Muslim woman writes, "No one knows whether my hair looks as if I just stepped out of a salon, whether or not I can pinch an inch, or even if I have unsightly stretch marks. Feeling that one has to meet the impossible male standards of beauty is tiring and often humiliating. I should know, I spent my entire teenage years trying to do it. I was a borderline bulimic. The idea is that modest dress and head coverings allow women to appear as individuals, rather than as purely physical objects."

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A Moroccan mosque
On the Muslim Women's League website, an American organization, it is noted that the hijab has become a dangerously political object in some places. Negative connotations against non-muhajabat mean that in some countries women who go out in public without fully covering up run the risk of being stoned to death. The Muslim Women's League writes, "O Prophet! The scarf, an article of clothing, has sadly become a litmus test for a Muslim woman's faith and devotion to Godů How Muslims dress is only one aspect of our identities. For many women, dressing conservatively and covering one's hair are felt to be acts of faith... Ultimately, what really matters is the attitude, behavior and demeanor of the person in question." In some Muslim countries, women who wear the hijab are considered to obviously be more religious, conservative, and pious then those who don't. This puts women who do not wear the hijab in a difficult situation. In some countries, the hijab's importance is even referred to as the "Sixth Pillar" of Islam. For the first five pillars, check out Kavitha's dispatch on Islam from Mali.

Undoubtedly, the issue of traditional dress is complicated. One of the criticisms voiced by Muslims is that much of Islam is misrepresented and distorted in the media; the issue of women's dress has become an issue reaching far beyond clothing and into the realms of politics, social order, gender, and religion. Does it belong there? What do you think? How important is what you wear? What if wearing a baseball cap suddenly became a statement of your character for which you would be judged? I'd like to hear your feedback.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - I am Tariq, Hear me Roar
Team - Henna: Patterns Woven through Time
Team - A Culture Rich in Tradition: The Jews of Morocco
Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D.-- She's Making a Difference

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