By Meena Malik
When you think of a Muslim woman, you probably imagine a woman wearing a headscarf. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s only natural to think so since wearing a headcovering is part of what Islam asks Muslim women to do. However, it is far from true that every Muslim woman wears a headscarf. You may have even encountered a woman you’ve known for a while and were surprised to learn that she was a Muslim because she doesn’t wear a headscarf–that happens to Muslims as well! Whether it is in the United States or in another country that has a majority Muslim population, you will encounter many Muslim women who do not wear a hijab. But why is this?
Modesty is One Aspect of Islam
Islam is very clear about its modesty standards for its practitioners. It may seem as though Islamic modesty only goes as far as a person’s dress. That is untrue–Islamic ideas of modesty extend well beyond dress to include actions, speech, and behavior. This is why you may have heard of, for example, a Muslim colleague declining to shake hands with someone of the opposite gender.
However, modesty, and modest clothing specifically, are not the totality of a Muslim woman’s faith. Check out Prophet Muhammad’s, peace be upon him, full statement in regards to modesty being a branch of faith:
“Faith has over seventy branches or over sixty branches, the most excellent of which is the declaration that there is no god but Allah, and the humblest of which is the removal of [something harmful] from a path: and modesty is the branch of faith.”
He preaches about how a Muslim’s faith is like a tree that has many branches. Although modesty is one, it is not the most important nor the end-all-be-all of a Muslim’s faith. Therefore, hijab is just one element of a Muslim woman’s faith—not the totality of it. Being a Muslim entails a whole set of beliefs and practices and although wearing a hijab can be a very easy way to spot a Muslim woman, it is not the only nor the most crucial element of her faith. What actually makes a person a Muslim? Believing in six major beliefs as well as following the five pillars of Islam.
What Islam Says Versus What Muslims Do
Just like in many other faiths, you’ll find Muslims who practice Islam to varying degrees. A picking-and-choosing approach for the mandatory practices required of Muslims is not something Muslims should be doing, but there will inevitably be individuals who fall into this. All Muslims have varying connections and commitments to their beliefs and religious practices–those variations do not reflect what Islam asks Muslims to do.
If you’re wondering–but why would some Muslim women actually choose to not wear the hijab?
One of the reasons is misinformation about the compulsion for women to wear it in the first place. Sometimes what Muslims understand or learn about Islam, even from other well-meaning Muslims, is not accurate to what Islam actually teaches. In my own case, I didn’t know that wearing hijab was mandatory for women until I was sixteen years old–and I had been going to the mosque for Sunday School, learning how to read the Quran in Arabic, and going to informal Quran study circles with my family since I was a child.
Another reason why some Muslim women don’t wear hijab is due to their personal connection with Islam and Allah, in other words, their overall spiritual state. Depending on how devoted an individual is to developing their spiritual connection to their faith, some Muslims may have a weaker or stronger level of faith compared to other Muslims. This is not to say that all women who do not wear hijab have a weaker spiritual state, some may indeed have strong spiritual connections, but it is a reason why some women do not.
Another reason why some women don’t wear hijab is the immense pressures they experience in their social circles, workplace, family, cultural environment, or political climate. When a woman wears a hijab and leaves her home, she effectively declares she is a Muslim. That can be a lot to cope with for some people. There are many other insecurities about body image, self-esteem, and beauty that women have to grapple with. Living in the United States, all women–Muslim or not, experience pressures around how they look and appear to other people. Wearing hijab is an act of devotion only meant to be performed for God, but it also happens to be something others can easily see.
Can a Woman be a Good Muslim if She Doesn’t Wear Hijab?
And let’s talk about the elephant in the room–can a Muslim woman be a good Muslim if she doesn’t wear a hijab? The only One in the position to judge this is Allah since God is All-Knowing and Ever Watchful in the Islamic tradition. Hijab is a required act of devotion for Muslim women, but there are many other acts of devotion that are also mandatory or voluntary that Muslim women may be engaging in that influence how good of a Muslim they are. On a personal level, some of my friends and family members who don’t wear hijab outstrip me by leaps and bounds when it comes to being generous with giving charity or serving others with acts of kindness or having good character. However, this does not take away from the importance of the requirement of hijab. Ideally, Muslim men and women strive to fulfill all their religious obligations and continuously improve themselves, and God is the Best One to judge.
Meena Malik is a writer and high school English teacher by training. You can find many of her writings at muslimmatters.org and listen to her newly launched podcast,
Brown Teacher Reads.