TALK of hijab , and the mind’s eye of almost all men automatically shifts to women. In fact, any discussion on hijab is always from a male perspective. There is an ongoing debate over whether women must cover their face or it will suffice for them to merely wrap a loose sheet or shawl around the head and bosom. Of course, many believe a woman must have a complete layer of clothing over and above what she normally wears. Seldom, if ever, is a man’s attire discussed in the light of Islam.
In Islam, a man too is required to dress modestly. Pertinently, this ‘purdah’, or concealment, is not just for women but also men. Men, too, are asked not to dress in clothes that reveal the contours of their body, particularly the region around midriff and a little below: Under all circumstances a man is required to cover himself from waist downwards, including the knees. The region should preferably be covered in a loose garment. In other words, a man is advised to keep his body covered waist downwards in front of other men, too.
In hijab, the focus is often on the physical meaning of the term. According to the Quran, which mentions hijab in eight places, the purdah starts from the eyes. Men have been instructed to lower their gaze, that is, avoid gawking at women. In fact, the instruction to lower one’s eyes is given first to men and then to women. Verse 30 of Surah Noor says, “(O Prophet) Enjoin believing men to cast down their looks and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is well aware of what they do.” The next verse gives a similar instruction. Verse 30, which addresses men, lays to rest all arguments about women dressing in a certain way, and inviting the male gaze. The Quran puts the onus on men to lower their gaze. Under no circumstances is a man allowed to gawk at a woman’s body, whatever her attire. It also refutes the argument that men can force women to dress in a certain way. Men are given instructions for themselves. Likewise, women have been given instructions applicable to them. To each his or her own. There is an instance from the Prophet’s life on the subject. Once a beautiful woman approached the Prophet for some advice on Hajj when he was with his companion Al Fadl bin Abbas. Abbas could not take his gaze off the woman. The Prophet noticed it. He did not admonish the woman for not covering her face or dressing in a certain manner. He touched Abbas’ chin and turned his face away. While this was the Prophet’s way of making Abbas obey the instruction of verse 30, it also meant that the responsibility for self-control lay with men.
Islam not only prohibits ogling the opposite gender, it instructs people not to walk with pride. Through Surah Luqman, verse 18, people are told, “Do not (contemptuously) turn your face away from people, nor tread haughtily upon the earth. Allah does not love the arrogant and the vainglorious.”
According to scholars, hijab is not just about the headscarf or mere physical covering of the body. The Quran regards the idea of piety over and above clothing. Surah Araf’s verse says, “O Children (of Adam)! Verily we have sent down to you clothing, it covers shame and as an adornment. But the clothing (of) righteousness—that is best. That (is) from (the) Signs of Allah so that they may remember.”
That is as far as the scriptures go. The reality is different. Men tend to think it is their responsibility to ask women to observe hijab when they themselves move around in less than desirable attire. Interestingly, like women, men too occasionally, tend to suffer from wrong interpretation of faith. Some maulanas and imams tick off young men clad in jeans and T-shirt and men in formal suit with their shirt tucked in who come for prayers. They are told to wear pyjama-kurta or a full-sleeved shirt with pants. That the kurta-pyjama is a speciality of the subcontinent and has nothing to do with faith does not register with many of the clerics. A bare-headed man is not appreciated in mosques. Often in the middle of a prayer, a worshipper may put on his cap in the erroneous belief that one is supposed to keep one’s head covered.
Easily forgotten is the fact that even in Hajj or Umrah, a man is only expected to tie an unstitched cloth around his middle, and put a shawl over his left shoulder, leaving the right shoulder and head bare. If a man’s bare head is acceptable in Mecca and Medina, it must be allowed in Chandigarh or Chennai. That is the bare physical truth of the hijab for men.
The sexist interpretation of the hijab, which puts the responsibility for concealment of body and lowering the gaze entirely on women, seeks to absolve men of their responsibility.