From hijabi Barbie to the hijabi emoji, the Muslim headscarf is now ubiquitous. For some, a woman with her hair covered or her face veiled evokes victimhood and a system of domination, or perhaps exoticism (think of the real-life and theatrical versions of “Not Without My Daughter”). Fox News host Jeanine Pirro stoked those fears this month when she said the “hee-jab” worn by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is “antithetical” to the Constitution. That’s one of many myths that persist about wearing hijab.
This month, Army Times reported on an alleged incident in which an Army sergeant was ordered to remove her headscarf by a senior noncommissioned officer, even though the sergeant had “an approved exemption from her brigade commander to wear a hijab in uniform.” In a story about first lady Melania Trump covering her head for a 2017 audience with the pope but eschewing a scarf for a visit to Saudi Arabia, NBC News reported that the Saudi government “did not request that Mrs. Trump wear a head covering known as a hijab, or a headscarf.”
“Hijab” means “curtain” or “partition,” not “headscarf.” The Koran uses forms of the words “khimar” and “jilbab,” but not “hijab,” when describing women’s dress. “Khimar” means “cover” and corresponds to what we would call a scarf; “jilbab” is an outer garment.
“Hijab” has become a common way of describing a Muslim woman’s head covering, but sharia rules on modesty are about more than covering one’s hair — they deal with a range of attire and conduct, applicable to both men and women, intended to protect interactions between men and women from sexual innuendo. It’s not necessarily offensive to use “hijab” as a synonym for “headscarf.” (It’s a lot closer than other terms, as long as you say “wearing hijab” rather than “wearing a/the hijab.”) But either way, fixating on one piece of cloth misses the point of sharia’s holistic rules for modest behavior.