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Covering or veiling something tends to arouse human curiosity. We want to know, what is behind the veil? Symbolically, this is one question we have addressed with the Muslim women and men we have interviewed in our national American Families of Faith research project. Our central related question was: “What does the practice of hijab (or veiling) mean to Muslims in the United States?” Much has been written about hijab by Western journalists, observers, and philosophers. Their representations of Muslim women’s hijab have frequently depicted the practice as a manifestation of oppression, subjugation, and abuse of women.

These opinions, observations, and thoughts are not our focus here. In a spirit of fostering awareness, understanding, and respect for those of another faith, we share with you what our interview participants themselves entrusted to us, in their own voices.[1] Our effort is intended not as an argument that our participants’ views are “the” truth about hijab. However, we believe that insider perspectives offer much of value in understanding Islam and its adherents.

In contrast to the often negative portrayals of hijab, the veiling Muslim wives and their husbands we interviewed[2] reported that: (1) Hijab is a symbol of religious commitment; and that (2) the hijab is a tool of protection, rather than oppression, for women and families. We further noted (3) two different views of Muslims’ reasoning behind the hijab. We will explore each of these three themes next.

Theme 1. The Hijab as a Symbol of Religious Commitment

According to most interpretations of Islamic law, or Sharia, the hijab is one of the major precepts a Muslim woman should follow. The majority of the participants in this study, wives and husbands, explicitly or implicitly mentioned that how a Muslim woman dresses in public is an indicator of her level of commitment to both Allah (God) and Islam, as illustrated by these excerpts:

Maytham[3]: I think [my wife’s hijab] is a really good sign for me in two ways. One way is [that it] indicates the general [religious] belief of my wife. So when someone such as my wife is ready to take [on] the burden and take the hard time [to wear the hijab, especially] when it is hot in summer . . . and she does it. It is a good indicator of the depth of faith.

Maytham later explained that, for him, his wife Bahira’s decision to veil in a culture that views the practice as peculiar conveys the reported message, “As long as I am doing the right thing [and honoring] someone that I care about, I do not care what others think.” This conviction of Bahira’s is one that Maytham honored in his wife.

It is vital to note that, for a deeply committed Muslim, hijab is far more than a dress code. Hijab is a way of life that involves appropriate social interactions, modesty, strict fidelity to one’s husband and Allah, and purity and chastity in thoughts, words, and actions—sacred ideals that have parallels in Orthodox Judaism and Mormonism.

A wife and mother named Maryam considered hijab to be one of the most important customs a Muslim woman should honor in order to show commitment to her religion. However, as Maryam explained, the clothing-related aspect of the hijab “is not everything.” She explained that although the hijab includes covering the head and the body, that this not enough. Maryam discussed her belief that the hijab:

is not the only thing that can protect [a woman]. I have to have some other characteristics to protect myself, not just the hijab. It includes even the way I talk to men.

Again, for many participants, hijab involves more than a head and body covering. For some, it is a symbolic indicator of how important Allah and Islam are to the woman herself—while also providing a protective barrier designed to prevent inappropriate interaction. Further, when participants were asked about the connection between the hijab and family life, a recurring was that the hijab is “a protection,” as discussed next.

Theme 2. The Hijab as a Tool of Protection, Rather than Oppression, for Women and Families

Our respected colleague, Professor Mona Abo-Zena who wears the hijab has expressed, “I do not mean to suggest that women deserve or ‘ask for’ unwanted sexual attention. I do think, though, that hijab serves as a protection and a strong deterrent to such attention. . . . Hijab also serves as a way to mark ‘believing’ women (believing in Allah and Islam), almost like a uniform or other apparel serves.”[4] Similarly, many of our Muslim participants explicitly stated that the hijab was a tool of protection at all places and times but, perhaps, especially for those who live in a “permissive” society like the United States.

Maytham: In a permissive society like American society, you need some extra barriers between you and things that happen there. I am not saying that you need to separate yourself from society itself, but [you must stay away] from bad things in society. . . . Having the hijab is helping us—not only her, but also me—to keep away . . .

Hameidah, a wife and mother, explained that the hijab places certain social expectations on a Muslim woman that help to prevent her from engaging in inappropriate behaviors. She said:

With the hijab, it will be so awkward [to go to bars]. Everyone will start saying, “ . . . Look at this woman! She is with this hijab and with this covering, [and] she came to this place!”

Mokthar, Hameidah’s husband, added that this idea of isolating oneself from inappropriate influence due to the hijab is not restricted to women:

Sometimes my friends [from work] come and tell me, “Let’s go and see the bar in New Orleans.” I can’t go, it is not a place for [Muslims]. That protects us, the hijab or our practice. . . . [The hijab] is really helpful for us.

According to several participants, the visibility and protective aspects of the hijab are essential elements of the practice. Jane, an adult convert to Islam, explained:

I cover my head. Why do I cover my head? Because in our religion, I do not want men to flirt with me. Let’s face it, if I were standing next to a woman in a bikini, men would lust over her and not over me. I don’t want men to lust over me, whether I’m married or not. One of the ways to prevent that is to cover up. . . . I don’t call this a sacrifice. Think about all the women who spend hours and hours doing their hair, I don’t have [to do] that. . . . I used to have to get up at the crack of dawn to style. [Now] I can get up and wash it, dry it, braid it, and go. I don’t have that pressure or the pressure of wearing fad clothes. I don’t think it’s a sacrifice in any way. I think I gained beyond my wildest dreams. . . I feel that in Islam, I have more rights than I did before.

Like Jane, Alya and Yanna (two other adult converts to Islam), mentioned rights and expressed that Islam provided them with more rights than they experienced before their conversions. Professor Mona Abo-Zena, quoted earlier, has accordingly noted that: “This is a common sentiment that [veiling] women express, that they appreciate being considered for their contributions beyond their looks, instead of being objectified.”[5]

Discussion of the hijab in the interviews often stimulated participant discussion regarding the idea of gender separation. Two subsequent camps of thought emerged. Some of the participants reportedly thought that the concept of the hijab involved both a physical covering and in a sharp gender separation designed to protect family relationships. The proponents of this view seemed to believe that the purpose behind the hijab, which they deemed to be protection, could not be achieved without both the physical covering and gender separation, including careful and respectful conversation with members of the opposite sex. Several participants expressed the idea that gender separation is a key factor for a healthy marriage, and the lack of it would promote marital infidelity. Alya, compared her marriage that is based on Islamic law (Sharia) with the marriage of her non-Muslim brother and opined that most of her brother’s marital problems would likely be prevented by following the Islamic rules, especially gender separation. Alya stated:

When I look at my brother’s relationship, a lot [of] where their problems come in are things that are solved by our religion. You are not allowed to be with “non-mahrams” [any man other than father, brother, husband, son, grandfather, grandson, uncle, and father–in-law] in one room without someone else. [In my brother’s world] there is drinking and acting in certain ways. . . . [When you mix too much with the other gender] there is infidelity [in thought], even if you are not cheating [in action]. In our religion, it’s cut off. . . . A man and woman who are not mahram or who are not family [are not allowed] to be just chit-chatting [or] just seeing each other [without the woman modestly] covered.

The majority of the wives in the study explicitly stated that their husbands’ opinions and comments about their hijab and the way they dress in public do not make them feel oppressed. Several even reported feeling cared about when their husbands support them in their efforts to dress more modestly. Entisar, a wife and mother, reflected:

Hijab is part of our faith. So, if he asks me to wear hijab or to wear more modest clothes, that makes me happier because he wants to protect me more, he loves me more. I feel I like that.

A woman named Kalthoom similarly expressed:

I actually do not wear the Niqab (face cover) [when we are in our car traveling] on the road because . . . in America, nobody looks inside the car [when you are driving]. It is not like back home (in India). That is why if I go back home, I would wear it all the time [when I am outside the house, even in the car]. In America, when we go somewhere in car, I do not wear it. But when my husband is reaching a slow point, I usually wear it. Sometimes, I do not and my husband would say, “Do not you think you should wear it now?” For me, that is such a satisfying moment [when he reminds me to veil].

The above reflections from Entisar and Kalthoom regarding their satisfaction at having their husband’s encouragement to cover are contextualized by Professor Abo-Zena’s explanation that it is the religious obligation for Muslim men as heads of household to “advise their wives . . . regarding dress” and that the men will receive “punishment or warning if they do not provide such reminders or are somehow ‘proud’ to have [their wife or daughter] parade their uncovered beauty in public or mixed contexts.”[6] We note that this perspective contrasts sharply with the Western quip, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” From this perspective, a husband’s reminder to his wife modestly cover is not insulting but an effort to honor his responsibilities to Allah, and to help his wife honor hers, as well as to protect her from indecent men.

A battle between the Western tendency to “parade uncovered beauty” and the Muslim ideal of hijab jointly emerged in our interview with an adult convert to Islam, a woman named Alya. When she was asked, “How would you take your husband’s input and opinion on your hijab?” she answered:

When my husband gives his opinion of my hijab, it does make me feel more protected. . . I think it does make me feel like he cares. But then, on the other hand, because of the [Western] culture I grew up in and that I came from, and the way my mother is, [part of me feels oppositional]. The way I learned from her is: “I am going to dress the way I am going to dress! It is none of your business!” But the way in Islam, knowing why and the reason behind the hijab, I can take a step back and tell myself, “You know, you’ve been a little too reactionary.” So it does make me feel that he loves me more and he is trying to protect me. . . . It really does. But, being raised by a feminist-type woman who is like, “Do not tell me what to wear,” [I still hear her voice]. But, as the rational woman I would hope I am . . . I can see that [hijab] has its place in society and in marriage.

Despite the agreement most participants had about the positive influence of the hijab on their marriages and relationships, the way they understood and defined hijab viewed. Two prominent but divergent views are presented next.

Theme 3. Two Different Views of Muslims’ Reasoning Behind the Hijab

Our participants were quite unified in their discussion of hijab as a tool of protection rather than oppression. However, differences emerged regarding individuals’ understandings of the reasoning, meanings, and purposes behind the hijab. Some reportedly thought a primary reason behind the hijab was to protect women from being harassed or “hit on” by men. Many with this view expressed the belief that Muslim women with the hijab should be involved in society with relatively unlimited interaction with the opposite gender while deriving protection from the hijab. This idea was clearly illustrated by the following interview excerpts:

Ahmad: If a lady has hijab, that does not mean she does not go to school, or she can’t go to work. [To think that way] is hurting you. If you have hijab, you have to go and get more education. Now you are protected. You have more duty.

Likewise, Maryam criticized the behavior of some Muslim men who show disapproval of their wives’ interaction with non-kin males:

Some men like . . . their wives not to talk to any man. I do not agree with that. I believe [a Muslim] woman can talk with men and discuss with them and interact with them. A woman can talk to men with confidence to show who she is and [know] who they are. That can help and it is also part of hijab, for me. But I know lots of Muslim men [who] do not believe in that.

Aliyah saw Muslim women’s appropriate interactions with both genders as a way to project Islam in a positive light. She explained her perspective as follows:

By wearing the hijab, we are the flag bearer [dawah] for the religion. So the way we act, the way we interact with people [is important]. So for my understanding, I can’t cut myself off. I have to be out there, I have to be able to talk.

Conversely, a second set of participants emphasized complete (or at least pronounced) gender separation as a major part of the hijab. Kalthoom, a wife and mother, explained that:

In my opinion, hijab is not just about clothes. It is a whole institution of separation [between men and women] that was made by the Creator of everything. God has set certain standards. According to my religious belief . . . one of the things is modesty at a level where you have to totally ignore the other gender. . . . That is a sacrifice, especially when you are a teenager.

A husband named Hassan similarly expressed:

I do not think that hijab is just covering the head and your body . . . Hijab is a behavior. So, covering is part of it, [but] not all of it. It should come with suitable behavior that matches with hijab. . . . To have hijab, women should stay as far as possible from men unless they have something very necessary that causes them to be together.

Clearly, even among practicing Muslims there is no single meaning of hijab. It is apparent that “the” story of the hijab is not one story but many. It is vital to note that our U.S. participants were not compelled to cover by national law (as in some Islamic nations). Our participants seemed to have made the personal, conscious decision to cover. The personal meanings of hijab for women in other contexts likely differ, perhaps profoundly. Indeed, we have posited that there may be nearly as many meanings of hijab as there are Muslims. Even so, for many of our participants, the hijab apparently served as an outward symbol of an inward commitment to follow the way of Allah.


As we conclude, we note that when framing the perceived benefits they received from being committed to the hijab and modesty, our participants’ words seem to reflect pride and devotion. Noted benefits included creating a tangible barrier between themselves and what one participant called “the dark side of the society.” Also addressed was the benefit that, for women, the hijab protects them from being sexually harassed when engaging with male society. Further, many female participants seemed not to be merely “compliant” but were instead assertive and deeply persuaded in abiding by the principle of the hijab.

On a national scale, previous research has noted that Muslims immigrants tend to experience acceptance and acculturation in the United States “to be more difficult than . . . other immigrants” and that acculturation tends to be especially difficult for “those affiliated with Islam.”[8] Indeed, wearing the hijab can mark Muslim women for religiously and gender-based discrimination. Often, such discrimination is grounded in an incomplete or erroneous understanding of the meanings of hijab for those who hold the practice and what it represents sacred. We believe that a willingness to step onto the sacred ground of others with ears ready to listen to their lived experiences and their differing approaches to meaning making can provide an effective way of pursuing understanding with both validity and humanity.


[1] The present article is based on and condensed from more complete work including:

Alghafli, Z., Marks, L. D., *Hatch, T. G., & Rose, A. H. (2017). Veiling in fear or in faith? Meanings of the Hijab to practicing Muslim wives and husbands in the USA. Marriage & Family Review, 53, 696-716; and

Marks, L. D., & Dollahite, D. C. (2017). Religion and families. New York: Routledge. (see Chapter 8, entitled “Muslim Families in the United States”).

[2] Our study involved in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 20 Muslim couples (6 Shia Muslim couples, and 14 Sunni Muslim couples) whose ages varied between 26 and 63 (N = 40 individuals). These couples were recruited within the four regions of the United States[2]—and included participants with diverse racial and ethnic origins [including African/African American, Arab/Arab American (from Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine), European American, Indian (India), and Iranian participants]. The combined sample was also diverse in terms of socioeconomic status (education levels ranged from completing some high school to completing Ph.D./M.D. degrees).

[3] All participants’ names have been replaced with pseudonyms to preserve anonymity.

[4] Personal communication with Dr. Mona Abo-Zena, June 22, 2018.

[5] Personal communication with Dr. Mona Abo-Zena, June 22, 2018.

[6] Personal communication with Dr. Mona Abo-Zena, June 22, 2018.

[7] Personal communication with Dr. Mona Abo-Zena, June 22, 2018.

[8] Faragallah, Schumm, & Webb, 1997, p. 182