‘Jilbab’ Phenomenon: Religious or Cultural?

How do we deal with the so-called jilboobs, an Indonesian term for Muslim women wearing the jilbab (Islamic headscarf) while at the same time wearing clothes that emphasize their breasts (boobs)? The phenomenon of jilboobs would not be startling if we properly understood the case.

First, let’s raise again the old question: Why is the jilbab (the popular Indonesian name for hijab) a religious obligation for Muslim women? Most Indonesian Muslim women would not know the rational answer, the raison d’etre or, in terms of Islamic jurisprudence, the ‘illat al-hukm.

Many Indonesian Muslim women most likely wear the jilbab only to follow the mainstream trend — the tradition, or rather the popular culture within the Muslim community. 

Hence, the emergence of jilboobs. Many would answer that the jilbab is a religious obligation only because it is God’s command, regardless of His reason. Others do not want to just criticize and they ask why their hair is considered aurat (a part of the body that should not be exposed to sight).

Precisely on the latest point, a paradoxical reasoning emerges and should be examined. If a woman’s hair is aurat because it could spark a man’s lust, what if her face accentuates her beauty more than her hair? Should it be veiled, too, as many Muslim women today wear the niqab? 

Again, what about her voice if it could arouse a man’s desire? Or why should not men take care of their dirty minds rather than coop up women?

However, to many Muslims who literally interpret “Islam” as “submission”, such a criticism against what Islamic law has been ruling could be considered as opposing God’s command. 

That is, just raising critical questions is sometimes, or even often, prohibited. Many Muslim women, therefore, seek to take the middle way: wearing veils while featuring their breasts as they, by nature, want to keep fashionable.

Second, looking back at the context of when wearing the jilbab was originally required through spiritual revelation, it could be concluded that the jilbab is most related to the sociocultural system of earliest Islam.

Muslims can find two verses on the jilbab in the Koran: al-Ahzab 33:59 and an-Nur 24:31. Many classical Islamic references state that an-Nur 24:31 was a response toward the dress traditions of the Arab women of jahiliya (pre-Islam, literally meaning “ignorance”). 

In the jahiliya period, women went out in public with naked breasts and revealed their necks to show off their adornments. Their veils were drawn backward while leaving the front parts wide open. 

Al-Ahzab 33:59 was revealed after the Battle of Khandaq (5 hijriyah), while an-Nur was revealed long after that; so, Muslim women were obliged to wear jilbab just from the last years of Muhammad’s era as a Prophet.

The context of the al-Ahzab revelation was that the munafiqin (hypocrites) attacked Muslim women who, at that time, wore no jilbab and so both free-born and slaves dressed the same. Al-Ahzab’s verse was then revealed to protect free women — their jilbabs distinguished them from slaves and saved them from disrespect.

The verses were very connected to a past social system in which there were slaves. The limits of aurat for slave women was the same as for men at the time: from knee to navel. Slave women were allowed to perform prayers while keeping their breasts naked. 

The second caliph Umar ibn al-Khatthab once even ordered a female slave to take off her veil because the veil, or jilbab, was an item of dress reserved for free women (libas al-hara’ir). And, at that time, there was no discourse on whether the slaves’ naked breasts incited men’s desire and lust. 

This stipulation could be found in many classical books of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) — but for many the era of slavery is part of a lost memory.

The substance of the obligation for the jilbab, according to contextual interpretation, was to satisfy a sense of public decency. 

This kind of interpretation is, of course, rejected by conservatives who favor the strict word of the scriptural sources — or the text rather than the context. 

The epistemological interpretation of this conservative fiqh, in terms of the philosophy of Islamic law, is that what should be given more consideration is the generality of the text, not the particularity of the context.

So in this way we can know why a majority of Muslims scholars still persist in saying that the jilbab is an obligation, even though we no longer live in an era of slavery.

There is a kind of scripturalism that embodies conservative clerics’ methodology of interpretation and is more dominant among Muslim communities. 

The result is that Muslim women take the middle way. Time shows the evolution of the Indonesian Muslim woman’s veil. 

Before the 1980s, many Muslim women, including the wives of clerics and former first lady Sinta Nuriyah Wahid, the wife of the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, wore veils, but their hair and neck were still visible. 

As the reformasi approached wearing the jilbab became predominant among Muslim women (and since then this term became popular). And now, the hijab has become more popular than the jilbab and even more and more women are wearing the niqab. 

In the past, the jilbab as a religious obligation was not an overwhelming subject of discourse even among Islamic scholars. Some consider the phenomenon of the hijab and the niqab as being related to the rise of the politics of identity within the Muslim community as a way to fight against the influence of Western culture.

It reveals that the dress code is very related to culture or tradition rather than religion. And it is not unique to Islam. Christianity and Judaism have had similar codes. According to Nasaruddin Umar in his article in the Journal of Ulumul Quran, the concept of the hijab as a head covering had been established in the Code of Hammurabi (2000 BC) and then in the Code of Assura (circa 1075 BC). 

As we see, there is an evolution in female dress codes. It might be the very nature of sociocultural systems that dress codes always deal with the places and times of various cultures and civilizations. The jilbab is no exceptional. So, in the light of this way of thinking, jilboobs may not be a problem at all.

The jilbab and its various interpretations will ultimately be judged by human history. We know today many Indonesian Muslim women are not veiled. There are also many who are veiled but not considered shar’i (to be adherent to the sharia stipulation), which means there are many Muslim women who may voluntarily sin — or be considered sinful? 

Public rationality will determine the survival of the jilbab. As we know, religion is revealed for the sake of human benefit and interest.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 12/09/2014


One thought on “‘Jilbab’ Phenomenon: Religious or Cultural?

  1. Hi Azis, well researched and well written article. You should try to publish this in Bahasa Indonesia as I am sure it will be beneficial for majority of Indonesian to understand why some need to wear veil


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