In a society where purity is demanded of women only, and men are exempted, it is useless to talk about women's rights and privileges or responsibilities, which are the attributes of the equality demanded by the Quran.
According to the Quran the purity of body and soul, which is the hallmark of humans, is equally demanded from both men and women. If keeping herself chaste is the responsibility of the woman, then she has the right to demand this from the men as well. Just as it is incumbent on the woman to keep herself chaste (24:31), it has also been made obligatory for men to keep themselves chaste (24:30). In fact men have been addressed first and women afterwards.
Now looking at your main query What is Hijab. I am not very surprised at the query, rather why you were late in making it. Why didn't you ask about it in your first letter? Now a days there is no other more important question for women, than that of the Veil. Almost ninety per cent of all the inquiries that I receive from women are about the Veil. Leaving aside the exceptions, they do not ask what the Quran says about it, but rather they want to know how their adopted style can be justified through the Quran and explained as confirming to Islam. But I know that this is not the motive of your inquiry. I do not know at which blessed moment our late brother proposed your name as Tahira (pious) but you have certainly been amply bestowed with the purity of head and heart. Keeping women confined in houses and forbidding them to go out is a punishment according to the Quran. It is not Quranic modesty.
Now the question arises as to the manner of her staying at home, and her mode of moving about outside the house. The Quran gives instructions for both situations, but before I state these Quranic guidelines I want to emphasize that purity of thought and deed is a must for both men and women. The cultivation of a sterling character is the most important pre-requisite for becoming a Momin. Carelessness to unsullied character not only spoils one's personal integrity, but is also detrimental to national culture and civilization. hence the Quran directs: You do not display your adornments except those parts of the body that remain exposed inevitably. They should spread their head-gear on their chests (24:31). In another place it is said:
O Nabi, tell your wives and daughters and other Momineen women that when they go out, they should wear their cloaks over their clothes so as not to display their adornment (24:31). This will help them to be recognized (as decent women) so that they may not be annoyed by any one with ill intent. This style will protect them and go a long way in their upbringing - Quran Chapter 33 Verse 59.
Hijab is different from Jalbab which is a cloth that is worn over one's clothes when going out. It is thus obvious that whether you cover your chest with your head-gear, or whether you wear something over your clothes, there is no mention of hiding your face. If concealing the face had been necessary, then why were men directed to keep the eyes downcast? It may be objected, that when it is directed that 'Zeenat' be concealed, then as the face is the more prominent place of beauty, it should be hidden first. However, the Quran itself enjoins: Cover your adornments except those parts which remain open inevitably (24:30), and it then describes methods of covering which leave the face exposed. As such, hiding the face cannot be a Quranic tenet. I would like to make it clear that the Quran has mentioned 'Khamar' and 'Jalbab' because these were prevalent among Arabs at that time. It is not necessary for us to wear the Jalbab and Khamar or similar coverings. The Quranic aim is to conceal your adornments when going out. For this purpose we can wear what we like. The cut and style of the dress is dictated by your social mode, which keeps on changing with time. The main purpose is to adhere to the Quranic goal of hiding your adornment is a part of Hijab. The above was in answer to the question on how woman should go out. The Quran also explained the aim of the style of walk and talk? The purpose is this: Tell them that they should not exhibit their beauty and adornment around like it was being done in the dark ages (33:33). It shows that 'Tabarraj' was indulged in during dark ages, and the Quran forbade it. Tabarraj derives from 'burj' which means a tower; to raise something, or to surface, or to show off. Contrary to this, is "Haya" modesty, which means to shrink. Tabarraj thus means showing off, and modesty implies of 'shrinking'. The Quran forbids showing off, and advises modesty. Therefore any style that highlights and shows off beauty, or any exhibitionism, is against the tenets of the Quran. Also remember that whatever is plausible outside the house, is admissible inside, too, particularly with regard to unrelated men other than those which have been mentioned above in (24:31). Your adornment has to remain concealed. Women are not forbidden to sit with men inside the house, but the same conditions that apply for going out would apply here, too.
Now let us consider how the present circumstances should be tackled? Firstly, all the facts written above must have made it quite clear to you as to what the Quran is aiming at in respect of the relationships between men and women. The Quran aims to preserve chastity, both in men and women. After explaining the aim of the Quran, in reply to your question as to what you should do as an individual.
If your query is as to what we should do in our present society to fulfil Quranic tenets, then this is a question which is always very difficult for me to answer. The query boils down to what people do on the basis of their own understanding of Quranic instructions. How should they go about acting upon them in a non-Quranic society? Why this question is difficult to answer is because a Quranic society automatically follows Quranic tenets. That society, with the exception of a few individuals, would consist of people who keenly want to mould themselves according to the Quranic pattern. As such it would not be difficult to promulgate Quranic laws in such a society. But when the whole society is working on non-Quranic lines, those few who want to follow Quranic directions find it very difficult to do so. For example, take the question of segregation. In a Quranic society, the majority would consider chastity the basic factor in life. Every man would consider it a crime to cast a dishonest glance towards any other woman, and the same would be true of women. In such a society men and women would be modest and would never eye each other in an unbecoming manner. As regards those who have evil intentions, the society will tackle them in the appropriate manner. Therefore just as it directed in the above mentioned lines how women should go out, the Quran also instructs how evil minded people should be dealt with.
By the way readers, you must have noticed the great value chastity holds, in the principles of life. So much so, that preserving chastity "Hijab" has been called a permanent practice of Allah Almighty and these laws are never to be altered. These laws can never be changed, no matter what the circumstances of a particular era. In other words, the sanctity of chastity is a permanent value that cannot be affected by the changes in time. It is just as a permanent value today, as it was a thousand years ago. Such would be the society moulded on Islamic lines. Now keep this in mind and observe your own society. Today the motive for going out is sheer the exhibition of beauty, even if they are devoid of any such attributes. Beauty, is a blessing of good health and endures with chastity, and there is a dearth of both of these in our society. Need and errand are either conscious or sub-conscious excuses.
What should I suggest that we do socially? My suggestion for this particular segment "Hijab", is the same as for the other aspects of life. That is, bring a change in your society and build it along the Quranic lines. When your foundation is stable, then the building raised over it will have its entire outlook and aspects correct. The basic problem relates to education; and education starts at home. It only develops in schools and colleges. As far as basic education is concerned, it is the responsibility of mothers who have understood the aim of the Quran and want to act upon it. Schools and colleges come thereafter. The only alternative left with us to stem this volcanic tide is to spread the message of the Quran in our society. I have spent my life in this effort and want to do the same for the rest of my life. I know it is like a drop in the ocean; or as a poet has expressed, that 'it is like raising your voice in your quarters.
Peace be with you!