FAQ on the Islamic Veil and Women’s Dress

A general lack of knowledge about how some Muslim girls and women dress sometimes leads to instances of anti-Islam rhetoric, harmful stereotypes and social barriers. This is not a black-and-white issue as women’s attire everywhere is influenced by family, culture and national norms, religious beliefs, personal preference, fashion trends, political views and so much more. Religious belief can be looked at as a kind of spectrum with many variations between non-religious to very religious; as with Christianity and Judaism, how a Muslim observes and displays her faith can differ over time and from other Muslims. Because the veil is a visible expression of one’s Islamic identity, though, it can be an easy target for some people to attack or criticize the religion itself, making women susceptible to unwarranted verbal and physical abuse. TeachMideast will try to shed some light on this topic in an effort to overcome these misunderstandings.

The word hijab describes the act of covering up generally but it is also the Arabic term for the headscarf worn by Muslim women. The most common type covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear.
The al-amira is a two-piece veil. It consists of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and a tube-like scarf.
The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf popular in the Gulf region. It is wrapped around the head and tucked or pinned in place at the shoulders.
The khimar is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.
The chador, worn by many Iranian women when outside the house, is a full-body cloak. It is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.
The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.
The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.

What is the hijab?

The term hijab is commonly used to refer to the headscarf worn by many Muslim women. However, the word hijab does not only refer to the short veil wrapped around a woman’s head; it is in fact also a general term for modest attire which includes the head covering. These scarves come in many styles and colors. The type most commonly seen in the West covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear.

There are a variety of styles, as seen in the images above, including:

The al-amira is a two-piece veil. It consists of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and a tube-like scarf.

The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf popular in the Gulf region. It is wrapped around the head and tucked or pinned in place at the shoulders.

The khimar is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.

The chador, worn by many Iranian women when outside the house, is a full-body cloak. It is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.

The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate, sheer eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf. This is a more conservative style and is not limited to one region but can be found anywhere.

The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through. It is typically associated with women in Afghanistan.

Fun fact: There are many different types of veils across the Middle East and throughout Muslim countries.

As we explained above, the word veil includes a notable variety of head covers that come in a multitude of shapes, lengths and fabrics.

There are different kinds of veils and women wear them not only as a religious or cultural sign of belonging to a certain society, but also consider them an important fashion statement. Hijabs have different styles and colors and women wearing a hijab follow the latest trends, just as Western women know whether an item is out-dated or not. The Middle East is a diverse universe when it comes to women’s clothing and appearance; the concept of “modest dress” drastically changes from one country to another within the region and styles evolve over time just as you’ll find in any other society. It is important to recognize that there are variations in dress not only across the different areas of the Middle East but also within specific countries and families. Some countries have more secular governments and women are free to choose whether to wear the veil or not. In North Africa, Muslim Europe and Asia, Turkey and the Levant, and elsewhere, it is normal and acceptable to not wear the hijab.

One instance of how hijab fashion changes and evolves is the Khaleeji (Gulf) style “Camel Hump” hijab. It became fashionable around 2008, particularly in the Arabian Gulf region where women regularly accessorize the generally-uniform daily outfit that includes a black head scarf and robe-type dress. Women sported voluminous hijabs using a clip with a huge plastic flower or foam that created a large hump under the headscarf. Its popularity has faded and there has even been debate about whether such styles were acceptable in Islam. The hijab is a multi-faceted issue and it really is harmful to reduce this piece of cloth to a symbol of religious oppression or gender subjugation.

Assumption: All women in the Middle East wear the hijab.

Wrong! People everywhere express their individual and group identities in many different ways.

The statement above is wrong for two main reasons:

  1. Some Muslim women decide to wear a hijab and some decide not to.
  2. Not all women in the Middle East are Muslim. Christian or Jewish women may have different clothing customs. For example, Christian women may use scarves in houses of worship while many conservative (Orthodox) Jewish women are required to cover their hair after marriage and use wigs or hats. 

There is a common stereotype that Muslim women are forced to wear the veil and that is a sign of their inferior status relative to men in their societies. This is far from true and there are countless examples of Muslim women leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, educators, activists, scientists, and so much more, not only in contemporary society, but since the advent of Islam as an organized religion and way of life. Of course, there are women in the Middle East who are affected by different types of abuse just like women in the United States suffer from gender-based violence. In some cases in the Middle East, family members (and not always just the men) may require girls and women to cover their hair and dress modestly. In other cases, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is mandated by the state that women wear certain types of clothes in public. For the most part, however, girls and women make their own choices about what to wear based on various factors that are significant to them at any particular time. An oft-cited axiom based on a Quranic verse states that there is no compulsion in religion; women decide whether or not they will wear the veil, and it is not uncommon for this decision to change at different junctures of their lifetime.

Here are just a few considerations to keep in mind when it comes to this issue:

Age and location make a big difference when it comes to clothing in the Middle East. Younger people across the region often embrace Western styles of dress and may use their traditional outfits only for special occasions such as weddings, religious celebrations or a pilgrimage. Older generations, on the other hand, may tend to dress more traditionally.

People in cities have greater exposure and access to fashion trends, whereas rural populations might have fewer choices and prefer traditional attire because of its comfort and the protection from the environment.

Additionally, socio-economic status is another important factor when it comes to clothing choices; certain areas within specific cities will be more conservative or liberal, for example, which will be reflected in how they appear when in public. This is particularly the case in regions with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds such as the Levant with its Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. In the Gulf countries, where there are uniform standards of dress for both women and men, people may spend more money and effort on details and accessories – the quality and design of clothing becomes important, and women may use expensive bags, shoes and makeup to express their identity and reveal their social class. For the less affluent, though, functionality, modesty and affordability are more important considerations.

Why do Muslim women wear the hijab?

Girls and women have different reasons for wearing a headscarf or one of its many different styles.

Some people see the headscarf as a religious obligation of modesty based on the Islamic holy book, the Quran, and the collection of the prophet Mohammed’s sayings and actions, the Hadith. Observant Muslims believe women’s beauty should be protected and only be seen by male family members as it can be a distraction to men and therefore, un-Islamic. Here are some verses that are regularly referenced :

Quran (33:59) – “Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them…” 

Quran (24:31) – “And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known.”

Quran (33:55) – “It shall be no crime in them as to their fathers, or their sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their woman, or the slaves which their right hands possess, if they speak to them unveiled.

Women may also wear hijab out of personal convictions related to ethnic and religious identity and pride as well as social and family customs (and expectations). It can be a tool against harassment for some women in some countries, adopted after marriage, and used for various practical reasons also. Each person and situation is different and it is important to consider women as individuals who adopt the hijab for individual reasons. Several young women share their personal experiences with the hijab in this instructive article.

In what other religions and regions do women cover their hair?

Islam is the world’s 2nd most popular religion and its practice is widespread, reaching far beyond the Middle East. 12% of the world’s Muslim community lives in Indonesia, for example. Muslims in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas will adopt styles of dress consistent with their local, ethnic and national customs. A Muslim woman in Somalia may differ in appearance with a Muslim woman in China, but the external appearance is only one aspect of their expression of faith.

Likewise, women of different cultures, nationalities and religions may cover their hair at certain times for different reasons. It is common in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and other lesser known faiths to cover one’s hair in public, in houses of worship, on special occasions (weddings or funerals) or holidays, or if a member of the clergy (religious leaders).

Here are a few other head covering traditions from around the world:

Mantilla – This lace head scarf is worn by women in Spain and its former colonies, particularly in church for reasons of reverence and modesty.

Cinta – This decorative, regional fabric is wrapped around the head by female Mayan Indians.

Hair-tie – The head wrap worn in parts of western or southern Africa, also known as a head-tie, is used as an ornamental head covering or fashion accessory, or for functionality in different settings. Its uses or meaning can vary depending on the country and/or religion of those who wear it.

Bombin –  Quechua and Aymara women in Bolivia can be seen proudly wearing bowler hats along with colorful puffed skirts.

Tichel, mitpachat or snood – These are different options used by Orthodox Jewish women in compliance with the code of modesty known as tzniut, which requires married women to cover their hair.

Ghoonghat – This is a veil or headscarf worn by some married Hindu, Jain, and Sikh women to cover their head, and often their face. Generally, the loose end of a sari is pulled over the head and face to act as a ghoonghat. A dupatta (long scarf) is also commonly used as a ghoonghat.

The President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf regularly wears head wraps. (DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released)
Women from Jaipur, India, wearing gagra choli and dupatta. Wikipedia: Koshy Koshy from Faridabad, Haryana, India
This internet ad for the "Alicia Keys Style Mitpachat: A scarf that makes a great head wrap head covering" is one of many found at "Headcoverings by Devorah, where modesty does not mean frumpy!" (http://www.headcoverings-by-devorah.com)

Assumption: Women never remove the veil.

Not true!

“Do you sleep in that?” When I was a kid, I assumed the my mom’s glasses were just a permanent part of her face that couldn’t be removed! Some people may view the hijab the same way. In public a woman who generally wears a veil will keep it on when she is outside of the house and around men to whom she is not related. In private settings – a segregated university, for example – groups of women may remove the hijab, as is the case in private homes with their immediate family. Muslim women wash and dry and cut and style their hair just like everyone else!

Why do only women have to cover their hair?

Men in the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim world also wear different types of head coverings that are influenced by both religion and tradition. The taqiyah is a rounded skullcap that is often worn for religious purposes as Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad used to keep his head covered, therefore making it mustahabb (i.e., it is commendable to cover the head in order to emulate him). Muslims often wear them during the five daily prayers. Like the headscarf, these small caps vary in material, shape and style in different Islamic regions. Some are quite simple and fit closely to the scalp; others are more ornate with embroidery and are more boxy with a raised, flat top. The caps may be known as “kufi” in the west.

Another type of head covering that is common in the Arab world, particularly in the Levant and Gulf regions, is the keffiyeh. This scarf can be found in solid colors as well as different colors in a distinct checked pattern. Again, the colors will vary by region. Black and white keffiyah are used in Palestine and have become a potent symbol of resistance. They are worn as headscarves as well as on the shoulders. In Jordan, the keffiyah is typically seen in red and white. In the Arabian Gulf countries, the keffiyah is referred to as a shemagh or ghutra and is held in place by a cord known as the agal. The keffiyah was traditionally used a protection against the harsh effects of both sun and sand in desert areas. See images of different examples below.

This image of men in Chefchaouen, Morocco, shows a variety of skullcaps. Take note of their jalabiya as well. These loose garments are worn over clothes by both men and women and provide warmth or ventilation, depending on the fabric and season. Copyright: Megan Geissler.
Popular King Abdullah II of Jordan pairs the red and white keffiyah with his military uniform.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia
Yasser Arafat, the former head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was frequently seen in black and white keffiyah.

And, be sure to check out our Who Wears a Veil? activity that profiles strong female leaders across the world:

 

Still have questions about this subject? Feel free to send us comments and questions!

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