Burqa in Bersheba
Islam teaches feminine modesty, and this is interpreted in different ways, from a women covering every inch of her body and face, to covering her hair and most of her body, to not dressing like a prostitute. “Hejab” (“hijab” , “Islamic Dress”) is a generic term for modest dress worn by Muslim women. The only parts of the body allowed to be exposed are the hands, feet and face. Sometimes “ hijab” is used to describe a scarf that wraps around the head. The hair is covered partly because it is regarded as erotic.

In some Muslim societies women cover all or part of their face with a veil or some other covering. These veils and head coverings scarves go by different names in different places. Girls generally begin wearing them after reaching puberty. Veiling also extends to behavior. Women instinctively cover their faces with their veils or head scarves when they speak. When a man enters a room they are in they instinctively turn away or cover their faces.

In many Muslim societies women are forbidden from exposing their heads, hair, neck and the curves of their body in public. Even in the hottest places women are supposed to wear long sleeves, and long billowing non-transparent skirts and dresses that hide the curves of their body and make even women with the nicest fugues look overweight. Doctors in Iran have linked covering the body to shortages in Vitamin D, usually derived from sunlight, and increases in osteoporosis.

Figure-concealing garments often vary and have different names in different places. The “abaya” or “chador” is cloak that covers a woman from head to toe. It can be combined with separate pieces that covers the face — "nikab” — or a tent-like covering — “burqa”. The jilbab is a loose, dress-like out garment designed to cover the wearer’s clothes.

Cosmetics, jewelry and perfume and anything that makes a woman alluring are also discouraged. One reason women veil themselves is so that they will not tempt men and maintain their chastity and honor and the chastity and honor of the men around them.

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org

Books: “ Qu’ran and Women” by Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic Studies at Virgina Commonwealth University; “ Standing Alone in Mecca” by Asra Nomani (HarpersSan Francisco); “Women and Gender in Islam” by Leila Ahmed; Nine Parts of Desire: “The Hidden World of Islamic Women” by Geraldine Brooks was read by U.S. President George Bush.


Hijab on the left, niqab on the right

Hijab is the principle of modesty in Islam and includes behaviour as well as dress for both males and females. According to the BBC: “Hijab is an Arabic word meaning barrier or partition. In Islam, however, it has a broader meaning... The most visible form of hijab is the head covering that many Muslim women wear. Hijab however goes beyond the head scarf. In one popular school of Islamic thought, hijab refers to the complete covering of everything except the hands, face and feet in long, loose and non see-through garments. A woman who wears hijab is called Muhaajaba. [Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

“Muslim women are required to observe the hijab in front of any man they could theoretically marry. This means that hijab is not obligatory in front of the father, brothers, grandfathers, uncles or young children. Hijab does not need to be worn in front of other Muslim women, but there is debate about what can be revealed to non-Muslim women. |::|

“Modesty rules are open to a wide range of interpretations. Some Muslim women wear full-body garments that only expose their eyes. Some cover every part of the body except their face and hands. Some believe only their hair or their cleavage is compulsory to hide, and others do not observe any special dress rules. |::| “In the English speaking world, use of the word hijab has become limited to mean the covering on the head of Muslim woman. However, this is more accurately called a khimaar. The khimaar is a convenient solution comprising usually one, but sometimes two pieces of cloth, enabling Muslim women to cover their hair, ears and neck while outside the home. |Hijab, in the sense of veiling, can also be achieved by hanging a curtain or placing a screen between women and men to allow them to speak to each other without changing dress. This was more common in the early days of Islam, for the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. |::|

The Qur'an gives these general rules, which may help in understanding how to interpret dress and other rules in modern times. “O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness,- that is the best. Such are among the Signs of Allah, that they may receive admonition!” — Qur’an 7:26 So clothing does not have to be drab: it is all right for both sexes to use clothing to enhance beauty as well as to cover nakedness. The most important thing is to be modest and righteous.

Origin of Veiling

Afghan lady in Kabul
There is some debate as to when the custom of Muslim veiling began and where the custom originated . Some conservative Muslims have insisted that veiling was practiced in Muhammad’s time and Muhammad’s wives veiled themselves. There is little evidence of this though. Some say the custom of veiling was adopted by Muslims about three of four generations after Muhammad’s death and is believed to have been copied from the Byzantines or perhaps from India or Persia. Veiling has also been practiced for a long time by Hindus from India, where women seclude and veil themselves through a custom called purdah, which was originally adopted by the upper classes and became a status symbol.

In any case the custom of veiling predates Islam. In antiquity it was a sign of high status. Jewish and Christian women adopted the custom to symbolize a retreat from public life. The Iranian term chador, meaning “tent.” is derived from the personal custom of very wealthy women traveling around in covered sedan chairs. Some people have said the Western custom of brides wearing veils come from Muslim countries. More likely it comes from ancient Greece. The veiling and segregation of women was common practice among women in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium.

“When the Qur'an first mentioned the concept of hijab, it was not as a veil or headscarf. Hijab was used in the context of a barrier or screen as in this Qur'anic verse: ‘(...) And when ye ask (the Prophet's wives) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.’ — Qur’an 33:53

“Taken in historical context, this verse seems to have been primarily intended to give the Prophet's wives some protection against nuisance visitors and people who were looking for gossip about them. Gossip and slander were a great concern at the time the verses relating to hijab were revealed. One set of verses (24:1 onwards) came immediately after the Prophet's wife Aisha was accused and acquitted of adultery.

History of Veiling

In the old days veiling was more common in the cities than in villages, presumably because city women were more likely to be secluded and pampered than rural women who needed to work in the fields and veiling and covering themselves made such work more difficult. In the cities it seems that women often were the ones that demanded they be veiled as a means of escaping harassment and showing their status.

Lynn Reese wrote in “Women in the Muslim World,” “Muslims in their first century at first were relaxed about female dress. When the son of a prominent companion of the Prophet asked his wife Aisha bint Talha to veil her face, she answered, "Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognized His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself." “As Islam reached other lands, regional practices, including the covering of the faces of women, were adopted by the early Muslims. Yet it was only in the second Islamic century that the face veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. [Source:“Women in the Muslim World,” ed. Lynn Reese, 1998]

Burqa in Afghanistan
Various forms of veiling and head covering was the norm throughout the Muslim world until social customs began liberalizing under European rule and the nationalist movements in the 20th century. In 1934, Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, became the first Muslim country to ban the veil in his attempt to modernize his country. In 1936 in Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi ordered the mass unveiling of women and ordered police to literally tear the veils off women on the streets. Although some women welcomed the changes other were adamantly against it, staging sit ins and protests and refusing to leave their homes until eventually the ban being rescinded in 1941.

Still in the 1960s and 1970s veiling was not widely practiced by urban women in places like Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. The custom made a come back with the revival of Islamic sentiments after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Intafadeh in the Palestinian territories in the 1990s and was embraced more strongly when anti-Western sentiments grew after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A women in Florida was denied a driver’s license because she refused to be a photographed without her face veiled. After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 she was told had to have her photograph taken without a veil or the licence would be revoked. Instead of complying she sued on the basis of freedom of religion.

Qur’an on Hijab

The justification for veiling comes from several verses in the Qur’an. The first one goes: "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among young men). That is better, in order that they may be understood (to be Muslims) and not annoyed."

burqa in Bamdar Abbas (south_Iran)
The Qur’an does not spell out details about how woman should be covered and does specify any punishment for women who are not veiled. Nowhere does it say in the Qur’an that a woman should cover face, head or hair. The justification for the use of facial veils come from verse 24:31 in the Qur’an which reads:"And say to the believing women, to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward; and let them draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands."

On modesty the Qur’an says that "true modesty is the source of all virtues" and "modesty and chastity are parts of the Faith." In an order to men visiting the home of the prophet: “When ye ask [the wives of the Prophet] for any article, ask them from behind a curtain; that is purer for their hearts and yours.”

According to the BBC: “The Qur'an makes a few references to Muslim clothing, but prefers to point out more general principles of modest dress. “Both men and women are commanded to lower their gaze and "guard their modesty". The most basic interpretation of "guard their modesty" is to cover the private parts, which includes the chest in women ("draw their veils over their bosoms"). However, many scholars interpret this injunction in a more detailed way and use Hadith (recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to support their views. [Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.” — Qur’an 24:30

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, [a list of relatives], [household servants], or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss. ) — Qur’an 24:31

Interpretation of the Veil Custom

Selcuk woman
Veiling was institutionalized by Sharia (Islamic law). The way the body should be covered is based on the Hadiths. The wide variety of types of coverings in the Islamic world is a clear indication of how varied interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadiths can be. Men have a dress code too. The Qur’an forbids them from wearing saffron and silk or exposing skin from naval to knee.

The Qur’an specifically warns against literal interpretations. One of the reason why that so many restrictions are put on women is the belief among some Muslims that when God divided up sexual desire he gave women nine times more than men.

Many women on the hajj do not wear veils. Girls can go to school without wearing the veils because of the belief that their uniforms meet the modesty requirements of Sharia. Some women wear the veil as a kind of political statement to show their solidarity with other Muslims, especially as a response to perceived American and Israeli aggression.

France has banned the veil in schools. In the United States, a woman was given a ticket for wearing a veil in Minnesota and an 11-year-old girl was kicked out of school in Oklahoma for wearing one (the federal government acted to get her readmitted) . In Canada, women have been barred from courtrooms for wearing head scarves. In multi-cultural Trinidad, Muslim women are not allowed into state-supported Catholic, Protestant and Hindu schools if they wear head scarves. A 1987 study in Yemen found that women who watched Western programs on television were more likely to question wearing the veils.

Zeenah and Khimaar

According to the BBC: “Zeenah (ornaments) is another word with numerous meanings. It has been interpreted to mean body parts, beauty, fine clothes or literal ornaments like jewellery. (The same word is used in chapter 7:31 - "O Children of Adam! wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer..."). The jewellery interpretation is supported by the instruction to women not to stamp their feet to draw attention to themselves. It used to be the practice among Arabian women to wear ankle chains to attract men. The word translated here as veils is khumur, plural of khimaar. According to scholars, the word khimaar has no other meaning than a type of cloth which covers the head. Muslim scholars point out that men's turbans are sometimes called khumur as well.[Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

“Women during the time of Muhammad did wear the khimaar, but would wear it tied behind so their neck and upper chest were visible. This verse is therefore an order that the khimaar now be drawn over the chest, so that the neck and chest were not bare. |::|

According to the BBC: “According to most scholars, the khimaar is obligatory for Muslim women. The phrase "what must ordinarily appear thereof" has been interpreted in many different ways. Among Muslims who take the word zeenah (ornaments) to refer to body parts, a popular interpretation of this phrase is that women should only show the body parts that are necessary for day-to-day tasks. This is usually taken to be the face and the hands.[Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]|

“Some scholars recommend hiding everything but the eyes. The style of burqa worn by Afghan women even hides the eyes. Muslims who oppose full concealment say that if Allah wanted women to hide their entire bodies, there would have been no need to tell male Muslims to lower their gaze. |::|

“But "what must ordinarily appear thereof" could be understood as meaning the parts of the body that are shown when wearing normal (modest) dress, with the definition of normal dress deliberately left up to the believers' particular time and culture. This could explain why the Qur'an is not more specific: if God had wanted to, he could have listed the acceptable body parts in as much detail as the list of exceptions to the rule. |::|

“Some scholars interpret "what must ordinarily appear thereof" to mean that if a woman exposes part of her body by accident, she will be forgiven. All agree that women will not be punished for breaking the rules if some emergency forces them to do so. |::|

“Cast Their Outer Garments over Their Persons”

“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful. — Qur’an 33:59

According to the BBC: “This verse is directed to all Muslim women. An alternative translation is "they should lengthen their garments". The word translated here as "outer garments" is jalabib, the plural of jilbab. But it does not necessarily refer to the present day garment known as jilbab. Translators usually represent the word jalabib with general terms like cloaks or outer garments. |[Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

“The two most common scholarly interpretations of jilbab are a travelling coat or cloak and a sheet-like full body garment similar to the modern jilbab. Some insist that the Qur'anic meaning of jilbab is identical to the present day garment. Others maintain that today's garment was developed as late as 1970 by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. |::|

“The verse also indicates that the purpose of dressing this way is that women are recognised as Muslims and not harassed. It was not very safe for women to go out during this time when they could be mistaken for prostitutes or assaulted. |::|

“The rules are relaxed for elderly women: )”Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage - there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty: but it is best for them to be modest: and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.” — Qur’an 24:60

Hijab Rules on What Women Can Show in Front of Different People

Old chador engraving

“The Arabic word awrah refers to the parts of the body which must be covered with clothing. Awrah is any part of the body, for both men and women, which may not be visible to the public. Awrah is interpreted differently depending upon the sex of the company one is in. Most Muslims accept that for men everything between the navel and the knee is awrah and therefore should be covered at all times. [Source: BBC]

According to the BBC: There are a number of hijab scenarios for women: 1) In front of unrelated men (Muslim or non-Muslim), women must cover everything except the hands and face; 2) In front of close male relatives, awrah is the navel to the knee and the stomach and the back; 3) In front of other Muslim females, awrah is from the navel down to, and including, the knees; 4) Awrah in front of non-Muslim women is a point of debate: 5) Some scholars say that women should cover all but the hands and face. This is to prevent non-Muslim women (who may not understand the rules regarding hijab) from describing the appearance of the hijab wearer to other men; 6) Other scholars say that if a non-Muslim woman can be trusted not to describe a woman's appearance to other men, then she may reveal as much as she would in front of another Muslim woman in her presence. |::|

“The Hanafi school of thought, which is followed by most Muslims in the world, agree that the feet are not part of the awrah and therefore may be revealed. Amongst other schools of thought a common opinion is that everything apart from a woman's face and hands is awrah. Scholars holding this opinion use this hadith to justify it: “Narrated Aisha (the Prophet's wife): Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) turned his attention from her. He said: 'O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.” — Abu Dawud, Book 32, Number 4092 . This particular hadith is regarded as 'weak' (i.e. not reliably attributed) by some scholars, including the hadith's collector, Abu Dawud. |::|

“There is no restriction on what a husband and wife may show to each other in private. The Qur'an encourages married couples to enjoy each other's bodies.” However, “Islam highly values modesty, so even when alone, men and women are recommended never to be completely naked and to cover from the navel to the knee. Exceptions do apply where necessary, for example taking a shower or going to the bathroom. [Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

Hadiths Relating to Dress

In the Hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, Muhammad condemned women who appear "naked while they are fully clothed” and once said to his sister-in-law: "Asmaa, when a woman attains puberty, nothing should be seen of her body except this and this (pointing to his face and forearms)."

Muslim girls in Kargil, India

A ban on silk clothes: Narrated Al-Bara: “The Prophet ordered us to observe seven things: To visit the sick; follow funeral processions; say 'May Allah bestow His Mercy on you', to the sneezer if he says, 'Praise be to Allah!'; He forbade us to wear silk, Dibaj, Qassiy and Istibarq (various kinds of silken clothes); or to use red Mayathir (silk-cushions). — Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 740. The banning of silk is a rule that relates to men only, as it is seen as effeminate. Muslim men are also forbidden from wearing gold jewellery for the same reason.

Some forbidden practices relating to clothing: “Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: Allah's Apostle forbade Ishtimal-As-Samma' (wrapping one's body with a garment so that one cannot raise its end or take one's hand out of it). He also forbade Al-Ihtiba' (sitting on buttocks with knees close to abdomen and feet apart with the hands circling the knees) while wrapping oneself with a single garment, without having a part of it over the private parts. — Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8, Number 363 |::|

Garments that drag or hang low: Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Umar: The Prophet said Allah will not look, on the Day of Resurrection at the person who drags his garment (behind him) out of conceit. On that Abu Bakr said, "O Allah's Apostle! One side of my Izar hangs low if I do not take care of it." The Prophet said, 'You are not one of those who do that out of conceit.: — Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 675 |::|

“Some scholars say that this was said in the context of the time, where cloth was expensive. People would wear clothes that trailed to the ground to demonstrate their wealth, and it was a symbol of wealth and therefore pride. Some Muslim men prefer to wear clothes that end just above their ankles due to this hadith. |::|

Hijab, Prayer and the Hajj

According to the BBC: “It is well accepted by most scholars that while praying, women must cover everything except the hands and face. It is forbidden to cover the face while praying. |Men must cover from the navel to the knee. “Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: Allah does not accept the prayer of a woman who has reached puberty unless she wears a veil.” — Abu Dawud, Book 2, Number 0641

woman pilgrim participating in the Hajj

According to the BBC: “There is an Islamic tradition that women - and men - should not veil their faces while on the Hajj pilgrimage. Some hadith are used to support this view: “Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar used to say that a man in ihram should not veil anything above his chin.” — Malik's Muwatta, Book 20, Number 20.5.13b “Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar used to say that a woman in ihram should wear neither a veil nor gloves.” — Malik's Muwatta, Book 20, Number 20.5.15 (Ihram is the state of dress and ritual purity adopted for the Hajj.) [Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

“Some Muslims dispute this and cite hadith in which the Prophet's wives pulled their head coverings over their faces in the presence of unrelated men while on Hajj. “Narrated Ibn 'Umar: A person asked Allah's Apostle, "What should a Muhrim (pilgrim on Hajj) wear?" He replied, "He should not wear shirts, trousers, a burnus (a hooded cloak), or clothes which are stained with saffron or Wars (a kind of perfume). Whoever does not find a sandal to wear can wear Khuffs, but these should be cut short so as not to cover the ankles.” — Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8, Number 362 |::|

“According to this hadith, one man (Umar ibn al-Khattab, later the second caliph) was able to bring about the commandment for the Prophet's wives to veil their faces. “Narrated 'Aisha: The wives of the Prophet used to go to Al-Manasi, a vast open place (near Baqia at Medina) to answer the call of nature at night. 'Umar used to say to the Prophet "Let your wives be veiled," but Allah's Apostle did not do so. One night Sauda bint Zam'a the wife of the Prophet went out at 'Isha' time and she was a tall lady. 'Umar addressed her and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda." He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verses of Al-Hijab (the observing of veils by the Muslim women) may be revealed. So Allah revealed the verses of "Al-Hijab".” — Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 4, Number 148

Different Veiling Customs

Islamic dress for women varies greatly from country to country and also region to region but the one thing that is constant is that at least the entire body is covered except for the hands and face. Many women cover themselves not because they want to are think it is right but rather because of family and cultural pressures to do so.

Iranian women
Different styles of veils include a red scarf worn with a black see-through chiffon cloth around the face worn in Cairo; a vivid green veil covering of red and gold floral print worn in Oman. Qatari women are said to favor veils made from silk while Arabian women favor blue cashmere and “Saudi crepe,” a new wrinkle-free material designed specifically for veiled women.

Traditionally girls began wear head scarves or covering themselves when the reached puberty and were eager to begin wearing such covering to show they were grown up. Customs, however, vary quite a bit from place to place and even family to family. In some cases girl start wearing covering not long after they are born. In other cases women don’t wear them until after they get married. In yet other cases women only cover themselves when they feel depressed or vulnerable or sense their death is imminent.

There are shops and sections in department stores that cater to women that conform to Muslim modesty norms. They sell “hijab” wedding dresses; long shapeless skirts, thick stockings, arm coverings, and head scarves and veils in a variety of shapes and colors. Perfume and make up are generally not sold at such places because of the Muslim belief that they are ostentatious.

See Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Other Muslim Countries.

Types of Muslim Headwear, Veils and Body Coverings

There are many different styles, colors and shapes of hijab including different ways of wearing it. Differences in headwear and body covering are often based more on cultural reasons than religious ones.

The strictest dress codes are generally found in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states and Afghanistan. Arab Women in Saudi Arabia in many cases are only allowed to venture on onto the streets dressed in black, wearing a headscarf called a shelagh and with their faces veiled by a niqab. The niqab is made out of one piece of material with a slit or two eye holes to enable the women to see. [Source: Ruth Gledhill, The Times, October 6, 2006 ^^]

Niqab is a combination of a head covering and scarf that covers all of a woman’s face except for her eyes. It usually flows down to the mid-back to cover a woman’s hair, and may flow down to the mid-chest in the front. It is most often worn in Arab countries, but an increasing number of Muslim women in the west are choosing to wear it. Although the majority of scholars agree that hijab is obligatory, only a minority of them say that the niqab is. [Source: Darshna Soni, Channel 4 News, October 22, 2013 |||]

The burqa is total head-and-body covering with only a grille for the eyes to see through.The terms niqab and burqa are often incorrectly used interchangeably; a niqab covers the face while a burqa covers the whole body from the top of the head to the ground. It is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face, including the eyes (with a mesh cloth to see through) and the body. |||

In Afghanistan the burqa can be in blue or other colours. It is made out of two pieces of material sewn together and fastened at the sides and in the middle. The eyes are not visible at all in a burqa, and the woman sees through a finely-woven grille at the front. On their bodies these women will wear an abayeh, a large black cloak with arm holes. ^^

The chador is a body-length outer garment, usually black in colour, worn mainly by women in Iran. It is not secured at the front by buttons or clasps, so the woman holds it closed These are long, loosely fitted garments worn by Muslim women to cover the shape of their bodies. They are often worn in combination with the hijab or niqab. Liberal Iranians will often wear western clothing with a headscarf only, while the stricter ones will wear the chador. |||

Iraqi women wear an abayeh falling down over their shoulders from their head, with a headscarf underneath covering their hair. Beneath all this, however, they might wear very little, such as shorts and t-shirt when hot, or even a bikini. Sudanese and other Muslims wear a long sari-like garment known as the dhob or sob which covers the body and head at the same time. These can be of many colours and materials, the only requirement being that they are not transparent. Moroccans wear kaftans and headscarves. ^^

The shalwar kameez, or trousers and tunic, with a headscarf. Has traditionally been Muslim worn by women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani. Men wear similar clothing the same name. These are often brightly coloured and made of anything from silk and cotton to synthetic materials. ^^

Headscarves can vary. One popular style is the al-amira, consisting of a cap attached to a tube-like scarf. It can be purchased for under $5.


niqab in Morocco

According to the BBC: “Niqab is the term used to refer to the piece of cloth which covers the face, worn by some Muslim women. Niqab is different from hijab. Hijab refers to covering everything except the hands and face. Niqab is the term used to refer to the piece of cloth which covers the face and women who wear it usually cover their hands also. It is worn by many Muslim women across Saudi Arabia and the Indian subcontinent and is worn by many women in the West. Historically, the veiling of the face was practised by many cultures before Islam and scholars say the adoption of its practice by Muslims was part of fitting into the society. [Source: BBC, September 22, 2011 |::|]

“Although the majority of scholars agree that hijab is obligatory, only a minority of them say that the niqab is. The scholars who do say it is obligatory are further divided by exactly what they believe needs to be covered. Some say that the eyes may be left unconcealed, while others say that everything must be concealed. However, those scholars who rule that niqab is not an obligation do not necessarily oppose those who choose to wear it. |::|

“The most authentic ruling according to the majority of scholars is that it is not necessary and, unlike hijab, there is no sin if it is not worn. Some of these scholars state that wearing the niqab as an act of extra piety, provided they do not believe it is an obligation, will be rewarded. |::|

Headscarves and Different Muslim Coverings

According to the BBC: “The word hijab comes from the Arabic for veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. These scarves come in myriad styles and colours. The type most commonly worn in the West is a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear. 1) 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.

2) The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through. 3) The al-amira is a two-piece veil. It consists of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and an accompanying tube-like scarf. 4) 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.

5) 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. 6) 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. [Source: BBC, September 22, 2011 |::|]

Veiling, Politics and Oppression

Somali girl
Farzaneh Milani, a professor of Persian literature at the University of Virginia, wrote in the Washington Post, “For more than a century now, to wear or not to wear a veil has been a central divide within the Islamic world. It has been viewed as a flag, a line of demarcation separating “us” from “them,” the visual symbol for some of a modern society , and for others of a society protecting its traditions, its independence and its faith. Politicians have spoken for or against it; people have been killed for its sake or because of all that it symbolizes.”

The website of a Canadian mosque posted warnings that in effect said that women risked getting raped or having illegitimate children if they failed to wear the hijab. Other reasons sited for wearing veils have included “stresses, insecurity and suspicion in the minds of husbands” and “instigating young people to deviate towards the path of lust.” [Source: Mona Eltaway, a New York-based commentary of Arab and Muslim issues, New York Times]

The veiling issue has divided women’s rights advocates. Some see it a matter of choice with women having the right to wear whatever they like, while others see the veil as symbol of oppression. Barbies, which are sold in more than 140 countries and have appeared in a number of different ethnic clothes, have never been sold with veils.

Why Women Wear the Hijab

Peter Hopkins wrote in Newsweek: “Some women choose to wear the hijab because it is a national tradition of their country of origin, or because it is the norm in their local area, city or country. Others wear it to demonstrate their commitment to dressing modestly and for religious reasons. Like any item of clothing, some women wear the hijab for specific occasions, such as for family or community events, or during particular times of day but take it off at other times, such as wearing the hijab to and from school or work but taking it off while studying or working. A very small minority may claim to be forced to wear the hijab. However, many studies show that in fact Muslim women choose to wear the hijab as a way of showing self-control, power and agency. [Source: Peter Hopkins, Newsweek, August 19, 2016. Peter Hopkins is professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University]

“Many hijab wearers have said that they wear the veil not as a symbol of control by a man, but rather to promote their own feminist ideals. For many Muslim women, wearing a hijab offers a way for them to take control of their bodies and to claim a stance that challenges the ways in which women are marginalized by men. Research has shown that for young Muslim women, wearing a hijab says little about the likelihood of them having a boyfriend or participating in a sexual relationship. Indeed, some young women have said they would wear the hijab to give them more space to engage in such activities.”

Case for Veiling

According to the BBC: “There are only a few references to veiling in the hadith and most of these actually refer to the khimar, which is restricted linguistically to head covering. The covering of the face is only mentioned in three hadith and never by the command of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, in one hadith, the companions of the Prophet Muhammad are even surprised at one woman's wearing of the niqab during her time of bereavement. [Source: BBC, September 22, 2011 |::|]

“The main evidence from scholars who believe that niqab is obligatory comes from these verses of the Qur'an. “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.” — Qur'an 33:59

“Scholars, such as Imam Abul A'la Mawdudi from the Indian subcontinent, suggest that these verses refer to covering the entire body, including the face and hands. The order 'cast their outer garments' in Arabic is similar to phrase 'draw together'. Scholars say that as a result of this verse, the women at the time of the Prophet drew together their garments over their entire body, including the face. |::|

“One hadith that is used as evidence for this is: “Narrated 'Aisha (wife of Prophet Muhammad): The Messenger of God, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognized.” — Bukhari

“This hadith has been dated some time after verse 33:59 was revealed. Proponents of the niqab say that this hadith shows that the women during the time of the Prophet were not recognisable and hence they must have worn niqab. However, other scholars have argued that their faces were unrecognisable because it was dark, not because they were covered up. It is interesting to note that Aisha says 'some' women, and not all. Furthermore she refers to the early-morning prayer and not to any other. It would certainly make it more difficult to see who individuals were if they were dressed in cloaks before sunrise. In addition, they have argued that the order 'cast their outer garments over their persons' has been misunderstood. They say that the word 'face' has not been indicated in the Arabic, and it would therefore be wrong to extend the meaning. |::|

“Other proponents of the niqab use this Qur'anic verse for evidence for the niqab. “And when ye ask (the Prophet's wives) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.” — Qur'an 33:53

“The wives of the Prophet were indeed required to wear the niqab by this Qur'anic verse. This is because the special status they had meant they had to be kept clear from all gossip and slander. Scholars say that if the wives of the Prophet, as the best of feminine examples, were required to wear niqab, then the ruling falls on all women. However, earlier on in the same chapter, the Qur'an also very clearly states that the Prophet's wives were not similar to other women. “O Wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women.” 33:32 |::|

“Most scholars are in agreement that the verse about the screen, or concealing of the face, is only obligatory on the wives of the Prophet. They say the verses are a clear indication that the wives of the Prophet are much more restricted in their movement due to their political position, and that their code of conduct does not constitute a code of conduct for women in general.” |::|

Case Against Veiling

Yemeni doctor in Niqab

According to the BBC: “Most scholars, including the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, hold the view that niqab is not an obligation. They cite a number of references for this opinion. “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof... “ 24:30-31 [Source: BBC, September 22, 2011 |::|]

“According to the majority of contemporary scholars 'what is apparent of it' refers to the hands and face. Another scholar, Shaykh Kutty, a senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada suggests that because God asks both men and women to lower their gaze, it suggests their faces are visible, otherwise there would be no sense in it. |::|

“Scholars holding this view also state that it is well accepted by all scholars that the Prophet categorically forbade people from covering their faces or hands during hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. If it was necessary that the hands and face be covered at all times, he would not have stated its impermissibility during one of the most sacred points of a person's life. It is also generally held by the majority of scholars, including those that believe niqab is obligatory, that covering the face during the five daily prayers is also prohibited. |::|

“Another strong indication that niqab is not an obligation is presented in this hadith. ) Abdullah bin Abbas reports that the Prophet was riding a camel with Al-Fadhl, Abdullah's brother, behind him. A beautiful woman came to ask the Prophet about the Hajj of her father. Al Fadhl began to stare at her; her beauty impressed him a lot. The Prophet (peace be upon him) having noticed this while Al Fadhl was busy looking, put his hand behind and turned his face away from her hither and thither as she went along with them. Al Abbas said to the Prophet, "you are twisting the neck of your nephew!" The Prophet replied, "I noticed that both the boy and the girl were young; and I feared that Satan may intervene". — Tirmidhi and Bukhari

“Scholars argue that the Prophet controlled the boy Al Fadhl's gaze, but didn't mention the fact that the woman was not covering her face. As a rule, anything that Prophet Muhammad stays silent about is tacit approval. This hadith would seem to indicate strongly that niqab is not obligatory. |::|

Scholars in the West: Obligation Versus Recommendation

alumnus of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran

According to the BBC: “Some contemporary scholars have gone further in their rulings about the niqab in the West. Although they may agree with its practice in Muslim countries, they say that it is harmful in the West and should therefore be avoided. [Source: BBC, September 22, 2011 |::|]

“Shaykh Darsh, a prominent UK scholar, did not believe that the niqab was necessary, or even recommended by the Prophet for women to wear. But if you were going to argue that niqab was a recommended act, he explained his opinion for wearing niqab in this country in the following way: ) Some people believe that niqab is recommended (sunnah); ) Everybody believes that inviting people to Islam (da'wah) is obligatory (fardh); ) The niqab is often a very significant barrier to da'wah in the West where the concept of face covering has never been known; ) If a recommended act is a barrier to an obligatory act, one must not sacrfice the fardh for the sunnah |::|

“Shaykh Nuh Keller, a Jordanian Shafi'i scholar and translator of Reliance of the Traveller, has put forward a similar argument for women in the West. He says that women should not wear niqab in the West because it can lead to harassment and act as a barrier to inviting people to Islam. |::|

“Although the much stronger scholarly opinion holds that the niqab is not an obligation in Islam, it is appreciated that there is an opinion which believes it is. Differences in opinion are respected and celebrated, which is why a follower of one of these opinions will rarely say the other is completely wrong, or haram. Niqab has a place in Islam, since the Prophet's wives were required to wear them. In today's context, many women attempt to emulate the best of women to bring themselves closer to God. |::|

Women Who Like the Veil

While some Muslim women view the veil and other traditional Muslim clothes as oppressive and restrictive. Other see it is as an expression of their religious belief and protection from the harassment of leering men when they go out. This belief has existed a long time. A 12th century Arab woman wrote that wearing a veil made her feel relived because it freed her of the stares of men who found here sexually attractive.

One Qatari woman that likes being covered told the New Yorker, “I like it, I feel protected in it, and when I wear it I’m not bothered by men. The most important thing is to cover you hair not your face.” A woman in Cairo told the Los Angeles Times that she had been discriminated against because she was divorcee who had been married less than a year and said harassment and discrimination ended when she started wearing a body-covering abaya. “The problems that really bothered me before disappeared from my mind,” she said.

20120510-Tudung 2_Malay_girls_in_baju_kurung.jpg
Malay girls, with the on the left wearing a tudung
An American girl, who started wearing a head scarf in high school on her own volition (her mother doesn’t wear one), told the New York Times: “I noticed a big difference in the way guys talked. They were afraid. I guess they had more respect. You walked down the street and you didn’t feel guys staring at you. You felt a lot more confident.” After September 11th she said she was called a “terrorist” and a “raghead” because “high school student are immature.”

Mohja Kahf, author of "The Girl with the Tangerine scarf", wrote in the Washington Post: “Crimson chiffon, silver lame or green silk: Which scarf to wear today. My veil collection is 64 and growing. The scarves hang four or five to a row in my closet, and elation fills me when I open the door to this beautiful array....It irks me that I even have to say this: Being a Muslim woman is a joyful thing...Prayer scarves are a chapter in themselves, cool and comforting as bed sheets. They lie folded in the velveteen prayer rug when not in use: two lightweight muslin pieces, the long drapey head cover and the roomy gathered skirt. I fling open the top piece, and it billows like summer laundry...Tasseled turquoise cotton and flowered peach crepe flutter as I pull out a black and ivory striped head scarf for the day.”

“These create a tent of tranquility,” Kahf continued, “The serene spirit sent from God is called by a feminine name, “Sakinah,” in the Quran, and I understands why some Muslim women like to wear their prayer clothes for more than prayer, to take that sakinah into the world with them. I, too, wear a (smaller) version of the veil when I go out. What a loss it would be for me not to have in my life this alternating structure, of covering outdoors and uncovering indoors, I take pleasure in preparing a clean, folded set for a house guest, the way home-decor mavens lay elegant plump towels around a bathroom to give a relaxing feel.”

Feminine Modesty and Lingerie

Women can wear make-up and sexually alluring clothes, but only at home for the benefit of their husbands. There are a number of shops and street vendors in the Moski district of Cairo selling lingerie, sexy underwear, g-strings and plum-colored teddies. Some shops sell items from Victoria Secret and other Western companies as well as stuff produced by local designers. There are even lingerie fashion shows—albeit ones which only women can attend. The sales of one local design increased from $177,000 in 1986 and $3.25 million in 1996. [Source: John Lanaster, Washington Post, April 25, 1997]

One lingerie shop owner told the Washington Post, "Even the completely veiled people, they come and buy lingerie. It's not wrong if she wears it in private. Our religion is very forgiving about that sort of thing." One designer who has had much more success with racier stuff than conservative stuff said, "We came to the conclusion that the lady in Egypt, because' she's conservative during the day, the only time to show here feminine side is at night”.

One customer in a lingerie shop told the Washington Post, "I'm buying things mainly for my honeymoon, but I hope I can keep on wearing them afterward. I don't think I can bring my husband back or prevent him from leaving me by wearing such lingerie, but I want to enjoy my private life and make him happy. A 23-year-old checking out a chiffon nightgown said, "Seduction is fine as long a sit is between husband and wife, who love each other." A 35-year-old man said, "This nothing compared to what happened abroad in public, I have the right to see my wife as I wish to see here. Of it pleases me, why not?"


Photographs of women from the Ottoman era were often of men dressed up as women. Because Muslim women were not supposed to be seen by men outside their families, photographers sometimes asked men to pose as women.

Swimming and Veiling

Relatively few Arabs know how to swim. In accordance with Islamic rules about modesty many people enter the water fully clothed. In the United States, community centers offer all-male and all-female swimming, scuba diving lessons, kayaking and underwater hockey. One American Muslim told the Washington Post, “Having faith does not mean we can’t have fun. And having faith doesn’t mean we have to conform to the larger culture, either.”

Women are encouraged to go swimming but they can’t wear a bathing suit at a beach or swimming pool where men are present. Traditional Islamic women go swimming in the sea fully clothed and with their head scarves on. The only part of their bodies are their hands, feet and faces.

Describing what it is like to swim fully clothed, Norma Khouri, a Jordanian writer, wrote: “Sad and ludicrous—but all too familiar—is the sight of a woman struggling to stay afloat while her voluminous black dress billows around her despite her efforts to beat it back in the waves”.

Special bathing suits, dubbed Burqinis (as in “burqa” olus “bikini”). Are available for a number of sources. Some look like a long tee shirt with tights and balaclava head covering. They look more like graduation gowns. There are polyester versions that look like ill-fitting wet suits a couple sizes too big.

The first swim suit design for Muslim women was the tankini, introduced in 1997. Among the popular designs are ones made by Australian retailer Aheda Zanrtti and Splashgearsuits designed by California microbiologist Shreen Sabet. The cheapest ones are around $90. Most buyers get them online. Cancer victims, conservative Christian, senior citizens burn victims and women with sun-sensative skin have also bought them. Some conservatives have complained the new suits reveal too may curves.

Men who Veil

According to the BBC: “While the issue of Muslim women and the veil attracts a lot of publicity, it is often forgotten that there is also a tradition of men covering their faces. Fadwa El Guindi, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Qatar, said: “There is enough evidence that the Prophet himself covered his face ... when warriors were on horses and camels they covered their faces ... so we were missing a half of the story here when we focused too much on women, and by doing so we may have misunderstood even the meaning of women veiling.” [Source: BBC, September 3, 2009 |::|]

Tuareg man

“The veil-cum-turban of the Tuareg tribes of North Africa is a sign of maturity. When a boy becomes a man, the cloth is wound around his face and head until only his eyes are visible. Its significance is both religious and cultural. Sufi mystics in Cairo continue a long tradition of veiling when they go into retreat, to isolate themselves from the world. And in the ancient religion of Jainism, both men and women cover their faces when entering their temple's inner sanctum. |::|

However, “Men are forbidden from dressing or acting like women, and vice versa, in hadith such as this one: “Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: Allah's Apostle cursed those men who are in the similitude (assume the manners) of women and those women who are in the similitude of men.” — Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 773 |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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