While the debate continues in many Western countries (including Australia) about the place of the Muslim womens’ veil in society, the deluge of sensational misinformation about headscarves is perhaps inevitable. Much of this stems from a lack of understanding about the veil, along with terminology rooted in languages other than English. With this considered, we attempt to set the record straight on the five most common types of veils, and maybe debunk some myths too.
Hijab is an Arabic word meaning “veil”, “screen” or “cover”. It gets used in two senses; firstly as an Islamic requirement for people (especially women) to “cover” themselves. Secondly, the word “hijab” is often used to describe the most common type of veil, a triangular piece of fabric which can be either tied under the neck or fastened with pins.
The triangular-fabric hijab is common in many countries; from Indonesia and Malaysia to Egypt and among many Muslim women living in the west. The popularity of this headscarf has resulted in different variations in style – some longer, some shorter, some knotted to the side, some giving a layered, ‘wrapped’ appearance, some exposing the neck and so on.
Niqab translates from Arabic as “mask”, and refers to the ‘face veil’. It is a separate piece of fabric which is tied over the hijab (or other head covering) and exposes only the eyes.
It is common in many Arab nations, especially the Arab Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Yemen and Oman. It is also increasingly common in South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Burqa (or burka) is a corruption of the Persian word purdah, which means “curtain” or “veil”. It refers to a full body garment which is shaped somewhat like a shuttlecock, and leaves a thin mesh for the eyes. This allows the wearer to see out, but restricts others’ view of their eyes; it is the most covering of Muslim womens’ garments. In the West, the word ‘burqa’ is often incorrectly used to describe any veil which covers the face.
Burqa is common in Afghanistan, and is increasingly common in parts of Pakistan.
Chador literally means ‘tent’ in Persian language, and is a large piece of fabric (usually black) which envelops the whole body. Like wearing a sheet or cloak over the head (necessitating the wearing of other clothes underneath), it must be constantly held together with the wearer’s hand. It became known worldwide after Iran’s revolution in 1979, when its use became mandatory in public.
Chador is most common in Iran, but has lost popularity in recent years, partly due to its cumbersomeness.
Dupatta is a simple, long scarf worn by many women in the subcontinent. Draped over the head, dupatta creates a loose fitting headscarf of sorts. It is usually worn together with the shalwar kameez, a loose fitting pant-tunic combination of varying lengths and fittings. Although the shalwar kameez can be considered a fashion item and is worn by women of various faiths, it is more commonly associated with the Indian Muslim tradition (while Hindu fashion is commonly associated with the sari).
Colourful dupatta and shalwar kameez are very common among the Muslim women of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and is also fairly common among non-Muslim women of those regions.
Other hijab need-to-know
- Various styles of hijab are used around the world (see above), although for many, their compliance with Islamic ruling is the subject of intense and often heated debate.
- Many Muslim women do not cover their heads, and this is not necessarily a reflection of their devotion (or lack thereof).
- Women wear headscarves for a variety of reasons – religion, modesty, social expectations, fashion… the list goes on. Nuns wear headscarves for their religion, but they’re not Muslim. Many field workers wear headscarves to protect themselves from the elements. We’ve even heard of people being thankful for the headscarf when they’re having a bad-hair day! (Although, to be fair, that’s not their basis for wearing a hijab!)
- There is a growing market for ‘modest attire’ in Western nations; that is, non-revealing clothes which can be worn to work or fancy functions by either Muslims or non-Muslims. See our review of the Faith Fashion Fusion exhibition earlier this year.
- Many Muslim women consider the hijab to be liberating. Many feel that while wearing it, they are judged on the content of their character, rather than their appearance. In conservative societies which are divided into public (male) and private/domestic (female) spheres, the hijab allows a woman to move freely in public while maintaining her privacy.
- Some countries have made covering the head or face in pubic illegal.
- Only in Iran and Saudi Arabia is a head covering mandatory in public.
- Many (if not most) Muslim schools of thought teach that women must show their face while praying – requiring the removal of any face veil before prayer.
- In most Muslim-majority countries, facial identification is performed at airports and other security-sensitive places by having a screen at the checkpoint, behind which women are required to show their face or be patted down in the presence of a female officer.
- Islam also provides hijab (covering) rules for men; many Muslim scholars agree that the minimum requirement is to be covered from the navel to the knee (even when swimming).
- For a lot of Muslim women, the headscarf is not a major issue, the same way that a work uniform is not a major issue for many of those who are required to wear it. Many (if not most) wear it by choice. A lot of Muslim women spend their days thinking about depressingly familiar things like work, family duties or the weather – not what they are wearing. Many are quite baffled at how much anxiety and debate surrounds a simple piece of fabric.
I hope this article has gone some way to debunking some myths about head coverings, and may it better inform the current round of debate being held.