Fashion in one of the major facets of self-expression. It is the way in which we tell the world who we are, how we feel, and how we want to be received. Our identity is a large part of how we dress, and how we dress is a large part our identity. The veil Muslim women wear is probably the best example of this. It sits at the intersection of one of the most personal parts of an individual’s identity and faith. Over the last few decades veiling has been in the middle of numerous debates concerning women’s rights and religious freedom. In a world with so much conflict surrounding religion, it is important that we try to understand these different beliefs and perspectives.
The vast majority of women who veil are Muslim. Founded in the 7thcentury, Islam has grown to be one of the world’s largest religions. It centers on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad and the word of G-d through the Quran. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam traces its lineage back to Abraham. The rejection of any other god but Allah (literally Arabic for G-d), daily prayer, alms giving, observance of Ramadan, and a sacred pilgrimage known as the Hajj are part of the Five Pillars that are central to the faith. Because of their strong roots in the Arabian Peninsula, Arabian tradition has become closely tied to Islamic practice. Veiling is an example of how these pre-Islamic practices have been carried out through the faith.
The Word “Hijab”
Hijab is Arabic for “cover.” It refers to any clothing meant to maintain a woman’s modesty, not just a headscarf. Because there is no specific Arabic word for “veil,” the word “hijab” is used in the West as an umbrella term to refer to the various types of veils and coverings worn by Muslim women. Veiling predates Islam. It had been a practice among North African and Arabian women to communicate one’s lifestyle and social stature. Islam, like many other religions, simply adapted the existing social norms of the cultures that practiced the religion.
The Quran and Hadiths do not specifically say that followers of the faith must wear a headscarf, but they do put great emphasis on the modesty of women (wearing loose clothing that covers their body.) The emphasis on the hijab likely comes from the Hadith that states that Muhammad’s wives wore covering and veils.
Wearing the hijab was, first and foremost, the woman’s choice. In the 20thcentury, westernization started to take hold in majority Muslim countries and movements to abolish the practice started to take place in local governments. This sparked a renewed interest in traditional Islamic values and more and more young women started to choose to veil. They saw these efforts to ban the hijab as an affront to their rights and erasure of Islamic culture. To this day the hijab is being used as a feminist statement in the. However, critics of the hijab see it as a symbol of gender oppression.
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The types of veils and coverings Muslim women use differ from region to region. The choice to wear the hijab happens at around the age of puberty, but at any point of her life, a woman can choose to either stop or start veiling.
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Though used as an umbrella term, the word hijab also refers to the most common type of veil and the most prevalent style in the West. It consist of one or two scarves covering the head and the neck, leaving the face fully exposed.
A niqab, most commonly used in the Gulf States, an outfit that covers the body, head, and face leaving an opening for the eyes. There are two types of niqabs: half niqabs that cover the entire face, but exposes the eyes and some of the forehead and full niqabs (also called Gulf niqabs) that cover the entire face and only leaves a narrow slit for the eyes. The niqab has been in the middle of a lot of contention in European countries as some people suggest it causes issues in security and communication.
The chador is the most popular style of hijab in Iran. It is a body-length shawl that is secured at the neck either by hand or with a pin. It covers the head and the entire body but leaves the face exposed. It is typically in black.
The burqa conceals the entire face and body, leaving only a mesh area to see out of. This is typically worn in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, the burqa was required by law.
To Veil or Not to Veil?
Over the past decade there has been more and more conflict as to what hijab means and whether or not it should be allowed. Hijab means different things to different people. To some, especially Muslim women in the West, the hijab is particularly empowering. Not only is it a symbol of their devotion to their faith, but it is also a rejection of the sexualization of women in a consumerist society. As Hanna Yusuf puts it: “In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to mere sexual allure what could be more empowering that rejecting that notion?”
Women who choose not to veil, on the other hand, also have their reasons. Many Muslim women fear the harassment that comes with veiling. In a post 9/11 society, this harassment is not uncommon. Others state that wearing a hijab can be uncomfortable. Some believe that the society they live in, mostly in the West, does not garner the need for hijab.
There has been waves of movements in Europe to ban the hijab. In March, European courts passed a law that allowed places of work to ban the hijab. They see it as a symbol of gender oppression, but also unnecessary in “advanced” secular societies. Some even say that Muslim women should start reclaiming their sexuality; that they live in a society that no longer “forces” them to veil. Such laws and movements are particularly concerning (at least to me they are). Does the state reserve the right to tell people how to practice their faith? Isn’t forcing a Muslim woman to veil just as oppressive as forcing her not to?
- Amrani, Iman. “The hijab ruling is a ban on Muslim women.” The Guardian. Published March15, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/15/hijab-ruling-muslim-women-religious-identity-european-court-of-justice-resistance
- “A Brief History of the Veil in Islam.” Facing History and Ourselves. Accessed on May 3, 2017. https://www.facinghistory.org/civic-dilemmas/brief-history-veil-islam
- Gjetlen, Tom. “American Muslim Women Explain Why They Do-or Don’t-Cover.” NPR. Published Feb 2, 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/02/02/465180930/american-muslim-women-explain-why-they-do-or-dont-cover
- Kuswandin, Dian. “Why Some Muslim Women Don’t Wear Hijab.” Jakarta Globe. Published August 15, 2012. http://jakartaglobe.id/archive/why-some-muslim-women-dont-wear-hijab/
- Stacey, Aisha. “Why Muslim Women Wear the Veil.” The Religion of Islam. Last modified November 15, 2009. https://www.islamreligion.com/articles/2770/why-muslim-women-wear-veil/
- Steele, Valerie. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Vol. 2). Farmington Hills: Thomas Gale, 2005.
- “Types of Head Scarves.” Facing History and Ourselves. Accessed on May 3, 2017. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/gallery/types-headscarves
- “What is the Hijab and Why do Women Wear it?” Arabs in America. Accessed on May 1, 2017. http://arabsinamerica.unc.edu/identity/veiling/hijab/
- Yusuf, Hanna. “My Hijab has nothing to do with oppression. It’s a feminist statement-video.” The Guardian. Published June 24, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/jun/24/hijab-not-oppression-feminist-statement-video