Understanding the Veil: A Primer in Muslim Women’s Head Coverings [Photo Gallery]

Editor’s Note: Fashion can be an important symbol of religious conviction. From the saffron-colored robes of Buddhist monks to the concealing habits worn by Catholic nuns, style of dress can convey a spiritual meaning. So too in Islam. Wherever they are in the world, Muslim women can often be identified by the way they dress. And it’s often possible to distinguish between different Islamic cultures just by observing the variations in the style of Muslim women’s head coverings. Our hope is that the next time you see a veiled woman in your community, you’ll be encouraged to say hello, introduce yourself, and start a conversation. Veils never have to be a barrier to friendship.


Modesty and the Veil

Across the Muslim world, variations of head coverings are usually referred to as hijab. The term hijab can be translated from Arabic as “screen,” “curtain,” or ”covering.” Sometimes in the Qur’an it’s used when referring to a partition. When describing women’s fashion, hijab often refers to a scarf that covers the head and neck. But more generally, the term relates to the principle of dressing modestly.

An Egyptian woman wears a niqab while harvesting vegetables.

An Egyptian woman wears a niqab while harvesting vegetables. Photo by Max Power.

For Muslim women, wearing a veil or head covering acts as a show of obedience to the Qur’an and to Allah, as well as being a symbol of modesty and womanhood. Islamic head coverings vary stylistically from culture to culture, each culture interpreting qur’anic tradition in slightly different ways. Whether it is the way women pin their scarves in place, the amount of coverage a hijab provides, or the colors and fabrics they choose, Muslim women’s dress is not just a fashion statement. It is also an expression of faith.

A Moroccan woman wears a headscarf matching her flowing overcoat.

A Moroccan woman wears a headscarf matching her flowing overcoat. Photo by Chris Carter.

Some women wear hijab because they don’t have a choice—their culture or family mandates it. In many Muslim countries, wearing hijab is the law. But, often, Muslim women cover their heads and faces because they choose to. Their modesty is an expression of their religious conviction and devotion to God. This is a brief introduction to the most common styles of hijab around the world.

Headscarf or Turban

Headscarves or turbans are the most minimal hijab. They cover the hair and sometimes the neck. They’re popular in countries like Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran.

Fashionable Turkish versions of hijab often incorporate silk scarves and long tunics or coats.

Fashionable Turkish versions of hijab often incorporate silk head scarves and long tunics or coats. Photo by Hugh Johnson.

In Turkey, hijab is usually chic and elegant. Turkish women like to wear colored fabrics and silk scarves with beautiful prints. They often add volume underneath their headscarves to give some shape and structure to the outfit. In cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, not all Muslim women wear hijab. In fact, in the 1980s, wearing headscarves in public universities, schools, hospitals, and government offices was banned in an attempt to reinforce the secularization of the country. But the ban on wearing hijab has since been revoked.

These Persian students wear loose scarves called rusari, rather than the black chadors preferred by conservative Shiite women in Iran. IMB Photo Archive.

Nowadays, many Iranian women wear the rusari, which is a simple headscarf that is wrapped around the head or pinned in place on the shoulder. Turkish women wear a tight-fitting cotton bonnet underneath their headscarves to cover every strand of hair. But Persian women tie their headscarves loosely so that hair can be seen underneath.

Muslim girls are not usually expected to wear hijab until after puberty, but some begin covering before they come of age. Photos by Charles Braddix.

In northern Sudan, the law requires women to dress modestly in public or risk the punishment of flogging. Since the standard for clothing considered immodest is often subjective, most Sudanese women wear hijab in public. Their headscarves not only serve religious purposes but also help to shield them from the sun.

Chador

A woman in Iran wears a chador while visiting an Islamic shrine.

A woman in Iran wears a chador while visiting an Islamic shrine. Photo by Joseph Rose.

A chador is the full-body-length semicircle of fabric that is draped over the head and held together in the front with the woman’s hands or tucked under her arms. Sometimes it is pinned or tied to keep it fastened. Chadoris are typically worn outside of the house or in holy places but then removed once women return to the privacy of their own homes.

Jilbab or Tudong

Three Malaysian women in hijab pose in Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur.

Three Malaysian women in hijab pose in Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Luke In.

Muslim women in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia typically wear a jilbab or tudong. Since the rise of democracy in Indonesia and Malaysia, Islamic politics have increasingly influenced the culture of these countries, and more women have begun wearing hijab. Most of them see modest dress as a mix of Islamic religion and traditional culture, and they consider the more elegant and flowy styles of jilbabs as more fashionable. Almost eighty percent of Indonesian Muslim women surveyed preferred to wear a jilbab rather than the sharia-style hijab, which is longer and more conservative.

Niqab and Abaya

A woman wearing a niqab celebrates the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of Ramadan in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo by Chris Carter.

Women in the Arab Gulf usually wear both the abaya and niqab. Abayas are the long, loose black garments that cover the entire body. A niqab is a veil covering a woman’s face, ears, and hair leaving only the eyes exposed. Muslim women living in Gulf Arab states typically wear abayas in public and mixed company.

a woman wears an abaya

It’s not unusual for fashionable Arab women to wear designer clothes underneath their abayas. Photo by Max Power.

Burka

In areas controlled by the Taliban, women are required to wear burkas, like this one, outside of their homes. IMB Photo Archive. 

Women in Afghanistan typically wear either a chador or a burka. The burka covers the entire body and includes a screen that covers the entire face, including the eyes. It is the most concealing Islamic hijab. In areas controlled by the Taliban, women are required to wear burkas in public and in mixed company. Almost all Afghan women wear scarves called tikrai everywhere and all the time—they even sleep with their heads covered. If their scarves slip off while sleeping, as soon as they get up they pull the cover over their head again. For a woman in Afghanistan, not wearing a headscarf is almost as scandalous as a woman in America appearing in public naked. Most Afghan women accept head coverings as a part of daily life.

IMB Photo Archive.

The Pursuit of Holiness

As Christians, we can respect Muslim women for their pursuit of God and for upholding the standards of modesty within their own cultures. Yet at the same time, we realize that even the most modest women—those who wear a burka all the time, or those who never let a strand of hair stray from under their hijab—can’t earn holiness no matter how many good deeds they accomplish. Let’s pray for them to find the one true God and to realize that holiness can only be attained through belief in his Son, Jesus Christ.


Mary Sparrow is a student in America who spent most of her childhood in Central Asia. When not writing or reading, her time is typically spent enjoying the company of family and friends or exploring God’s creation.