2016-06-06

All About Hijab and Muslim Dress

By Dilshad D. Ali

In donning pink hijabs (headscarves) as they marched in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Washington D.C. in June, 2008, a group of women from the Council on American-Islamic Relations turned one of the most prominent and misunderstood Islamic badges into a symbol of activism.

Muslim women around the world adhere to Islamic requirements of modest dressing with a variety of styles and types, from headscarves to face veils to body-hiding robes.

But what does modest Muslim dress exactly entail? What are the different styles? How do some women adapt the hijab to different aspects of their lives? Is modesty just for women? And when did hijab become a symbol of oppression for many non-Muslims? Check out this gallery for the types of Muslim dress and answers to these questions.

The Hijab (Headscarf)

 

What is it?
In Arabic, hijab means "barrier" or "cover." For non-Muslims, it's synonymous with the headscarf, but it can be used to describe total modesty. Those who cover up do so because of passages in the Qur'an and other Muslim scripture. A woman doesn't have to cover up in front of her husband, father, son, or other relatives she cannot marry.

How, why, and where it's worn.
The hijab (as a headscarf) is any piece of cloth pinned around the head so as to cover the hair, ears, neck and (usually) bosom. Women the world over don the hijab on top of their other clothing, which extends to their hands and feet.

Any controversy?
The purpose of modest Muslim dress is just that--to be modest. In the strictest definition, this means loose clothing that hides the shape of one's body. Some argue that just wearing a headscarf with tight-fitting outfits is not modest.

The Shayla, Al-Amira, and Khimer

 

What is it?
The shayla, al-amira, and khimer are the three most popular types of headscarves.

How, why, and where is it worn?
The shayla is a rectangular piece of cloth (favored by women in the Gulf region and making a surge in North America) wrapped around the head and pinned in place on the shoulder. The al-amira is a two-piece veil consisting of a cap or extra-large headband and a tube-like scarf worn over that. Women around the world wear this style. The khimer is a long cape-like veil with an opening for the face that falls over the bosom often to the hands. Many Muslim women don the khimer for prayers or for the Hajj pilgrimage.

Any controversy?
Conservative Muslims argue that when women match their head scarf to their outfits or wear them in styles most attractive to their face shape, they are attracting attention to themselves rather than downplaying appearance.

The Abaya and Jilbab

 

What is it?
These are full-length robes worn over clothes. The abaya is like an overcoat that women pair with a headscarf. The jilbab is a dress by itself. They come in black or neutral colors.

How, why, and where is it worn?
Women around the world wear the abaya and jilbab. The dress is a requirement by law in some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and is the dress of choice in the Middle East and parts of South Asia. Some women in North America also wear these robes.

Any controversy?
An abaya/jilbab is commonly perceived by non-Muslims as an oppressive piece of clothing. They may wonder why a woman would wear it. But many Muslims argue that this strict form of dress allows the most liberty--it frees a woman to be appreciated for her mind, not her style or body.

The Chador

 

What is it?
A chador is a black outer garment or open robe.

How, why, and where is it worn?
The chador is a large semi-circular piece of cloth thrown over the head that drapes the body to the feet. It has usually has no closures and is held together by a woman's hands or is wrapped around the body. This dress is seen predominantly in Iran and is usually black.

Any controversy?
Like the abaya or jilbab, some people view the chador as oppressive clothing forced upon Muslim women. In some countries (like Iran), women are required by their families (or government) to don this garment (or face a penalty). But others do choose it as an easy means of modest dress. (As one chador-wearing woman said to me, "Just throw it over what you're wearing and go.")

The Niqab (Face Veil)

 

What is it?
The niqab is the face veil that some women pair with a headscarf. It covers either the lower part of the face or the entire face (with a see-through material). Most Muslim scholars agree that the niqab is not a Qur'anic requirement. During the Hajj pilgrimage, women are not allowed to wear it.

How, why, and where is it worn?
The niqab is worn all over the world, although predominantly in Middle Eastern countries. Some women choose to wear it for total coverage and freedom to move about in public without drawing any attention to themselves. Some are told by their families to wear the niqab to safeguard their modesty.

Any controversy?
In 2006, British cabinet minister Jack Straw suggested that his Muslim constituents should remove their niqab when visiting his office to facilitate open communication, causing uproar around the world. Some niqab-clad women get subjected to searches at airports, as officials argue that a woman in full coverage could commit a crime without being identified.

The Burka (or Burqa)

 

What is it?
The burka is a head-to-toe robe. There is often a mesh-like or see-through material over the eyes so a woman can see outside.

How, why, and where is it worn?
The burka is worn in many Middle Eastern countries and is well known in the Western world as the typical dress for Afghani women. Some women wear it out of societal or familial pressure; others choose to wear it for their protection and liberty to move about freely.

Any controversy?
The burka received a bad rap during the heyday of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as Muslim women were forced to wear it and were stripped of many liberties. But though the Taliban government is gone, many women still choose to wear it. This may be due to local warlords enforcing it, or as a matter of personal safety, or because some women are just used to wearing it.

The Burkini

 

What is it?
Developed by Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, the burkini is a swimming garment that covers the body from head to foot leaving openings for the face, hands, and feet.

How, why, and where is it worn?
Though not hugely popular, the burkini is worn by some Muslim women wanting to swim in public areas. The fabric of the burkini, according to Zanetti, is not supposed to stick to the body after becoming wet.

Any controversy?
Critics argue that the burkini goes against what strict Muslim dressing is about--masking the shape of the body. Many Muslim women choose to frequent women-only beaches (in Muslim countries) or women-only times at swimming pools and wear regular swimming suits.

Hijab and Fashion

 

What is it?
Some women seek to combine wearing the hijab or other types of Muslim dress with stylish clothing and makeup.

How, why, and where is it worn?
Many Muslim fashion designers and women seek to implement the fashion of a country within the parameters of modest dressing. In the West this may mean layering a long-sleeved shirt inside a t-shirt or wearing a dress over pants. Attractive scarves are important. Others cleverly wear their hijab to let their earrings peek out or wear makeup.

Any controversy?
In the Muslim world, the battle of hijab vs. fashion is fierce. Critics argue that the point of modest dressing is not to draw attraction to one's physical self, which is negated by pretty headscarves, full coverage but stylish clothing, and makeup. Others say women can dress modestly and fashionably without overtly displaying their physical attributes.

Hijab and Sports

 

What is it?
Many devout young Muslim women are adapting the headscarf to athletic gear so they can join in sports activities.

How, why, and where is it worn?
From pairing leggings under track shorts to special "sports hijabs" on top of track suits, young Muslim women are creating new athletic ensembles to allow them to participate in mixed-gender sporting events. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, nearly a dozen women competed wearing the hijab.

Any controversy?
Critics cite the classic argument that covering up doesn't matter if the body form is seen (and if the woman performs in front of a mixed-gender audience). As an alternative, Iran has held three international Muslim Women's Games where athletes compete in standard performance clothing in a variety of events--with no men in the audience.

Islam, Men, and Modest Dress

 

What is it?
So much energy is spent discussing and dissecting modest dress for Muslim women, the world often forgets that Muslim men have dressing (and behavior) requirements as well.

How, where, and where is it practiced?
In Islam, men and women are required to control their desires. They are to avoid being alone with members of the opposite sex outside of marriage (or close family) as much as possible. Men are allowed to expose more of their body but are encouraged by Muslim scripture to cover up with loose clothing. During prayer, they must be covered from the navel to their knees.

Any controversy?
Many people ask why a woman must cover up for a man's weakness. While Islam prescribed the veil for Muslim women to downplay beauty and create an atmosphere of respect, men must also control temptation in all situations. Both sexes are advised to "lower their gaze."

More about Hijab and Muslim Dress

 

  • Why don't all Muslim women wear a headscarf? Does it get hot wearing it? Check out our Hijab FAQs for answers to your burning questions.

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