The word ḥijāb is used in the contemporary Islamic world both in reference to a head-covering and to a particular style of dress considered modest and Islamic. This style of dress can be distinguished from various rural dress traditions, and it has become much more popular in Muslim communities since the 1970s.
The English term “veil” is commonly used to refer to Middle Eastern women's traditional head, face, or body covers. However, in Arabic, different terms refer to diverse articles of women's clothing that vary according to region and era. Some of these Arabic terms are burquʿ (burqa), ʿabāyah, ṭarḥah, burnus, jilbāb, and milāyah. Overgarments such as the ʿabāyah of Arabia and Iraq and the burnus of the Maghrib tend to be very similar for both sexes. The word niqāb refers to a face veil, which in its contemporary form covers the nose and lower face, but not the eyes.
The veiling and seclusion of women did not arise with the advent of Islam, nor are these institutions indigenous to Arabs. Strict seclusion and the veiling of matrons were in place in Roman and Byzantine society. Some evidence indicates that in the southwestern Arab region, only two clans (the Banū Ismāʿīl and Banū Qaḥṭān) may have practiced some form of female veiling in pre-Islamic times. No seclusion or veiling existed in ancient Egypt either, although some women may have used a head veil in public in the later period, during the reign of Ramses III (twentieth dynasty).
Long before Islam, veiling and seclusion were practiced in Mesopotamian cultures and among the Sassanians of Persia. In ancient Mesopotamia, the veil for women was regarded as a sign of respectability and high status; decent married women wore it to distinguish themselves from women slaves and unchaste women—indeed, the latter were forbidden to cover head or hair. In Assyrian law, harlots and slaves were forbidden to veil, and those caught illegally veiling were liable to severe penalties. Thus veiling was not simply to mark aristocracy but to distinguish “respectable” women from disreputable ones.
Successive invasions led to some synthesis in the cultural practices of Greek, Persian, and Mesopotamian empires and the Semitic peoples of the regions. Veiling and seclusion of women appear subsequently to have become established in Judaic and Christian systems. Gradually these spread to Arabs of the urban upper classes and eventually to the general urban public. Covering of the head (but not the face) was also widespread in rural areas.
At the inception of Christianity, Jewish women were veiling the head and face. Biblical evidence of veiling can be found in Genesis 24:65, “And Rebekah lifted up her eyes and when she saw Isaac … she took her veil and covered herself’; in Isaiah 3:23, “In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets … the headdresses … and the veils”; and in 1 Corinthians 11:3–7,
"Any woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair, but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man."
In medieval Egypt, public segregation of the sexes existed among Jewish Egyptians; women and men entered their temples from separate doors. Evidence suggests also that Jewish women of that period veiled their faces, as did Muslim women, who were urged in prescriptive literature to behave more modestly.
Veiling of Arab Muslim urban women became more pervasive under Ottoman rule as a marker of rank and exclusive lifestyle, and the geographic and occupational coding of dress was noted in seventeenth-century Istanbul. By the nineteenth century, upper-class urban Muslim and Christian women in Egypt wore the ḥabarah, which consisted of a long skirt, a head cover, and a burqa, a long rectangular cloth of white transparent muslin placed below the eyes, covering the lower nose and the mouth and falling to the chest. In mourning, a black muslin veil known as the bisha was substituted. Perhaps related to the origins of the practice among Jews and Christians, the word ḥabarah itself derives from early Christian and Judaic religious vocabulary.
Ḥijāb is not a recent term, but it was revived in the 1970s. It had been part of the Arabian Arabic vocabulary of early Islam. Ḍarb (adopting) al-ḥijāb was the phrase used in Arabia in discourse about the seclusion of the wives of the Prophet. When the veil became a focus of feminist and nationalist discourse in Egypt during the British colonial occupation, ḥijāb was the term used. The phrase used for the removal of urban women's face or head covering was raf ʿ (lifting) al-ḥijāb (not al-ḥabarah), which was, at that time, also a reference to modernization and enlightenment.
The Qurʿān has a number of references to ḥijāb, none of which concerns women's clothing, but rather a spatial partition or curtain. At the time of its founding, as Islam gradually established itself in the Medina community, “seclusion” for Muḥammad's wives was introduced in a Qurʿānic verse: “O ye who believe, enter not the dwellings of the Prophet, unless invited … And when you ask of his wives anything, ask from behind ḥijāb. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts” (33:53).
Other references further stress the separating aspect of ḥijāb. For example, al-ḥijāb is mentioned in nongendered contexts separating deity from mortals (42:51), wrongdoers from the righteous (7:46, 41:5), believers from unbelievers (17:45), and light from darkness and day from night (38:32). With regard to the sexes, one verse tells men and women to be modest, and women to cover their bosoms and hide their ornaments:
"Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their khimār over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands. (24:30–31)"
Another verse states, “O Prophet, tell thy wives and thy daughters, and the women of the believers to draw their jilbāb close round them … so that they may be recognized and not molested” (33:59).
These verses refer not to ḥijāb but to khimār (head cover) and jilbāb (a dress or cloak), and the focus of both verses is modesty and special status. The desirability of modesty is further stressed by referring to the contrasting concept of tabarruj (illicit display):
"O ye wives of the Prophet! Ye are not like any other women. If ye keep your duty, then be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspire, but utter customary speech. And stay in your houses. Bedizen not yourselves with the bedizenment of the Time of Ignorance.” (33:32–33)"
In none of these verses is the word ḥijāb used. The terms khimār, jilbāb, and tabarruj were used in reference to the Prophet's wives, who held a special status as the “mothers of the believers.” Al-tabbaruj (immodest display of a woman's body combined with flirtatious mannerisms) was used to describe women's public manners in the pre-Islamic “days of ignorance.” The phrase stands in contrast with al-tahhajub (modesty in dress and manners), a term that derives from the same root as ḥijāb. In the Islamic revival in Egypt, an influential pamphlet critiquing tabbaruj and calling for Islamic dress was widely distributed.
Ḥijāb is derived from the root ḥ-j-b; its verbal form ḥajaba translates as “to veil, to seclude, to screen, to conceal, to form a separation, to mask.” Ḥijāb translates as “cover, wrap, curtain, veil, screen, partition.” The same word refers to amulets carried on one's person (particularly as a child) to protect against harm. Another derivative, ḥājib, means eyebrow (protector of the eye) and is also the name used during the caliphate periods for the official who screened applicants who wished audience with the caliph.
Evidence from its usage in the Qurʿān and from early Islamic feminist discourse could support the notion of ḥijāb in Islam as referring to a sacred divide or separation between two worlds or two spaces: deity and mortals, men and women, good and evil, light and dark, believers and nonbelievers, or aristocracy and commoners. The phrase min warāʿ al-ḥijāb (from behind the ḥijāb) emphasizes the element of separation or partition.
The connection among clothing, modesty, and morality in Islam can be found in the Qurʿānic imagery of creation. Here clothing acquires meaning beyond the familiar: “Satan tempted them, so that he might reveal to them their private parts that had been hidden from each other” (7:20); “We have sent down to you clothing in order to cover the private parts of your body and serve as protection and decoration; and the best of all garments is the garment of piety” (7:26). In another context—“[women] are a garment to you and you are a garment to them” (2:187)—the interdependence and complementarity of the sexes is expressed. By using the imagery of clothing, Islamic creation focuses on gender relations rather than on irreversible sin and conceptually links clothing with morality, privacy, sexuality, and modesty.
The English term “veil” (and its correlate “seclusion”), therefore, fails to capture these nuances and oversimplifies a complex phenomenon. Furthermore, the “veil” as commonly used made the act of concealing exotic, rather than ordinary, and mysterious rather than virtuous. The word implied a single referent and condition, whereas it ambiguously refers at various times to various objects of dress with distinct social meafings, as in a transparent or heavily ornamented female face cover, a transparent head covering, or an elaborate headdress. Limiting its reference obscures historical developments; differentiations of social context, class, group, or special rank; and sociopolitical articulations. In Western feminist discourse “veil” is politically charged with connotations of the inferior “other,” implying and assuming a subordination and inferiority of the Muslim woman, whereas the historic use of the veil to distinguish women of high status is forgotten. Moreover, it was in the Hellenic, Judaic, and Christian systems to which the West traces its roots that veiling was associated with seclusion in the sense of the subordination of women.
The Qurʿānic terms ḥijāb, khimār, jilbāb, and tabbaruj reappeared in the mid-1970s as part of an emergent Islamic consciousness and movement and heightened religiosity that spread all over the Islamic East. It was distinguished at first by the voluntary and active participation of young Muslim college women and men. Women's visible presence became marked when they began to don a distinctive but uniform dress, unavailable commercially, which they called al-zīyy al-Islāmī (Islamic dress).
A muḥajjabah (woman wearing ḥijāb) wore al-jilbāb—an unfitted, long-sleeved, ankle-length gown in austere solid colors and thick opaque fabric—and al-khimār, a head cover resembling a nun's wimple that covers the hair low to the forehead, comes under the chin to conceal the neck, and falls down over the chest and back. Whereas the nun's wimple is an aspect of her seclusion and a sign of her state of celibacy and asexuality, the Muslim woman wears al-khimār in order to desexualize public social space when she is part of it. Modesty extends beyond her clothing to her subdued, serious behavior and austere manner, and is an ideal applied to both sexes. A munaqqabah (woman wearing the niqāb, or face veil) more conservatively adds al-niqāb, which covers the entire face except for eye slits; at the most extreme, she would also wear gloves and socks to cover her hands and feet.
This Islamic dress was eventually adopted by many other urban women outside of college campuses, and then by those of provincial towns and rural areas. By dressing this way in public, women translated their vision of Islamic ideas into their own behavior. Some women also signaled their support for Islamist groups where these became popular, or they were able to distinguish themselves from women identifying with other political groups or who were non-Muslims, for instance in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The new dress style affirmed the wearer's Islamic identity and morality and, to some degree, rejected Western materialism, commercialism, and values. The vision and gender conceptualization expressed in ḥijāb derives from these women's understanding of early Islam and the Qurʿān. Controversy arose in Arab countries (other than Saudi Arabia) as to whether its increasing use was due to imposition by religious institutions or leaders or whether it was a form of peer emulation; the enforced veiling in Iran after the Islamic revolution and in Sudan under the Bashīr-Turābī regime raised such questions. The opponents of ḥijāb-wearing accused Islamist movements of supporting its use or even paying women to adopt it.
The Islamic movement, known as the awakening, or ṣaḥwah, involved far more than a new dress code, which also applied to men. The movement aimed to empower the Muslim community and orient it away from neo-imperialism, while also opposing al-tabarruj and supporting modesty in behavior, voice, and body movement, as well as the enactment of Islamic values. Gradually, the movement shifted from establishing or reestablishing an Islamic identity and morality to asserting Islamic nationalism, engaging in participatory politics, and resisting authoritarian regimes and Western dominance. Embedded in today's ḥijāb is imagery that combines notions of modesty, morality, identity, and resistance. Opposed to the ḥijāb are women (and men) who decry the absence of choice, or who have wanted to see more positive gender relations established by opening, rather than restricting, women's share of public space. Resistance through al-ḥijāb or against it, whether it means attire or behavior, has generated dynamic discourse around gender, Islamic ideals, women's status, and the propriety of reforming Islamic laws and customs.
Debate over the ḥijāb continued in certain Muslim-majority countries where it was outlawed in public-sector jobs, as in Tunisia and in Turkey, and continued globally, especially after September 11, 2001. In Turkey, where Kemalists decried Islamic dress, women pursued lawsuits for the right to wear Islamic dress, and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that he would not bring his wife, who wears Islamic dress, to public functions, so as not to break the law. In France, where about 5 million Muslims live, a ban on religious symbols and apparel in public schools went into effect in September 2004, sparking protests by Muslims, and four German states have banned the wearing of headscarves. In Italy, an older law was revived in 2004, as well as a newer one to restrict the wearing of niqāb or burqa; a similar law was enacted in Maaseik, Belgium. In the United Kingdom, schools may uphold their uniform codes, thereby disallowing niqāb, which was criticized publicly by the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw. Meanwhile, in Iraq, far more women have adopted Islamic dress in areas controlled by militias, due to attacks on the unveiled as well as, in some cases, women who were driving. In contrast, Somali security forces in Mogadishu were stripping veils from women and even burning them in the spring of 2007, following the overthrow of Islamist leaders in January of that year.
- Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn., 1992. Good overview of literature on gender in the Middle East from ancient to modern times, drawing on archaeological findings, anthropological insights, and historical documentation on gender. The textual survey is framed from the perspective of feminist gender studies (misogyny, patriarchy, androcentrism), but is itself a critique of Western feminism.
- Amīn, Qāsim. al-Aʿmāl al-kāmilah li-Qāsim Amīn. Edited by Muḥammad ʿImārah. Beirut, Lebanon, 1976. This book divides into two parts, the first being the author's analysis and commentary on Amīn's reformist thought on women's issues, with a focus on the ḥijāb. The second part is a reprint of Amīn's two original books on women's issues, Taḥrir al-marʿah (1899) and al-Marʿah al-jadīdah (1900), considered among the first classic Arab feminist works.
- El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. Oxford and New York, 1999. An anthropological analysis which considers the issue from a structuralist, historical, and psychological perspective, based primarily on the author's fieldwork in Egypt in the late 1970s. Also includes a chapter on male veiling.
- Hammami, Rema. “From Immodesty to Collaboration: Hamas, the Women's Movement, and National Identity in the Intifada.” In Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report, edited by Joel Benin and Joe Stork, pp. 194–210. London and New York, 1996.
- Heath, Jennifer, ed.The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics. Berkeley, Calif., 2008. Twenty-one essays that discuss the significance of veiling, past and present, in various countries, religions, and cultures.
- Luṭfī, Hūdā. “Al-Ṣakhawī's Kitāb al-nisāʿ.”Muslim World, 71, no. 2 (1981): 104–124. Informative discussion of al-Ṣakhawī's volume on women and a good source for the social and economic history of fifteenth-century Muslim women.
- Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. Translated and edited by al-Ashʿari. Lahore, Pakistan, 1972. Widely read source on the subject for believers in the Islamic movement, providing a nonorthodox interpretation of the Qurʿān on gender issues.
- Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Field study of Egyptian Muslim women and ideologues in the contemporary Islamic movement, the origins of their gender ideology, and women's differing views about contemporary and political trends. Examines the historical basis of Muslim ideas about gender, gender relations, Islamism, and modesty and their expression in contemporary Egypt, along with a history of the women's movement in Egypt.