We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam - Customs and Culture - Why do Muslim women wear veils and long garments? - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Customs and Culture >
Why do Muslim women wear veils and long garments?

The word veiling is a generic term used to describe the wearing of loose-fitting clothing and/or a headscarf. The Quran emphasizes modesty, although there is no specific prescription for covering one's head. The custom of veiling is associated with Islam because of a passage that says, “Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. They should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty” (24:31). Specific attire for women is not stipulated anywhere in the Quran, which also emphasizes modesty for men: “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest” (24:30).

The Islamic style of dress is known by many names (hijab, burqa, chador, galabeya, etc.; see glossary for descriptions) because of the multitude of styles, colors, and fabrics worn by Muslim women in countries extending from Morocco to Iran to Malaysia to Europe and the United States, and because of diverse customs and interpretations of the Quranic verses.

Veiling of women did not become widespread in the Islamic empire until three or four generations after the death of Muhammad. Veiling was originally a sign of honor and distinction. During Muhammad's time, Muhammad's wives and upper-class women wore the veil as a symbol of their status. Generations later, Muslim women adopted the practice more widely. They were influenced by upper- and middle-class Persian and Byzantine women, who wore the veil as a sign of their rank, to separate themselves not from men but from the lower classes. The mingling of all classes at prayer and in the marketplace encouraged use of the veil among urban Muslim women.

The veil is often seen as a symbol of women's inferior status in Islam. Opponents link veiling with backwardness and oppression, and Western dress with individuality and freedom. Critics of veiling, Muslim and non-Muslim, stress the importance of self-expression, which they associate with the distinctive way in which a woman dresses and wears her hair. They believe that any person or religion or culture that requires a mature woman to dress in a certain way infringes on her rights and freedom. They question those who say the veil is for women's protection, and ask why not put the burden on the men to control themselves.

Supporters of veiling explain that they choose to wear the hijab because it provides freedom from emphasis on the physical and from competing with other women's looks. Further, it keeps women from being sex objects for males to reject or approve. It enables women to focus on their spiritual, intellectual, and professional development. Some scholars have argued that in returning to Islamic dress, particularly in the 1980s, many Muslim women were attempting to reconcile their Islamic tradition with a modern lifestyle, redefining their identities as modern Muslim women.

Islamic dress is also used as a sign of protest and liberation. It has developed political overtones, becoming a source of national pride as well as resistance to Western dominance (cultural as well as political) and to authoritarian regimes. Many young Muslim women have adopted Islamic dress to symbolize a return to their cultural roots and rejection of a Western imperialist tradition that in their view shows little respect for women. These young women think that Western fashions force women into uncomfortable and undignified outfits that turn them into sexual objects lacking propriety and dignity. Women who wear Islamic dress thus find it strange or offensive for people to condemn their own modest fashions as imprisoning and misogynist. The West should not condemn the hijab or Islam, they say, but rather a social system that promotes an unrealistic ideal, makes young girls obsessive about their physical beauty and their weight, and teaches young boys to rate girls based on that ideal.

Western and Muslim critics of Islamic dress, on the other hand, question those who say it is their free choice to wear the veil. They see such women as under the sway of an oppressive patriarchal culture or as just submitting to the dictates of their religion. Critics also argue that since the hijab has been used to control and segregate women, as in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the veil is a symbol of conformity and confinement that reflects on any woman who wears it.

Some Muslims, however, would say that Western women only believe they are free. They do not see how their culture exploits them when they “choose” to spend countless hours on their appearance, wear uncomfortable skin-tight clothes and dangerous high-heeled shoes, and allow themselves to be displayed as sexual objects to sell cars, shaving cream, and beer. These Muslims say that Westerners condemn the veil because they themselves are not free to choose.

Since the 1970s, a significant number of “modern” women from Cairo to Jakarta have turned or returned to wearing Islamic dress. Often this is a voluntary movement led by young, urban, middle-class women, who are well educated and work in every sector of society. New fashions have emerged to reflect new understandings of the status and role of women. Indeed, designing contemporary Islamic dress has become a profitable enterprise. Some Muslim women have started their own companies specializing in the design and marketing of fashionable and modest outfits featuring varied flowing garments and matching veils.

Women who wear the scarf complain that, instead of asking what the hijab means to them, people simply assume that veiled women are oppressed. This assumption, they say, oppresses Muslim women more than any manner of dress ever could. Even if a woman wearing the veil is strong and intelligent, many people who are reluctant to get to know her or invite her to participate in activities automatically discount her value. They point out that women of many other cultures and religions—Russian women, Hindu women, Jewish women, Greek women, and Catholic nuns—often wear head coverings. They ask why these women are not viewed as oppressed. If opponents assume that women of other cultures who cover their heads are liberated, why can't they imagine freedom for Muslim women who wear a veil? Muslim women often talk about what the hijab symbolizes: religious devotion, discipline, reflection, respect, freedom, and modernity. But too often nobody asks them what the scarf means to them.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2019. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice