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Sherifa Zuhur
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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In the Muslim world, dress expresses identity, taste, income, regional patterns of trade, and the religiosity of its wearers. Dress and its use vary with regard to gender, age, marriage status, geographical origin, occupation, and even political sentiment. While the term Islamic dress has taken on new meanings in the contemporary period, the dress of Muslims, or the significance of dress in Muslim life extends beyond the indicators of an Islamist or non-Islamist orientation.

Regional variations of dress are significant for its wearers; those from a particular region are better able to recognize nuances of dress than outsiders. For example, Egyptians can readily identify a Sudanese woman in her wrapped diaphanous thawb, or a Kuwaiti man in his white tailored thawb and distinctive head covering, though they may not correctly interpret other markers contained in the length, colors, or patterns of the woman's dress, or in the cut, design, and quality of the male garment—markers that specify town or district of origin, or status. Many young urbanites know little about the variations in rural dress of their own countries, garments that date back more than a generation, or even the antecedents of their own clothing.

Dress may convey Islamic mores, but then again, many Muslims no longer wear traditional clothing, and hold varying views of the modern forms of Islamic dress. Even to those who generally wear Western-style clothing, dress serves as costume on formal occasions, holidays, and at weddings, and fulfills certain requirements during prayer, or on pilgrimage. Dress may also serve as a disguise, intentionally or unintentionally, when clothing is displaced through migration, marriage, or trade.

Traditional dress conformed to climatic conditions and to a division between public and private space in the Muslim world. Long and flowing garments have been worn for centuries, not only for reasons of modesty, allowing the wearer to stoop, sit and ride, but also because they are more comfortable in hot and arid climates than tightly fitted garments. Covering protects the skin from sunburn and allows perspiration to remain on the skin, keeping the body moist. Head coverings shield from other elements, for instance, the wind and sand. Berber tribal dress, on the other hand, includes warm woolen garments necessary for the mountains, as in the capes and skirts of the Aït Mgild, Zaian, and Aït Izdeg women, and the knit leggings of the Ounergi men.

The shapes of traditional clothing also reflect the limitations of the loom. Outer wraps were made of one or more rectangular pieces, as were constructed robes (thawb, jallābīyah, fustān, qufṭān, dishdashah). Little fabric was wasted, and garments could be fitted through the use of gussets, insets, and a neck slit. Dress styles were modified—widened, narrowed, or otherwise refined—when machine sewing was introduced. The use of color and decoration were regionally specific. In Palestine, merchants knew precisely which color thread women needed based on their native village or town. Color indicated marital status in bedouin embroidery, red or orange representing a married woman, while the addition or dominance of blue showed that the wearer was not married. Color preferences and stitch names and styles changed over time, and this has complicated the identification of garments. Older, hand-sewn, and embroidered garments are now recognized and valued as items of cultural and national identity.

Traditional Standards.

Both male and female forms of traditional and contemporary Islamic dress conform to a general understanding of modesty based upon the ḥadīth, popular tradition, and traditional forms of costume construction (shape). The body is covered in various degrees depending on whether one is alone, or with a spouse, among friends or relatives of the same sex, or in a mixed setting. Specific areas of the body are regarded as virtues to be protected, or as sexual in nature. Men cover their bodies from their waists to their knees, cover their heads, and wear appropriate outerwear in public. Women cover their bodies from the neckline to the ankle, and their arms to the wrists. The intent of covering the body is to make clear the virtuous character of a woman who otherwise might attract male attention. Thus, a historical aim of Muslim dress has been to delineate acceptable degrees of modesty. Men were considered to lack self-control and were easily stimulated visually, so impeding their view of women's bodies could possibly discourage illicit advances toward women. At the same time, of course, it was understood that men and women should be attracted to one another, and the choosing and wearing of dress within the parameters of modesty might be a part of courtship.

Traditional clothing and modern Islamic dress are designed to cover the woman's hair and neck. Traditional dress forms include an outer concealing layer which may cover the face, as in the chador of Iran, or a specific face mask (burqa) worn by bedouin women in Egypt, and by rural and urban women in the Gulf. Historically, the outer wrap was supported on religious grounds by reference to the Qurʿān (4:33). The face veil was more questionable religiously, in fact, women who otherwise covered their face, uncovered it during prayer. As the practice of female seclusion and the harem system ended in certain countries, urban upper- and middle-class women began to appear without the face veil and outer wrap, wearing Western-style coats and hats in public instead. Eventually, they went outside without that nod to the past, unless the weather required it. Muslim women who now wear modern fashions based on styles originating in Europe or elsewhere may be quite religious. If wearing pants, or a short skirt, women don long outer skirts over their regular clothing, and wrap fabric around the head and neck in order to modestly assume the positions of prayer.

Transitions in Dress.

Dress cannot be categorized merely as traditional or Western, meaning, modern. It is true that except in the rural areas, hand-woven, embroidered “folk-dress” is passing into the category of ceremonial and symbolic dress. Trade and migration affected traditional dress in terms of materials, techniques, prices, and styles. Machine embroidery for the fancier ladies’ thawb of the Gulf and other garments are now made in India. Notions of modesty varied from area to area along with dress so that in some cases people adopted new garments in spite of their origins or implications.

The transition to “modern” dress was encouraged in some ways by the state itself, which required certain westernized forms of dress for its civil servants and pupils in public schools and universities (pants and jackets in place of men's robes, or hats in place of traditional headgarb). Modern dress, then, became a marker of urbanity and, to some degree, social class affiliation. But this trend was reversed by the adoption of contemporary Islamic dress described below, or in certain cases (as in Libya) where people were paid stipends to don, or readopt traditional dress. In other areas the shift from modern to Islamic dress was never mandated, or at least not totally approved, hence, in the Gulf, men wear their own dress, and may or may not wear Western business or leisure clothing abroad. Other Muslims dress in both styles, wearing “oriental” dress at home or for special occasions, but modern clothing for work or school. In a number of areas, brides may, as in the Gulf area, wear an heirloom traditional wedding dress on one night of the wedding festivities and a Western-style bridal gown on another night.

Non-traditional garments reflect the cultural and economic impact of the West. Many Muslim women will not wear clothing with low necklines or backs. However, when the miniskirt and bellbottoms were popular, they were worn in the Muslim world as well, even though they did not accord with notions of modesty. Some women avoid wearing shorts or tight pants. Western-style shoes and stockings have replaced sandals or slippers, except in village settings. Sleeveless garments are worn, but women not wearing Islamic dress, or traditional dress-styles are often harassed by men or young boys in the street. Of course, this behavior is common outside the Muslim world and reveals sexual tensions and notions of female intrusion into public space in many cultures.

Men's clothing also mirrors Western styles in urban areas. Some men wear a modified suit introduced in the 1950s, consisting of a lightweight jacket, fitted, belted, or elasticized at the waist, with short sleeves and a Nehru collar, worn with pants of the same color. Others wear currently fashionable Western suits. In rural areas, men continue to wear traditional dress, or mix dress styles (jackets worn over dishdashah, or sirwāl) to carry weapons and ammunition in public.

Modern Islamic Dress.

A particular style of dress for men and women has developed in the Muslim world in the twentieth century, distinct in important ways from both traditional or modern dress. It has been adopted by some members of Muslim communities all over the world.

The female costume, referred to as Islamic dress, sharʿī, or improperly, fundamentalist dress, has become far more popular than the male version. It resembles the costume worn by members of the Association of Muslim Women and the women's wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (the Muslim Sisters) from the 1930s onward, consisting of a long skirt and a long-sleeved top, or a long robe, unfitted at the waist (jilbāb, thawb) and a head covering draped over the neck and sometimes covering the shoulders (khimār). Some women also wear a face veil of plain color (niqāb), gloves, and sunglasses. Diaphanous and brightly colored materials are avoided by the more pious who choose plain material and somber colors (black, dark blue, gray, beige, white). Although this costume has been confused with traditional forms of dress, and is claimed by its proponents to be the costume of the Mothers of Believers (the wives of the Prophet), it is distinctly modern. Women sew their own garments, have them made, or buy them ready-made. Some women have adopted the costume at the request of, or in order to please, spouses or relatives, and female covering has been required by the Islamic Republic of Iran. But most Muslim women have voluntarily chosen the ḥijāb, as Islamic dress is also called. The numbers of women wearing the ḥijāb have increased enormously since the 1970s. Its appearance has provoked dismay and debate, prompting regulations against it (in Turkey, Tunisia, or schools in France, for example) and tolerance for it (in Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian universities). In fact, Egyptian university officials have had to intervene to prevent students from requiring that their peers wear the ḥijāb. In areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, women have been pelted with eggs or worse for not wearing at least a headscarf.

The male costume incorporates elements of traditional dress, as it includes a long-sleeved tunic and sirwāl (baggy pants) or a jallābīyah (robe). These garments should be plain in color and weave, cotton being acceptable while silk, as a luxury, is not. The head is often covered with a prayer cap or another form of traditional head wrapping. A beard is worn, sometimes untrimmed, more often neatly trimmed but covering a portion of the cheeks, unlike the “secular” beard style of other younger men. While the wearer of such a costume would undoubtedly hold Islamist sentiments and profess marked piety, many Islamist men do not in fact wear this sort of dress. Men may have been more reluctant to adopt this dress in areas where the male robe and sirwāl are strongly associated with the lower classes. In addition, the costume and the beard have made men vulnerable to identification and arrest at specific points in time. Women, on the other hand, were not identified as activists on the basis of their dress alone, and several regimes decided it would be an ill-thought tactic to target women wearing the ḥijāb.

Islamic dress has been regarded with some suspicion both in the West and the Muslim world. Although women involved with the Ikhwān al-Muslimūn (Muslim Brotherhood) wore similar clothing, the costume was not at all common during the years that group was suppressed in Egypt. New variants began to appear during the 1970s, just as small groups of activist and radical Islamists began to emerge. With the Iranian Revolution women's Islamic dress, at first a symbol of opposition, became a regime policy. It was difficult for some observers in other states to believe that women would willingly adopt Islamic dress, and many thought that stipends were paid to women to wear it to work or school. Various observers, rightly or wrongly, identified the growing use of Islamic dress with the potential for Islamic revolution inspired by the Iranian example. In fact Islamic dress could reflect diverse agendas, ranging from a generalized desire to gradually islamize society, to a deep commitment to replace the secular system with an Islamic one as soon as possible.

Women who wear Islamic dress may believe that it reflects their deeper commitment to Islam. But they may or may not be more pious than other women, or politically active in any way. They also may subscribe to an ideology of gender and gender relations that is more conservative than that of unveiled women, especially in regard to the role of women in the workplace. Nevertheless, they tend to uphold women's rights to education, and to political and social roles. Some women believe their marriage prospects will improve with the adoption of ḥijāb, and most claim that the sharīʿah requires them to wear it.

Traditional and Ceremonial Dress.

While Islamic dress is quite similar from region to region, the traditional dress of Muslim women varies greatly, as does its quality and accompanying jewelry. Many styles are belted or fitted at the waist, like the southern Arabian qufṭān, traditional Moroccan Muslim (and Jewish) urban dresses, bedouin dresses from the northern Sinai, and Palestinian dress styles. Others, like those from the Egyptian Delta, have a decorated and fitted bodice from which full and unfitted materials flow. The eastern Arabian thawb is not fitted at all, though elaborately decorated on filmy chiffon. Sleeve styles vary from long and loose, to short or pointed, and may be tied behind the back to facilitate housework.

In many areas women wore loose, gussetted pants (sirwāl) under their clothing. These served as underwear, and in some areas the legs were fitted, embroidered, and meant to be seen. In rural Turkey, the sirwāl are patterned and worn with shorter tunics or blouses, while in Pakistan they show under a tunic worn with a neck scarf. Previously, shifts or thin blouses were worn as undergarments and later replaced with knitted, and then sewn, cotton and synthetic underwear.

Traditional garments worn at weddings illustrate family origin, history, and status. The bridal dresses and decoration (including henna applications) of Fez, Sale, or Mecca were so elaborate and heavy they required months of preparation, and the bride could hardly move.

New garments were worn at ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā. Women also wear special clothing for the pilgrimage (ḥajj), travel garments that include the ʿabāyah (the outer cover) and the ṭarḥah (headscarf). Bahraini women, for example would bring seven pairs of sirwāl, dresses and overdresses and wear a black tulle headscarf trimmed with blue beads (ghaswah). Upon completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca, women cut a small section of their hair.

Men making the pilgrimage wear two seamless lengths of white cloth and a waistband (bugshah). This dress symbolizes the equality of all believers. Men do not cover their heads during prayer while on ḥajj but cut their hair or shave their heads, and trim their nails upon completing their pilgrimage. Indian and Pakistani men often wear a green head cloth at that time.

Men's traditional dress was affected by the introduction of new sorts of jackets worn atop the male robe. The qunbāz was adopted in the Fertile Crescent but later gave way to a Western-style jacket worn atop the thawb or dishdashah. Sirwāl were also worn by men under the robe in some areas and a shorter, less full version to the knees can be seen at construction sites around the region. In Lebanon, sirwāl were decorated and worn with a shirt and sash, as they were in parts of the Maghrib, where a shorter form made in Tunis was introduced by the Ottomans and worn by members of seamen's guilds along with a decorated jacket. Fishermen of the Alexandrian area also wore sirwāl.

Men wearing traditional dress are often assumed to be older, more conservative, or of rural origin, depending on the context in which they appear. However, the wearing of a thawb, jacket, and head cloth in Syria or Jordan, for example, may not rule out property ownership, education, or sophistication.

National or Political Symbolism.

Some garments have faded from contemporary use but still hold historic and national value, such as the Moroccan bridal headdresses, abruq or sharbīyah, the mother-of-pearl inlaid, high qabqāb (or clogs), the Ottoman face veil, the Palestinian taqṣirah (embroidered jacket) worn over female dress, and the Lebanese tanṭūr, a tall silver cylinder worn by Druze women on the head, from which a veil fell. Certain items became politically volatile due to historical circumstances. The fez (ṭarbūsh) a red brimless hat worn by men, symbolized the Ottoman Empire as well as the status of being an effendi, a gentleman, or a white-collar worker, distinguishing one from a peasant. Kemal Atatürk objected to the fez and required Turkish men to adopt a brimmed hat in order to stress Turkey's European and modern outlook, although brimmed hats interfered with prayer. Elsewhere, the fez became associated with the ancient règime and disappeared about mid-century. Various political parties adopted uniforms for their youth leagues in the 1930s, including the green shirts of Miṣr Fatāt and blue shirts of the Wafdists, and gray for the Chemises de Fer in Syria. Militarist or nationalist uniforms were adopted by combatants in the Lebanese civil war as well.

Another powerful symbol was the male head cloth, the kaffīyah, rooted in tradition, and now expressing antipathy to Zionist policy as well as its more prosaic functions. The Nablus women's association wore the checkered kaffīyah in their fund-raising drives in the 1920s. It was worn by the fighters of the 1930s and during the general strike of 1936–1937, and is now worn around the neck by anti-Zionist Israelis and fashionable Westerners of both sexes, as well as Palestinians. In this case, political symbolism crosses religious and national boundaries.The Israeli state forbade the wearing of the colors of the Palestinian flag, thus promoting the production of items in red, black, green, and white. Traditional Palestinian dresses and embroidery techniques were also worn and made both for income-generating projects and to promote national feeling.

Islamic dress may express opposition to a particular regime, or reflect membership in an Islamist association. It may be an ethnic symbol as well as a political one, as in Malaysia, where Islamic dress clearly designates Malays from Chinese or Indian Malaysians. But the meaning of Islamic dress depends on the context. In France, the headscarf was prohibited in public schools. The Turkish state made the wearing of the headscarf in the public sector illegal, specifically labeling it a political symbol. Women demonstrated in response and have continued to wear the headscarf. Islamic dress was required of female citizens in Iran and thus it represents acquiescence to or fear of the regime. Before the arrests of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, some women feared that the party would legally impose the ḥijāb along with other portions of sharīʿah once they achieved a majority.

See also Burqa; Chador; and HIJāB.


  • Besancenot, Jean. Costumes of Morocco. Translated by Caroline Stone. London, 1990. Elaborate handpainted illustrations of dress worn circa 1934, showing rural/urban, Berber/Arab, and Muslim/Jewish contrasts. Text overemphasizes the biblical past, and neglects Pan-Arab, Pan-Islamic, and pan-nomadic features of dress.
  • Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-. Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Vols. 1, 2, and 7. Translated by M. M. Khan. Chicago, 1977. Ḥadīth collection containing information about dress during prayer, pilgrimage, and shrouding. See the “Book of Dress” in volume 7.
  • El Guindi, Fadwa. “Veiling Infitah with Muslim Ethic.”Social Problems28, no. 4(1981): 465–485. Links the spread of Islamic dress with a reaction to Sadat's Open Door Policy and a quest for a newly relevant Muslim morality in Egypt.
  • Fenerci Mehmed. Osmanlı Kiyafetleri. Edited by Ilhami Turan. Istanbul, 1986. Text in Turkish accompanies color plates of Ottoman costume dating back to the eighteenth century and representing various occupations, ranks, and regional origins. Source is helpful in investigation of Ottoman features of dress that continue into later periods.
  • Graham-Brown, Sarah. Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860–1950. New York, 1988. Important photographic documentation. Includes sections on women and nationalism, entertainment, in families, politics, and as objects of the European gaze.
  • Huisman, Kimberly and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. “Dress Matters: Change and Continuity in the Dress Practices of Bosnian Muslim Refugee Women”Gender and Society19 (Feb 2005): 44–65.
  • Lane, Edward W.Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. The Hague, 1978. Contains information about Muslim clothing in the nineteenth century and detailed semi-mechanical drawings.
  • Macleod, Arlene Elowe. Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling and Change in Cairo. New York, 1991. Study of lower middle-class working women in Cairo and the social and economic reasons for their adoption of the ḥijāb.
  • Olson, Emelie A.“Muslim Identity and Secularism in Contemporary Turkey: ‘The Headscarf Dispute.’ ”Anthropological Quarterly58, no. 4 (October 1985): 161–171.
  • Ross, Heather Colyer. The Art of Saudi Arabian Costume. 2nd ed.Fribourg, 1998. The most complete illustrated source on Arabian dress, including text, pattern information, photographs, and drawings.
  • Rugh, Andrea. Reveal and Conceal: Dress in Contemporary Egypt. Syracuse, N.Y., 1986. Identifies many dress styles from a wide geographic and social range, with important commentary regarding the significance of dress features.
  • Scarce, Jennifer. Women's Costume of the Near and Middle East. 2d ed.London, 2003. Wide coverage of dress, chronologically and regionally, with an emphasis on the medieval period. Contains photographic reproductions and examples of garments in art.
  • Shadid W. and P. S. van Koningsveld. “Muslim Dress in Europe: Debates on the Headscarf.”Journal of Islamic Studies16, no. 1 (2005): 35–61.
  • Stillman, Yedida Kalfon. Arab Dress: A Short History from the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times. 2d ed.Leiden, 2003.
  • Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qurʿan, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York and Oxford, 1994.
  • Weir, Shelagh. Palestinian Costume. Austin, Tex., 1989. Covers construction, historical origin, social significance, textile and embroidery techniques, and includes photographic illustrations.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Historical and current debates over gender issues, and the meaning of Islamic dress according to Islamist theorists, students, working women, and housewives.
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