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The previous readings have drawn attention to the limitations of the terms ‘veil’, ‘Muslim clothing’ or ‘Islamic dress’. Figure 2 illustrates some of the terminology that has been used to describe different styles of veiling adopted by Muslim women and shows some examples of these styles. However, when considering such images, we should bear in mind that the distinction between different styles of veiling is often fluid and that many Muslim women choose not to wear a veil at all. Furthermore, all of the styles pictured have many different variations and come in a myriad different colours and shapes. The use of these terms can also vary in different regional contexts, or among different social groups. Finally, you will find that, because these words are derived from other languages, they are sometimes spelled differently in English. On the following pages, this terminology will be explored in some further depth and detail.

Described image
Figure 2  Terminology of veiling
  • Abaya is an Arabic term for a long, loose outer garment. Abayas are worn by both men and women.
  • Burqa is an Arabic term for a loose-fitting garment (or a combination of different garments worn together) covering the head, face and body, and sometimes – though not always – the eyes.
  • Chador is a Persian term for a full-body-length cloak that covers the hair and body. It is open at the front and is held together by the wearer’s hands or tucked under her arms.
  • Hijab is an Arabic term that is mentioned in the Qur’an, where it refers to a curtain, separating spaces. It is frequently used nowadays as an umbrella term to refer to Muslim clothing in general. However, particularly in the European and North American context, it is often used to refer to headscarves worn by Muslim women that cover the hair and neck, but leave the face free. The different uses of this term are further explored below.
  • Jilbab is an Arabic term for a long, loose outer garment, which is worn by both men and women. It is a term that is used in the Qur’an. The distinction between jilbab and abaya is not very clear-cut, as both can take many forms, but jilbabs are usually closed at the front, while abayas tend to be open, but can be pulled together.
  • Khimar is an Arabic term for a veil that covers the hair, neck and shoulders, but not the face. It is a term that is mentioned in the Qur’an.
  • Niqab is an Arabic term describing a face-veil that covers the lower half of the face, but leaves the area around the eyes clear. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf, and sometimes with a separate veil covering the eyes.

As noted above, the term hijab is often associated with a particular style of veiling: a headscarf covering the hair and neck. While the word is generally used in this way, particularly in the European and North American context, it is important to bear in mind that it also refers to concepts of covering and modest clothing, and to abstract notions of privacy or morality in a wider sense. Faegheh Shirazi, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies, summarises the different meanings of the concept of hijab as follows:

The morphology of the word hijab in the Arabic language is from hajaba, meaning to veil, cover, screen, shelter, seclude (from); to hide, obscure (from sight); to eclipse, outshine, overshadow; to make imperceptible, invisible; to conceal (from); to make or form a separation (between). As evident from the wealth of meanings of the term hijab, we can conclude that the word hijab can be understood in numerous ways depending on a given situation based on culture. Generally in popular Islamic culture, hijab is understood in two specific forms: 1) concealment donned by women as a religious obligation mentioned in the holy Qur’an with its various stylistic interpretations, and 2) as practiced or understood by Muslim women in various societies. In this regard, one finds variations in styles of veils adopted by women within the same culture. Thus we can not claim there is a ‘uniform’ style of hijab that is common among women in Islamic cultures.

(2000, p. 115)

In Asia, the term pardah (or purdah) is often used in a similar context, though it is not restricted to Muslim women:

The term comes from the Persian word, ‘parda’, meaning ‘curtain’. It initially referred to the hanging separating the women’s quarters in a house from men’s. Its meaning now covers a whole range of different ways of separating off female from male space, of ensuring that women do not come into contact with inappropriate men. These ways may be spatial, physical, behavioural and/or attitudinal: withdrawing into the women’s quarters, veiling, keeping eyes downcast, behaving in a modest way and so on (Kahn 1999). Purdah practices thus include, but are not restricted to, forms of dress.

(Suthren Hirst and Zavos, 2011, p. 213)

The terms used to describe different styles of veiling in Figure 2 can be interpreted in many different ways, and some of the distinctions between these styles cannot be clearly drawn. Just type ‘hijab’ or ‘burqa’ into an internet search engine (such as Google) and look for relevant images, and you will see the vast range of different styles, materials and colours that are shown in these images. It is also important to bear in mind that veils are not static or fixed items, but tend to be made from soft, flexible fabrics that can be fairly easily adjusted, straightened, folded up, lifted or pinned up, lowered down, pulled together or tucked in. This means that it can be relatively easy to shift between different styles of veiling in different social situations. The notion of a hijab or cover also often goes beyond a headcover and can relate to other pieces of clothing, such as a jilbab or abaya. As becomes apparent in the list of definitions above, there are a range of Arabic terms (such as jilbab, niqab, abaya, burqa, hijab and khimar) and Persian terms (such as chador) for these garments. These terms have been used in many different cultural, geographical and historical contexts, and preferences for their use vary in different contexts. Burqa is, for example, originally an Arabic word, but it is now very rarely used in countries where Arabic is spoken as a first language. Instead it is now predominantly used in Pakistan and Afghanistan (and in western European mainstream media and political debates). There are also different preferences between different generations. For instance, at the time of writing, younger generations in Pakistan tend to prefer the word hijab (as its use has recently become more widespread globally), but older generations often prefer chador (Bokhari, 2012; 2013). It has also been argued that approaches to veiling have often been influenced by local customs that are not directly related to Islamic traditions. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam maintains:

The practice [of wearing a hijab] was borrowed from elite women of the Byzantine, Greek, and Persian empires, where it was a sign of respectability and high status, during the Arab conquests of these empires. It gradually spread among urban populations, becoming more pervasive under Turkish rule as a mark of rank and exclusive lifestyle.

(‘Hijab’ in Esposito, 2003)

The existence of such a wide variety of different approaches to veiling within Islam is also due to the fact that there are different schools of thought among Muslim scholars as to how notions of ‘modesty’, ‘decency’ and ‘purity’ should be understood, and as to whether covered dress in public should be regarded as a religious duty and, if so, which parts of the body should be covered. There are also different views on the extent to which women’s covered dress serves to protect women from being molested by men, and on whether women need to cover themselves in order to protect men from temptation. However, it is important to note that modesty and freedom from vanity are ideals that apply to both Muslim men and women in Islamic thought, and that both Muslim men and women are expected to dress modestly in public (‘Modesty’ in Esposito, 2003).

Activity 4

Now read an extract from Women in Islam (2001) by Anne Sophie Roald, a historian of religion. This is Reading 3. In this text she lists the four different passages from the Qur’an that describe appropriate behaviours for men and women outside their immediate families and make reference to different types of covering or veiling. As you read the text, consider the following question:

What do the extracts quoted in the reading tell us about how Muslim women should dress in public?

Reading 3

Source: Roald, A.S. (2001) Women in Islam: The Western Experience, London/New York, Routledge, p. 255.

There are four passages in particular in the Koran which are regarded as dealing with behaviour between men and women who mix outside kinship bonds:

  1. Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of the chastity [guard their private parts]. This will be the most conducive to their purity. Verily, God is aware of what you do.

    And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity [guard their private parts], and to not display their adornment beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof. Let them draw their covering [khumur; sing. khimār] over their bosoms and let them not display their adornments to any but their husbands, or their fathers … Let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornments. O believers, turn unto God all of you so that you may succeed (K.24: 30–1).

  2. Women, advanced in years, who do not hope for marriage, incur no sin if they discard their garments (thiyābahunna), provided that they do not aim at a showy display of their charm. But it is better for them to abstain from this. God is All-hearing All-knowing (K.24: 60).

  3. O Prophet! Tell you wives and your daughters and the wives of the believers, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garment (jilbāb). That will be better, so that they will be recognised and not annoyed. God is ever Forgiving Merciful (K.33: 59)

  4. O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s dwellings unless you are given leave. … And [as for the Prophet’s wives] when you ask of them anything that you need, ask them from behind a curtain (hijāb). That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. You should not cause annoyance to the Messenger of God and you should not ever marry his wives after him. That would, in the sight of God, be an enormity (K.33: 53).

The first three Koranic passages above are directed towards women in general. The fourth passage deals with how men should behave towards the wives of the Prophet only.


In the extracts presented in Reading 3, women are told to ‘be mindful of their chastity [guard their private parts]’ (Q. 24: 30–1), ‘draw their covering [khumur; sing. khimār] over their bosoms’ (Q. 24: 30–1), refrain from publicly displaying ‘their adornments’ (Q. 24: 30–1) and from offering a ‘showy display of their charm’ (Q. 24: 60). They are advised to ‘draw over themselves some of their outer garment (jilbāb)’ (Q. 33: 59) in order to be recognised as Muslims and avoid harassment, though exemptions are made for older women (Q. 24: 60).

The extracts mention a number of terms you have encountered in this course before: khimar, jilbab and hijab. Khimar is translated as ‘covering’ and jilbab as ‘outer garment’. The concept of hijab is mentioned specifically in relation to interaction with the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, who should be addressed from behind a curtain (hijab).