The study of veiling practices and dress styles adopted by Muslims in different parts of the world gives us important insights into how religion is lived and translated into everyday practices. It has become apparent that there are many different and contested perspectives on veiling practices, both among Muslim women and in relation to them. Attitudes towards veiling do not only differ between and within different geographical regions and social groups, they have also changed considerably throughout history (not just within Islam). It is not unusual for different veiling (or indeed unveiling) practices to be adopted by different generations within the same family, or even by the same person at different stages in their lives or on different social occasions. There are multiple and complex reasons why Muslim women adopt different veiling practices. These practices can have very different meanings for different people in different social, political, cultural, geographical and historical contexts: ‘in one context [it] can be a radical gesture, in another a practical garment for protection and in another environment [it] can be a sign of orthodoxy’ (Maynard, 2004, p. 201).
Changes in veiling practices and in the meanings assigned to different styles of veiling can be related to a range of cultural, political and historical developments and to a number of contested religious interpretations of the concept of hijab. Though it is a controversial practice, it has a long tradition within Islam (and beyond), bearing in mind that styles and practices of veiling have changed considerably and have been interpreted in a wide range of different ways.
Muslim women and men across the world have found many different ways of negotiating and reconciling contested interpretations of the notion of hijab with complex and diverse social and cultural influences, pressures and expectations, legal constraints, practical challenges and the desire for creative expression. This has led to the development of a vast range of different styles of veiling that have been invested with multiple, complex and contested meanings. This great diversity makes it very difficult, or perhaps impossible, to ‘pin down’ or neatly define ‘Islamic’ veiling practices and to clearly distinguish ‘religious’ factors from other social, political and cultural factors that influence veiling practices. As Reina Lewis concludes in her preface to the book Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art:
if the secret imagined to lie behind the veil reveals one thing, it is that it cannot be contained within a single truth, experience or understanding. Instead, the veil emerges as a form of clothing that is rooted in specific historical moments and locations; its depiction is similarly contingent and its adoption, adaptation or rejection is always itself relational.