Equating the terms hijab and “veil” is a common error. “Veil” is an easy, familiar word used when referring to Arab women’s head, face, and body covers. Hijab is not the Arabic equivalent of veil—it is a complex and multilayered phenomenon.
“Veil” has no single word equivalent in Arabic. Instead many different terms refer to diverse articles of women’s and men’s clothing that vary by region, era, lifestyle, social stratum, stage in the life cycle, and gender. Adding to this complexity is the fact that some covers and wraps worn by both sexes have multiple usages and are manipulated flexibly to cover the face when socially required. For example, women use head covers or large sleeves to hide the face in ways that can communicate kinship, distance, or social stratum of a person they encounter. Men, as well, can use their head covers in the same way.
“Dress” is a more inclusive word and has an Arabic equivalent, libas, that in Arab-Islamic culture connotes meanings beyond material form and function. Libas extends conceptualization to notions of family and gender implying haven-shelter-sanctuary—a protective shield, as it were. Dress is integral to Islam’s sacred beginnings and explicit Qur’an references reveal a role for libas (dress) in Islam’s conceptualizations.
Dress in Arab and Islamic culture can be viewed in two ways: the traditional-secular dress (clothing adopted through customary practices over time without religious connotation) and religious dress (clothing forms justified or believed to be justified or prescribed by religious sources or authorities). The Christian example of the latter would be the nun’s habit. The Afghan burqa, the object of scrutiny and attack by some feminists preceding the Afghan invasion by the United States, exemplifies the traditional or secular form of dress. Hijab is the religious kind of cover in an Islamic context. The English word “veil” can apply to either secular or religious kind of cover. Hijab is more culturally specific than veil, but embodies multiple cultural levels of meaning and is better understood when embedded in wider sociocultural and sociopolitical contexts. Muslims use Qur’anic references to support their adoption of practices or in taking positions regarding related issues, and there are indeed some references to hijab in the Qur’an.
In the Qur’an (considered the primary and divinely revealed source), but mostly according to the Hadith (Prophetic Narrative, a secondary worldly source), evidence suggests that the Prophet Muhammad had paid much attention to dress style and manner for Muslims in the emerging community, gradually developing a dress code. There was a specific focus on Muslim men’s clothing and bodily modesty particularly during prayer, but reference to women’s body cover is negligible.
Within the Qur’an’s references to hijab, only one concerns women’s clothing. Muslim men and women who argue in the early 2000s for the Islamic dress and behavioral code usually cite two chapters in support of modesty for women and for an Islamic basis for wearing the hijab.
As Islam gradually established itself in the Madina community, after it had been chased out of its place of origin in Makka, the interpretation of “seclusion” for Muhammad’s wives originated from sura (chapter) 33, ayah (verse) 53 in which hijab is mentioned:
O believers, enter not the dwellings of the Prophet, unless invited. . . . And when you ask of his wives anything, ask from behind a hijab. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. (33:53)
Evidence suggests that this sura is ultimately about privacy of the Prophet’s home and family and the special status of his wives in two ways—as Prophet’s wives and as leaders with access to Islamic information and wisdom who are increasingly sought by community members. There was a need to protect their privacy by regulating the flow of visitors and the comportment of the men who entered upon the women’s quarters. Here “hijab” refers not to women’s clothing, but to its use as partition or curtain to provide privacy for women.
Sura al-Ahzab (33), ayah 59 enjoins the Prophet’s wives, daughters, and all Muslim women to don their jilbab for easy recognition and protection from molestation or harassment:
O Prophet tell your wives, daughters and believing women to put on their jilbabs so they are recognized and thus not harmed (33:59).
Jilbab refers to a long, loose shirtdress, and does not connote head or face cover. This verse distinguishes the status of the Prophet’s wives from the rest of the believers, and the other (33:53) protects their privacy from growing intrusions by male visitors.
Sura 24 refers to khimar (head cover) in the general context of public behavior and comportment by both sexes. In it ayah 31 (24:31) has been widely cited in scholarly works, often in isolation from the rest of the verse, distorting the meaning, implying that women are singled out for “reserve” and “restraint.” Preceding it, ayah 30 addresses men first:
Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and conceal their genitals; for that is purer for them, God knoweth what they do.
Ayah 31 follows, continuing the same theme:
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and conceal their genitals, and not reveal their beauty, except what does show, and to draw their khimar over their bosoms, and not to reveal their beauty except to … etc. (emphasis added).
Evidence from the usage of hijab in the Qur’an, from early Islamic discourse, and subjected to anthropological analysis, supports the notion of hijab as referring to a sacred divide or separation between two worlds or two spaces: deity and mortals, good and evil, light and dark, believers and nonbelievers, or aristocracy and commoners. The phrase “miw wara’ al-hijab” (from behind the hijab) emphasizes the element of separation and partition.
When referring to women’s clothing, the terms often used are jilbab (long, loose-fitting shirtdress) and khimar (head cover). Neither hijab nor niqab are mentioned. Niqab and lithma are terms that unambiguously refer to face cover. Hijab, which only refers to head (shoulder) cover and to the general Islamic attire, is not mentioned in these two suras either. In other references to comportment and modest way of dressing appropriate to the new status of the Prophet’s wives, hijab is not mentioned either. When it is used in other suras, the word conveys more the sense of separation than veiling or covering.
The Qur’an and the contemporary Islamic movement make clear that Muslim men and women are to carry themselves in public with a sense of reserve and restraint. Exhibitionist public comportment, through behavior, dress, voice, or body movement, is frowned upon, and becomes associated with Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic era) that is not confined to a historical moment, but rather becomes a state and a condition of society that can occur at any time when social and moral controls are abandoned. But overall the contemporary movement is not simply about clothing but about a renewal of a cultural identity and traditional ideals and values.
Etymology and Meaning
The cultural and linguistic roots of “hijab” are integral to Islamic (and Arab) culture. “Hijab” translates as cover, wrap, curtain, veil, screen, partition. The same word is used to refer to amulets carried on one’s person (particularly for children or persons in a vulnerable state) to protect against harm.
By the nineteenth century, upper-class urban Muslim and Christian women in Egypt wore the habarah, 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. When veiling entered feminist nationalist discourse during British colonial occupation, “hijab” was the term used by feminists and nationalists and secularists. The phrase used for the removal of urban women’s face and head cover was raf (lifting) al-hijab (not al-habarah: the term used for cloak or veil among upper-class Egyptian women up to the early 1900s).
Three Arab Feminisms
Muslim and Christian women of the upper and middle classes described the Egyptian feminist movement at the turn of the century as a secular movement. Some observers linked European colonialism and feminism, distinguishing two feminist trajectories: a Westward-looking feminism and a more local one. In neither form have women made veiling or unveiling the central issue. Rather, some prominent men advocated feminist programs and called for reform centering on women’s veiling. Removing the veil was not part of the official feminist agenda of the Egyptian Feminist Union. Importantly, when the most prominent Arab feminist, Huda Sha’rawi, “lifted the hijab” as the famous public gesture came to be described, she had only removed the face cover (burqa or yashmik), which was worn by upper-class women at the turn of the century, but kept the head covering. Technically, therefore, Huda Sha’rawi never “lifted the hijab,” since “hijab” refers broadly to the whole attire, but more commonly to the head covering. Some attribute her success in feminist nationalist leadership, compared with other contemporaries, to the fact that she had respect for the traditional attire. In her memoirs she mentions being congratulated for “my success in . . . lifting the hijab . . . but wearing the hijab shar’i (lawful or Islamic hijab)” (Sha’rawi 1981, p. 291). This distinction is important and assumes special significance because the other prominent feminist, Malak Hifni Nasif, opposed mandatory unveiling for women. Her agenda in early 1900 stressed two elements absent in Sha’rawi’s feminist agenda: the opening of all fields of higher education to women and demanding space accommodation for public prayer by women in mosques. These local elements contrast to French-influenced agendas by other feminists. A third movement developed through the seeds sown since 1908 calling for the importance of Islam and the wearing of the hijab, formed under the initiative of Zaynab al-Ghazali in the 1970s espousing Islamic ideals and supporting family values. None of the three feminisms espoused calling for abandoning the hijab.
Beginning in the 1970s in Egypt an Islamic movement emerged. The Islamic movement reasserted a cultural historical identity and stood for resisting hegemonic colonial occupation. It centered initially on youth and college-level young adults and broadened across generations and social strata and spread throughout the region. The public appearance of an innovative form of dress for men and women without exact historical precedent characterized the movement. This new style was not a return to any traditional dress form, and had no tangible model to emulate, and no industry behind it—not one store in Egypt carried the new garb in the 1970s. In the early 2000s there are many stores that sell this outfit throughout the region, on the Internet, in Europe, and in the United States. The dress was referred to as “the Islamic dress,” in Arabic called al-ziyy al-lslami or al-ziyy al-Shar’i, or more commonly al-hijab.
This new fashion seemed incomprehensible and bewildering to observers. The strong, visible appearance of young Egyptian women going to college dressed in a manner unfamiliar to their own parents, completely “veiled” from head to toe, sometimes covering the face and hands as well, disturbed many. Some young women had switched almost overnight from wearing sleeveless dresses and miniskirts to becoming a “veiled” doctor, engineer, or pharmacist. Confused observers speculated about the cause. Was it an identity crisis, a version of America’s hippie movement, a fad, a youth protest, an ideological vacuum, an individual psychic disturbance, a life-crisis, a social dislocation, or protest against authority?
The contemporary dress code translates materially this way: men and women wear full-length gallabiyyas, loose-fitting to conceal body form, in solid or otherwise austere colors made out of opaque fabric. The wearers lower their gaze in cross-sex public encounters and refrain from body or dress adornment that draws attention to their bodies. The dress code for men consists of sandals, baggy trousers with loose-top shirts in off-white or, alternatively (and preferably) a long, loose white gallabiyya and a white or red-checkered kufiyya. They grew a lihya (full beard trimmed short). Women wear the hijab, which consists of al-jilbab (ankle-length, long-sleeved, loose-fitted dress) and al-khimar, a head covering that covers the hair and extends low to the forehead, comes under the chin to conceal the neck and falls down over the chest and back. During the first decade of the movement, women wore solid colors such as beige, brown, navy, burgundy, or black. The muhajjabat (women wearing hijab) engaged fully in daily affairs and public life. That is, austerity in dress and reserve in public behavior are not accompanied by withdrawal or seclusion and neither communicates deference nor sexual shame. Modern hijab is about sanctity, reserve, and privacy.
Colonialism and Resistance
The role of the veil in liberating Algeria from French colonial occupation is popularly known. When the French landed in Algeria in 1830 most inhabitants were Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, with a large Berber population that was by then bilingual Berber Arabic speaking. Administratively, Algeria was a France populated by “the Muslims”—a majority of second-class citizens. France began a gallicization process on many fronts: French law was imposed on Islamic law, French social plan was imposed on local custom, French education substituted for Arab education, and the French language replaced Arabic. Many Algerians were excluded from education altogether. The French conquest of Algeria represented a deformation of the social, moral, legal, and cultural order. Economically the French monopolized the best land and the top jobs, exploited labor, harnessed local energies, and cultivated crops for French consumption (grapes for wine) while violating Islamic morality. Another strategy was to assimilate upper-class Algerians by gallicizing the woman and uprooting her from her culture. The target of the colonial strategy became to persuade the Muslim woman to unveil. Thus, Arabs and Muslims often link the deveiling of Muslim women with a colonial strategy to undermine and destroy their culture. The effect was the opposite: it strengthened the attachment to the veil as a national and cultural symbol, and gave it a new vitality.
Since 1948 Palestinian women who were uprooted from their homeland, particularly the older ones, wore a dress and head covering that communicated their rural origins and their contemporary status in refugee camps. After the 1967 Six-Day War, women wore white or black shawls (shasha) and had no access to their traditional fabrics and tools to embroider their clothing. In the late 1970s, as militant Islamic consciousness began to arise, Palestinians attempted to restore the hijab. Women affiliated with the movement began wearing long, tailored overcoats and head covers now known as shari’a or Islamic dress. As in Egypt, the Islamic dress had no precedent in indigenous Palestinian sartorial history, but is an innovative tradition in form and meaning.
The hijab worn by Muslim women in Arab, Muslim, European, or United States society is largely about identity, about privacy of space and body. In specific social settings, veiling communicates exclusivity of rank and nuances in kinship, status, and behavior and also symbolizes an element of power and autonomy and functions as a vehicle for resistance.
Hijab in the early twenty-first century is politically charged in France and Belgium, countries that are taking measures to ban the wearing of headscarves (hijab) to schools purportedly for maintaining the integrity of secularism, but the issue is considered to be fraught with anti-Islamic implications. To many young women the hijab represents an identity of choice and a freedom of expression they do not want to lose.
Sha’rawi, 1 luda. Huda Sharawi: Muthakkirat Ta’idat al-Mar’a al-Arabiyya al-Hadith (Memoirs of Huda Shawari, Leader of Modern Arab Women). Introduction by Amina al-Said. Kitab al-Hilal, Silsial Shahriyya. Cairo: Dar al-Hillal, 1981. In Arabic.