All about Islamic clothing

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Muslim women by Islamic dress code, wearing hijab and niqab

The Arabic word hijab has a literal translation into the word “veil”. Adherents of Islam believe that it was originally implemented by Allah in order to secure Mohammed’s privacy and create a distinction between the public and private spheres of his life. The word hijab applied to both men and women in terms of protecting both their private lives from outsiders and to protect one's own honor, not in specific relation to one's sexual activity or desires.

Muslims are concerned with clothing in two contexts: clothing for everyday wear, inside and outside the house; and clothing required in specifically religious contexts.

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say that the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.

—Sura 24 (An-Nur), ayat 30-31, Qur'an

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them. That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not harassed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.

—Sura 33 (Al-Ahzab), ayah 59, Qur'an

However, there are many different interpretations of what "modesty" requires. The Quran admonishes Muslim women to dress modestly and cover their breasts and genitals. The Quran explicitly states that "O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women" (Quran 33: 32) and as such has separate rules specifically for the wives of the Prophet. However, many people often mistake it for rules for all Muslim women. The Quran has no requirement that women cover their faces with a veil, or cover their bodies with the full-body burqua or chador. The Qur'an does not mandate or mention Hijab.

The veil re-emerged as a topic of conversation in the 1990s when there was concern regarding potential western infiltration of Muslim practices in Islamic countries. The veil had a new purpose of shielding Muslim women from western influence. There were several religious leaders that reinforced that an additional purpose of the hijab was to protect the Islamic people and customs.


Islamic dress in Europe, notably the variety of headdresses worn by Muslim women, has become a prominent symbol of the presence of Islam in western Europe. In several countries the adherence to hijab (an Arabic noun meaning "to cover") has led to political controversies and proposals for a legal ban. The Netherlands government has decided to introduce a ban on face-covering clothing, popularly described as the "burqa ban", although it does not only apply to the Afghan-model burqa. Other countries, such as France are debating similar legislation, or have more limited prohibitions. Some of them apply only to face-covering clothing such as the burqa, chador, boushiya, or niqab; some apply to any clothing with an Islamic religious symbolism such as the khimar, a type of headscarf (some countries already have laws banning the wearing of masks in public, which can be applied to veils that conceal the face). The issue has different names in different countries, and "the veil" or "hijab" may be used as general terms for the debate, representing more than just the veil itself, or the concept of modesty embodied in hijab.

Although the Balkans and Eastern Europe have indigenous Muslim populations, most Muslims in western Europe are members of immigrant communities. The issue of Islamic dress is linked with issues of immigration and the position of Islam in western society. European Commissioner Franco Frattini said in November 2006, that he did not favour a ban on the burqa. This is apparently the first official statement on the issue of prohibition of Islamic dress from the European Commission, the executive of the European Union. The reasons given for prohibition vary. Legal bans on face-covering clothing are often justified on security grounds, as an anti-terrorism measure.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali sees Islam as incompatible with Western values, at least in its present form. She advocates the values of 'Enlightenment liberalism', including secularism and equality of women. For her, the burqa or chador are both a symbol of religious obscurantism and the oppression of women. Western Enlightenment values, in her view, require prohibition, regardless of whether a woman has freely chosen Islamic dress. Islamic dress is also seen as a symbol of the existence of parallel societies, and the failure of integration: in 2006 British Prime Minister Tony Blair described it as a "mark of separation". Visible symbols of a non-Christian culture conflict with the national identity in European states, which assumes a shared (non-religious) culture. Proposals for a ban may be linked to other related cultural prohibitions: the Dutch politician Geert Wilders proposed a ban on hijabs, in Islamic schools, in new mosques, and in non-western immigration.

In France and Turkey, the emphasis is on the secular nature of the state, and the symbolic nature of the Islamic dress, and bans apply at state institutions (courts, civil service) and in state-funded education. These bans also cover Islamic headscarves, which in some other countries are seen as less controversial, although law court staff in the Netherlands are also forbidden to wear Islamic headscarves on grounds of 'state neutrality'. An apparently less politicised argument is that in specific professions (teaching), a ban on "veils" (niqab) is justified, since face-to-face communication and eye contact is required. This argument has featured prominently in judgements in Britain and the Netherlands, after students or teachers were banned from wearing face-covering clothing. Public and political response to such prohibition proposals is complex, since by definition they mean that the government decides on individual clothing. Some non-Muslims, who would not be affected by a ban, see it as an issue of civil liberties, as a slippery slope leading to further restrictions on private life. A public opinion poll in London showed that 75 percent of Londoners support "the right of all persons to dress in accordance with their religious beliefs". In another poll in the United Kingdom by Ipsos MORI, 61 percent agreed that "Muslim women are segregating themselves" by wearing a veil, yet 77 percent thought they should have the right to wear it.


Female art students in Afghanistan.

Hijab-wearing Bangladeshi women shopping at a department store in Comilla, Bangladesh.

The hijab has different legal and cultural statuses in various countries. There are currently four countries, including France (since 2004), which have banned the wearing of all overt religious symbols, including the hijab (a Muslim headscarf, literally Arabic "to cover"), in public schools and universities or government buildings.

In April 2011, France became the first European nation to ban the public use of veils, both face-covering niqabs and full-body burqas. The law was passed unanimously asserting that face-covering Muslim veils are contrary to the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity on which France is founded. Sharp criticism had accompanied France's nearly year-long debate on banning burqa-style veils, with those opposed saying, among other things, that the entire process has stigmatized the nation's estimated 5 million Muslims – the largest Muslim population in western Europe. They also claim it is a political ploy because only an estimated 1,900 women wear veils that hide the face. A 2004 law also bans Muslim hijab headscarves and other prominent religious symbols from being worn in state schools, but does not apply in universities.

Turkish women who want to wear the hijab – the traditional Islamic headscarf covering the head and hair, but not the face – to civil service jobs and government offices will be able to do so now that the Turkish government has relaxed its decades-long restriction on wearing the headscarf in state institutions. The new rules, which don’t apply to workers in the military or judiciary, came into effect in 2013, and were put into place to address concerns that the restrictions on hijab were discouraging women from conservative backgrounds from seeking government jobs or higher education. "A dark time eventually comes to an end," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech to the parliament. "Headscarf-wearing women are full members of the republic, as well as those who do not wear it."

In 2011, Syrian President Bashar Assad reversed a decision that bans teachers from wearing the niqab. The move was seen as an attempt to appease religious conservatives in the Sunni majority as he faced down the uprising challenging his authoritarian rule. The government had banned the veil in July 2010. Syria was the latest in a string of nations from Europe to the Middle East to weigh in on the veil, perhaps the most visible symbol of conservative Islam.

In Pakistan, the topic of the hijab is extraordinarily controversial. The veil is constantly a topic of debate and has been for decades now. The Pew Research Centre gathered information on several countries, including Pakistan, and came back with results on how people’s perceptions of the veil differ across the world: “In Pakistan, there is an even split (31% vs. 32%) between woman #3 and woman #2, who is wearing a niqab that exposes only her eyes, while nearly a quarter (24%) choose woman #4.” The results show that there is still a lot of debate about what type of dress women perceive to be most appropriate, and it seems that the debate will continue to go on for many years to come.

On January 8, 2014, the PewResearchCenter conducted a survey of Muslim women in various countries. An overwhelming eighty-nine percent of Egyptian women who responded to the survey believed that women should show their face in public. Ten percent of the survey participants believed that women should be fully veiled when in public. Compared to other countries, Egypt is not as conservative as others, but only fourteen percent of the women surveyed believed that Egyptian women should be able to choose their own clothing. Compared to six other countries, Egypt was last in this category; the statistic (eighty-four percent) suggests that Egyptian women, in general, do not believe that women should have freedom to choose their clothing.

Egyptian store keeper in Cairo wearing a hijab.

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is one of the few Muslim countries in which women are forced to cover in most parts of the country. While opinion surveys in Saudi Arabia suggests a strong belief that women should be covered, paradoxically there is also a strong belief that women should have the right to choose what they wear.

A survey done in 2011 by the Pew Research Centre asked women of different Muslim countries to choose which of several dresses they think are most appropriate for their country. Among Saudi women, 11% of women said a fully headed burqa is most appropriate, 63% of women said the niqab that only exposes the eyes is appropriate, only 8% said a black hijab covering the hair and ears is appropriate, 10% said a less conservative white hijab covering the hair and ears is appropriate, a small 5% said an even less conservative hijab that is brown and shows some hair is appropriate and a mere 3% said not wearing any covering was appropriate. The niqab is the dress that the highest percent of Saudi women felt was appropriate dress for women in Saudi Arabia. In accordance with these statistics, the Saudi woman that is used in the video, cited above, to show the popular view of Saudi women was wearing this niqab that only exposed her eyes.

Saudi journalist Sabria S. Jawhar wearing the hijab

During regular, day-to-day activities, Somali women usually wear the guntiino, a long stretch of cloth tied over the shoulder and draped around the waist. In more formal settings such as weddings or religious celebrations like Eid, women wear the dirac, which is a long, light, diaphanous voile dress made of cotton or polyester that is worn over a full-length half-slip and a brassiere. Married women tend to sport head-scarves referred to as shash, and also often cover their upper body with a shawl known as garbasaar. Unmarried or young women, however, do not always cover their heads. Traditional Arabian garb such as the hijab and the jilbab is also commonly worn.

Young Somali women wearing the hijab


The ban on the hijab and niqab has prompted several violent incidents by Muslims. In June of 2013 riots ensued in the suburbs of Paris where several cars were set alight and many protesters detained due to the ban on the veil. French Police were also attacked after arrests were made.


United States
Sources indicate that veiling has become a recently increasing phenomenon in the United States and the Western world. Due to its prevalence, the hijab and other forms of Islamic dress are a source of discussion and controversy amongst Western governments. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy banned the use of the burqa, an enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions to cover their bodies when in public, as he deemed it a form of enslavement. On the contrary, President Barack Obama in response to Sarkozy's actions said that all western countries should avoid dictating what women ought to wear. In a press conference he said: “Our basic attitude [in America] is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear”. Sarkozy offered his support for the rights of Muslim women and argued that his laws would preserve their liberties by preventing others from forcing them to wear clothing such as the burqa or hijab. He said that wearing a “head scarf” is permitted only if women are wearing it on their own accord.

Despite Obama's and the United States government’s apparently tolerant stance on Islamic dress, there exist many negative stereotypes concerning the hijab in America. American Muslims have complained that the hijab is loaded with negative connotations. In the West, many have viewed the hijab as a symbol of oppression, subjugation, repression, and the allegiance to fundamentalist beliefs which are imposed under Sharia law.

A woman in the Christian Science Monitor offered her own anecdote. She referred to a time when she was taking the subway to school and scared the woman sitting next to her to the point that she exited the subway car. Another woman told CNN that she has been referred to as a terrorist or a nun, and has often been asked if she is allergic to the sun. Along with arousing suspicion amongst American citizens, many wearers of the hijab have been criticized by fellow Muslims such as their parents who are often befuddled by their choice to continue following Islamic cultural traditions while in the United States.

The women who choose to wear religious clothing such as the hijab hold divergent opinions concerning their decisions and the ensuing response from the American community. Some refer to wearing the hijab as being “locked in a cage” while others view it as an expression of personal freedom. Many talk of it negatively and cite instances of social angst, such as the inability to effectively establish relationships with men, and discuss how these sorts of issues have caused them to ultimately stop wearing religious garments. On the contrary, many women do not want the pity of their fellow citizens and wish to have it known that they do not wear the hijab out of submission; instead, they view it as a symbol of beauty that offers them a sense of identity and allows for the exploration of their religious faith. The New York Times published a flip-book of illuminating photographs of Muslim women dressed in different levels of modesty.

In 2011, the Canadian government made it illegal for women to wear face-covering garments at citizenship ceremonies, because the judge must be able to see each person's face reciting their oath. In 2012, the Supreme Court issued a rare split decision on whether women could cover their faces on the witness stand. Four judges said it depended on the circumstances, two said witnesses should never cover their face, and one said a Muslim witness should never be ordered to remove her veil. Canada is considering a wider ban on veils in government offices, schools, and hospitals. The provincial government of French-speaking Quebec this year has proposed a law that would outlaw all religious regalia — including Muslim scarves and veils, turbans, Jewish skullcaps and Christian crucifixes — from state buildings.

South America
Muslims have struggled in South America since the 15th century; they were often treated as slaves and forced to abandon their religious beliefs and were sometimes even executed. Like many other places around the world, the hijab was misinterpreted in South America which lead to the perpetuation of stereotypes. Specific South American countries and their perceptions of the veil are discussed below.

Argentina has proven to be a country that has given more freedom to its Muslim population relative to the more oppressive governments that exist. In 2011 Argentinian President Cristina Fernández pushed for legislation which allowed for Muslim women to wear hijab in public places. According to the new law Argentine Muslim women can wear a hijab while being photographed for their national id cards. The law was created in order to help promote freedom of religion and expression in the country, and help the 2% of the Argentine population that is Muslim feel more integrated into society. In the early 2000s, in Palermo, Argentina, the largest mosque in South America was built. The creation of the King Fahd Center is a major event for Argentine Muslims, whose Estimates put the community at some 700,000, most of whom are descendants of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who came to Argentina from 1850 onwards.

Chile, like Argentina, has a minority Muslim population. Fuad Mussa, the President of the Islamic Cultural Centre, is quoted as saying that “there is a general ignorance among Chileans about Islam. This was after a Chilean citizen was refused service at a bank because of her Hijab in 2010, and would not be served until she removed her Hijab.


There are many differing views of Muslim women regarding the hijab. Some women believe that the hijab is too constraining and accept other Muslim women's donning of the garment, whereas other women are against both themselves and other women wearing the hijab due to its oppressive nature. On the other hand, some women embrace the hijab as a way to celebrate their religion and feel that it helps them maintain their intellectuality rather than becoming a sex object in society, and do not understand why other Muslim women do not wear the hijab. Other Muslim women wear the hijab because it has been part of their family tradition, and they do not want to give up something that is sacred to their family. There are women that wear the hijab that do not judge those that do not and believe it is in all Muslim women's best interest to choose for themselves regarding whether they will don the veil or not. The subject is complex and layered, and below are a few anecdotes to provide real Muslim women's experiences with the hijab and their views.

Muslim women do not necessarily view the hijab as oppressive garment that is forced upon them as many westerners believe. Syima Aslam, a Muslim businesswoman from England, feels a special place for the hijab in her heart and feels that it directly connects her to Islam. Although she garners some disdain and disapproval of her choice to wear the hijab from some business partners, she stands firmly by her choice to don the hijab. Another young woman by the name of Rowaida Abdelaziz explains that the hijab is something that she has decided to wear herself and she "does not wear it because [she] is submissive". Another young woman by the name of Sarah Hekmati says that the hijab gives her a sense of freedom and that she likes the idea that a man should know a woman through her intellectual prowess rather than her looks. In her book, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?,” Abu-Lughod mentions a former Muslim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote an autobiography titled Infidel. Hirsi Ali writes about the positive experience she has had living as Muslim and wearing the black garments and veil. Hirsi Ali says, “‘It [the Islamic dress] had a thrill to it, a sensuous feeling. It made me feel empowered…I was unique […]. […] it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority […]'". Hirsi Ali is among those who support the hijab. When she wore the veil she did not feel oppressed, but instead empowered and individualized. There seems to be a trend of modern Muslim women standing up for their right to wear the hijab and a desire to show pride for Islam and to show their devotion to Islam in wearing the hijab, and expressing their positive sentiments regarding the hijab in the media.

Hana Tajima, a Muslim fashion icon in her interview with Vision (Magazine) says that fashion-conscious Muslims are proving that you can be cool and modest, stylish and individual without compromising faith. She started her own fashion label Maysaa two years ago, and blogs about her far-reaching influences and inspirations. Twenty-six-year-old Tajima epitomises the new Muslim hipster, glamorous yet edgy, elegant yet quirky. The trend straddles the big cities of the world from London’s Dalston to New York’s Williamsburg - or the glitz of Dubai.

There are some Muslim women that believe that the hijab indeed hinders their personal freedom as a woman. One British Muslim woman by the name of Saira Khan believes that the hijab is oppressive tool that “alienates women under the guise of religious freedom”. Saira Khan is so against the hijab that she wants the garment to be completely banned from the UK. She further claims that the one time she had to wear the burkha during an interview she felt constrained against her will. Another Muslim woman by the name of Rasmieyh Abdelnabi explains that she decided to stop wearing the hijab because she felt that it was putting too much pressure on her to “represent an entire community”. She further explains that she feels that hijab is not representative of Islam but more so of the Arab culture. Another belief of some women that wear the hijab is that it could potentially “strip them of their individuality” and turn them into a figurehead for their religion. Some women do not want to have to deal with this on a daily basis, and it is another reason that some Muslim women decided to un-veil themselves. In an article written in September 2013, Nesrine Malike explains her discontent with being forced to wear the niqab, a kind of dress that only exposes the eyes, her whole life. Malike says, “I would rather no one wore a niqab. I would rather that no woman had effectively to disappear, from a young age, because that is the norm in her family. […] I would rather that Islam be purged of the niqab and all its permutations.” Malike is among the Muslim women who feel as though the act of veiling hides women; she would like to ban the niqab from Islam.

A recent incident in Germany reflects the extent of the issue on an international scale: “An administrative court in the southern German city of Munich has banned a female Muslim student from wearing a facial veil in class.” Although Germany does not have an official ban on the hijab, according to the nation’s highest courts federal states have permission to ban Muslim state employees wearing clothing they deem inappropriate. This rule leaves flexibility for German legislators to essentially make their own rules concerning clothing/dress in the country.

Iran is another country with strict rules on the hijab, and many women feel pressured from the government to dress in a certain style. One Iranian woman decided to protest the Iranian regime through her own artistic display.


Contemporarily, Muslim women still struggle against stereotypes of dress. Every day it is a challenge for women to be accepted for who they are and how they want to dress, no matter what country they are living in. People across the world cannot help themselves, and constantly judge Muslim women for their dress. Some Muslim women truly embrace the hijab and are discriminated against, while others are vehemently against it and they too receive backlash from conservative Muslims. The truth is that there is no real solution to this problem.

For centuries appropriate dress for women has been a hot topic in the Islamic world, and it does not seem that it will die down anytime soon. From our thorough research, it seems that there has been some progress in terms of stereotyping against Muslim women, but that does not mean discrimination is non-existent. Many countries still take a hard-line stance against certain dress for Muslims; other countries virtually tell these women what they can and cannot wear, but all countries have a particular stance on what these women should do. Even in America, Muslim women have to go through a lot of hardship day in and day out. It seems that this issue will not be fully resolved anytime soon, and Muslim women will continue to have to be strong in the face of stereotypes and discrimination.

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