To Veil or Not to Veil?

By:  Heather Abraham

This posting was inspired by a Religion Nerd subscriber who posed the following question: Approximately what percentage of Muslims wear the full burka? In attempting to answer this challenging and complex question I will first give a brief historical overview on the practice of hijab or “veiling” in Islam. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Quran does not prescribe the covering or “veiling” of women. It does however direct Muslim women to act and dress with modesty. The veiling of Muslim women began during the early years of Islam when Muslims came into contact with the peoples and cultures of Byzantine lands. Although Christian, Byzantium practiced the veiling of high ranking urban women; a practice associated with wealth and status. Thus, early Islamic veiling was an imitation of an Eastern Christian cultural practice. 

Although veiling became fashionable within some Muslim societies, it was never a universal practice within Islam. Throughout the centuries the practice of veiling waxed and waned depending on the cultural norms of the era, economics, and geographic location. Today’s Western understanding of the veil as a control mechanism, intended to suppress women, has its roots in the 19th century colonialism. 

According to religion historian, Karen Armstrong, the veil experienced resurgence in popularity in reaction to the colonial insistence that the veil be outlawed in Egypt. In Battle for God, Armstrong traces the discord which raged between British colonialist who saw the veil as symptomatic of an inferior culture and the Muslim intelligentsia of Egypt. Armstrong writes, 

Arab writers refused to accept this [colonialist] estimate of their society, and in the course of this heated debate the veil turned into a symbol of resistance to colonialism. And so it has remained. Many Muslims consider the veil de rigueur for all women, and a sign of true Islam. By using feminist arguments for which most [British] had little or no sympathy, as part of their propaganda, the colonialists tainted the cause of feminism in the Muslim world, and helped to distort the faith by introducing an imbalance that had not existed before. (166) 

Thus, in attempting to remake the “other” in their image, European colonialists succeeded in raising the veil from a relatively benign cultural symbol to an iconic symbol of Islam. Symbols, like myths, can be reinterpreted or manipulated and unfortunately, some societies have radicalized veiling; taking the symbol out of context and using it in a destructive manner. 

Having said that, I must stress that veiling is not a universal Islamic practice.  In fact, the majority of Muslim women do not practice veiling. Let’s take a look at the diversity in veiling and the countries that prescribe veiling by law. 

  • The Burka (Burqa) is veiling in the extreme. This garment covers women completely allowing them to see only through a mesh like cloth which covers the face. Under the Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan were required to wear the Burqa in public. 

    Fashionable Muslim Woman

  • The Abaya is an over-garment worn by women in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait which covers all but the face, hands, and feet.
  • The Chador is a cloak like outer garment often worn by women in Iran.  
  • Scarves are used to cover the hair only and are more often than not a fashion statement.
  • The Niqab is a face covering or veil usually worn with an abaya.

Now, let’s take a look at various Islamic countries and their stand on veiling. You may be surprised to find that most Islamic countries do not mandate veiling by law.      

Muslim Countries that require the wearing of hijab or veiling 

  • In Afghanistan the Burqa was/is compulsory under Taliban rule.
  • Iran – requires women to wear a loose fitting garment and cover their hair in public. Most Iranian women wear either a chador or overcoat accompanied by a head scarf to cover their hair.
  • Kuwait mandates the wearing of the abaya and niqab.
  • Saudi Arabia mandates and enforces the wearing of the abaya and niqab.

Muslim Countries that do not practice wearing of hijab or veiling 

  • Egypt does not mandate the wearing of any type of outer-wear but colorful head scarves and traditional over-wear are fast becoming fashionable in Egypt even though the government discourages such practices.
  • Indonesia, which boasts the largest population of Muslims in the world, does not mandate veiling.
  • Jordan – does not mandate the wearing of hijab     
  • Lebanon – does not mandate the wearing of hijab
  • Morocco – does not mandate the wearing of hijab
  • Pakistan – does not mandate the wearing of hijab but many in rural areas do practice various modes of veiling.
  • Syria – does not mandate the wearing of the hijab
  • Tunisia – hijab not mandatory and may even be discouraged.
  • Turkey – a democratic Muslim Country does not require women to wear any type of covering.

In actuality, few Muslim countries require women to wear the hijab (veil). Most allow for freedom of expression, neither mandating nor prohibiting the wearing of various modes of veiling. That is not to say that women don’t feel compelled, in some cases, to don some sort of covering because of peer pressure or family desire. It is interesting to note, that the issue of hijab or veiling is an issue that is in constant debate among Muslims.    

Veiled Tuareg Men

Now for a fun fact:   The Tuareg Muslims of the Algerian Sahara are a nomadic tribe who practice the veiling of men. Yes, I said men! Tuareg men begin wearing an indigo veil over their faces  at the onset of puberty. They believe the veil hides their intentions from their enemies and shields women from knowing their desires. Tuareg women cover their hair but only after marrying. This distinguishes the available women from their married sisters. 

John: I hope this somewhat answered your question. It may be impossible to give an accurate percentage because of a lack of research in the area. Thanks for the question and inspiring this post.

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Filed Under: Culture & ArtHeather AbrahamIslamWomen

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