Behind the Islamic veils and headscarves
Updated Fri. Oct. 6 2006 4:06 PM ET - Phil Hahn, CTV.ca News
Recent comments by British cabinet minister Jack Straw mark the latest episode in the debate on the right for Muslim women to wear veils and headscarves, which points to the larger issue of religious freedom and the question of how Islamic traditions fit in a Western society. Straw's request for Muslim women visiting his offices to remove their face-covering veils in order to facilitate communication has sparked anger in England's Islamic community. Unlike the French government which banned hijabs, or headscarves, from state schools, Straw defended Muslim women's right to wear them. But the debate about hijabs takes many forms even among Muslims. While many believe that the veil is a way to protect women from the male gaze and secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women, some argue the veil is an illusion of protection that absolves men taking responsibility for their own behavior. The notion that all Muslim women are required by Islamic law to wrap their heads and cover their faces in public is a gross generalization of a practice that is complex and wide-ranging. The Qur'an urges modesty to be practiced in both sexes. Men are urged to lower their gazes and cover their loins from knee to waist, while women are called to "draw their veils over their bosoms" and shield jewelry and other adornments from being seen by those outside the family.
The Qur'an offers no instruction for women to cover themselves head to foot. The primary schools of Islamic law, however, have developed a code whereby women were expected to cover their bodies from the neck to the ankles, and their arms from above the elbow. Nevertheless, traditional dress codes vary sharply in different Muslim cultures. While the all-enveloping burkas are seen in traditional Islamic communities in Afghanistan, in Iran one would find dress ranging from fashionable headscarves worn with trendy jeans and tops to traditional long, black, cloak-like garments with faces completely covered.
CTV.ca describes the most popular forms of Islamic veils and headscarves worn by Muslim women around the world.
A head veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the face except for the eyes and, occasionally, the forehead. It's common in the Middle East but is also popular among strict Muslims in Western countries. A simple length of fabric secured with elastic or ties, the niqab is what caught the attention of British cabinet minister Jack Straw, who sparked heated debate when he said it would be better if Muslim women did not wear them. The niqab can also be worn with a second cover attached to an upper band around the forehead and flipped down to cover the eyes, creating a "full" niqab.
The word Hijab derives from the Arabic for "barrier" or "veil." It is the term widely used to describe the headscarf worn by Muslim women. The hijab comes in a variety of styles and colours. The one most commonly seen on Muslim women in the West is square in shape and wraps around the head and neck, while leaving the face exposed. The word "hijab" appears in the Qur'an several times, but is used in reference not to a dress code for Muslims, but to a curtain that divides or provides privacy. Islamic scholarship, meanwhile, uses the term to reflect the much wider concept of modesty in dress and demeanor.
Rarely seen now outside of Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, the burka is the most concealing of all veils. The full or "Afghan" burka typically covers a woman's entire body and face except for the area around the eyes, which is covered by a concealing, finely-woven mesh screen. Blue is a common colour for the burka, which is made out of two pieces of material sewn together and fastened at the sides and in the middle. The cap from which the material hangs is sometimes decorated with embroidery. Under the burka, wearers will commonly wear an abayeh -- a large black cloak with arm holes. Although Iraqi Muslim women are known to wear items such as shorts and t-shirts, or even a bikini, when it's hot.
Traditional dress codes aren't limited to burkas and niqas and vary widely in different Muslim societies.
In Iran, a full-body black cloak called the chador is worn by women outside the sanctity of the home. It's worn often with a smaller headscarf underneath. The khimar, meanwhile, is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. Both above styles covers the hair, neck and shoulders but leaves the face clear.
Some Muslim women in the West and in the Gulf States will often wear western clothes with just a headscarf. A popular style worn by these Muslim women is the al-amira. It's a two-piece veil consisting of a close-fitting cotton or polyester cap, accompanied with a scarf. The shayla is also popular. It's a long, rectangular scarf that's wrapped around the head and tucked or pinned in place at the shoulders. Styles and fashions for veils and headscarves do evolve, contrary to popular belief.
For athletes, sports versions of head coverings are available, including four styles for tennis, skating, aerobics, and outdoor sports by Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen and deemed to be "Islamically correct" by at least one Dutch Islamic cleric."These stylish and non-fussy hijabs will ensure that Muslim girls are able to comfortably and safely participate in sports and physical activities without having to worry about their hijabs shifting and tearing apart!" van den Bremen's website exclaims. Similarly, Turkish clothing manufacturer Hasema produces what it describes as modest yet fashionable swimwear for women.