Women > Veiling > What is the Hijab and Why do Women Wear it?

Hijab is referred to by various names, some of the most common of which are a veil or a headscarf. Most Muslims who wear the covering call it a hijab (حجاب), an Arabic word meaning “cover.” However, there are various forms of hijab that are referred to by different names. While hijab is commonly associated with women, Muslim men also sometimes wear a head covering as a means of showing modesty. Additionally, Christian and Jewish women in some traditions wear a headscarf as a cultural practice or commitment to modesty or piety.

Find out more about the History of the Hijab.

What are the various kind of hijab?

Image by Kalashe

Hijab ( حجاب): The first type of hijab that is most commonly worn by women in the West is a square scarf that covers the head and neck, but leaves the face clear. This form of hijab is most commonly referred to as hijab.

Shayla: The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf that is wrapped loosely around the head and tucked or pinned at the shoulders. Like the hijab and al-amira, this form of hijab covers the head but often leaves the neck and face clear.

Khimar ( خمار): The khimar is a long, cape-like scarf that is wrapped around the head and hangs to the middle of the back. This type of hijab covers the head, neck, and shoulders, but leaves the face clear.

Chador ( تشادر): The chador is a long cloak that covers a woman’s entire body. Like the khimar, the chador wraps around the head, but instead of hanging just to the middle of back, the chador drapes to a woman’s feet.

Niqāb ( نقاب): The niqab is a face-covering that covers the mouth and nose, but leaves the eyes clear. It is worn with an accompanying khimar or other form of head scarf.

Burqa ( برقع ): The burqa covers the entire face and body, leaving a small mesh screen through which the woman can see through.

Why do women wear hijab?

Muslim women choose to wear the hijab or other coverings for a variety of reasons. Some women wear the hijab because they believe that God has instructed women to wear it as a means of fulfilling His commandment for modesty. For these women, wearing hijab is a personal choice that is made after puberty and is intended to reflect one’s personal devotion to God. In many cases, the wearing of a headscarf is often accompanied by the wearing of loose-fitting, non-revealing clothing, also referred to as hijab.

While some Muslim women do not perceive the hijab to be obligatory to their faith, other Muslim women wear the hijab as a means of visibly expressing their Muslim identity (Haddad, et al, 2006). In the United States, particularly since 9/11, the hijab is perceived to be synonymous with Islam. Some Muslim women choose to appropriate this stereotype and wear the hijab to declare their Islamic identity and provide witness of their faith. Unfortunately this association has also occasionally resulted in the violent assaults of Muslim women wearing hijab.

While most Muslim women wear the hijab for religious reasons, there are other Arab or Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab as an expression of their cultural identity. By wearing the hijab, Muslim women hope to communicate their political and social alliance with their country of origin and challenge the prejudice of Western discourses towards the Arabic-speaking world (Zayzafoon, 2005). In many cases, the wearing of the hijab is also used to challenge Western feminist discourses which present hijab-wearing women as oppressed or silenced.

Why do some Muslim women not wear the hijab?

Like the women who choose to wear the hijab, those who choose not to wear the hijab do so for a variety of reasons. Some Muslim women believe that although the principles of modesty are clearly outlined in the Qu’ran, they perceive the wearing of the headscarf as a cultural interpretation of these scriptures. These women sometimes believe that the values espoused by the wearing of the headscarf can be achieved in other ways. Some women believe that while the hijab allowed women in the past to engage in public society without garnering attention, the headscarf in contemporary Western society brings more attention to women and is thus contradictory to its original purpose. Others believe that the hijab and other external practices have become inappropriately central to the practice of Islam, and instead choose to focus on their internal and spiritual relationship with God.

While some women might choose not to wear the hijab, most Muslim women agree that it is a woman’s choice whether or not she wears the hijab. Many Muslim and Arab women who have chosen not to wear the hijab are often staunch advocates of a woman’s right to choose to veil.