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Veils in the spotlight: the many types of Muslim dress

Times Online  October 6, 2006

The Koran’s injunction that Muslim women must "draw their veils over their bosoms" has led to widely varying codes of Islamic dress, or hijab, over many centuries.

The total head-and-body covering of the burqa, with only a grille for the eyes to see through, has never been universal.

Jack Straw’s reference was to the niqab, a head covering with a slit for the eyes, that is popular dress among strict Muslims in Britain.

It has never been common for nomads and the poorer, rural Muslim communities to go veiled. The demands of their lives just made it impractical.

So one appeal of veiling to Muslim women has always been that it denotes wealth. It has traditionally been an indication that the woman has married into a family where her husband can afford to keep her at home all day.

And in the confines of the home, the veil will come off and women from the wealthy Muslim elites will wear all the best exotic finery that money can buy from the most expensive designer shops in London and Paris.

According to one British expert on the hijab, Dr Gillian Vogelsang, an academic at Leiden university in Holland, there are four main types or hijab worn in Britain. The differences are explained more by cultural than religious differences.

Dr Vogelsang, director of textile research at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, explained that Muslim women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin traditionally wear the shalwar kameez, or trousers and tunic, with a headscarf.

These are often brightly coloured and made of anything from silk and cotton to synthetic materials. Like most of the other forms of dress, they can be bought for hundreds or even thousands of pounds in designer and department stores in London and Paris, or for a few pounds in colourful shops in Hounslow, Slough and other parts of West London.

A much more strict dress code applies to Muslim women from some Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, and from Afghanistan. Arab women will go out onto the streets in black, wearing a headscarf called a shelagh and with their faces veiled by a niqab or burqa. The niqab is made out of one piece of material with a slit or two eye holes to enable the women to see.

The burqa, which in Afghanistan can be in blue or other colours, is made out of two pieces of material sewn together and fastened at the sides and in the middle. The eyes are not visible at all in a burqa, and the woman sees through a finely-woven grille at the front. On their bodies these women will wear an abayeh, a large black cloak with arm holes.

Iraqi women will dress similarly, but wear the abayeh falling down over their shoulders from their head, with a headscarf underneath covering their hair. Beneath all this, however, they might wear very little, such as shorts and t-shirt when hot, or even a bikini.

Sudanese and other Muslims wear a long sari-like garment known as the dhob or sob which covers the body and head at the same time. These can be of many colours and materials, the only requirement being that they are not transparent.

Liberal Iranians will often wear western clothing with a headscarf only, while the stricter ones will wear the chador, a full body cloak with a headscarf underneath. Moroccans wear kaftans and headscarves.

Headscarves can vary. One popular style is the al-amira, on sale in the online Hijabshop catalogue for £1.99 and consisting of a cap attached to a tube-like scarf.

But the styles and fashions are evolving all the time. There is now a popular sports range, such as the skating hijab which is pictured above, for £17.

Veiling in Islam has not always been compulsory. In one sample essay on the history and culture of the hijab, the author writes: "Beyond the Near East, the practice of hiding one's face and largely living in seclusion appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia, and in India among upper caste Rajput women. Muslims in their first century at first were relaxed about female dress.

"When the son of a prominent companion of the Prophet asked his wife Aisha bint Talha to veil her face, she answered, ‘Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognized His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself’."



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