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Hijab of Muslim Women

Ask a Muslim 04/22/07

By Mona Darwich Gatto

Could you shed some light on the headdress of Muslim women? What is the reasoning behind covering one's face fully? Is this full-face veil called a burka, or is that something else?

Ellen , Tucson

Dear Habibati*,

Head (hair) and face coverings are not the same thing. Hijab is the head cover, niqab or burqa is the face cover.

The head scarf (hijab as Muslims call it) is a controversial topic within the Muslim community itself. There is a verse in the Quran that says women should cover their chests, not hair.

"And say to 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 cloaks over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons, or their women or the servants 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 you Believers turn you all together towards Allah, that you may attain Bliss." (Quran 24:31).

"O Prophet, tell your wives and your 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 annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful" (Quran 33:59).

There are many interpretations of these verses depending on how one sees it or what culture one is from. Different Muslims see it differently. Some Muslims, who are conservatives and fundamentalists, see the head covering as mandatory for all women. They see it as a sign of modesty, and it is meant to keep the eyes of men away (as if we women don't look at men!) and to distinguish Muslim women from the non-Muslim women.

However, today, no matter how you see this, the hijab has become a political and social symbol to many Muslim women, which for all practical purposes was not the original intent.

The head or the face covering, existed before Islam in the Arab and surrounding lands as a symbol of social class. It meant that those who covered were the richer women, and those who did not were the poorer women. Today this reasoning has little value, and the hijab's meaning has changed dramatically.

Today there are those who preach in the Muslim communities that covering the face (burqa in some places, niqab in others) is a must, not a choice. My father was one of them and enforced it on my mother and me. I decided to let the face cover go after wearing it for 6 years and the head scarf after 20 years of wearing it.

No where does the Quran state that women should cover their faces or hair. From what I understood while living in Egypt, this is a custom in Arab cultures for those who view Islam in very strict and puritanical terms extremists. They convince women to do it if they want to go to "paradise."

Some say, "nobody buys a diamond not well protected" and other Arabs say, "nobody buys a candy with its wrap half opened," reducing women to objects and food.

Some husbands and fathers will go as far as saying to their wives and daughters, "Obeying me is like obeying God," putting pressure on women. I heard this line all the time while growing up. Unfortunately, a lot of Muslim women, even American converts, buy into that line of reasoning.

I have seen and lived the extreme side of Muslim interpretation and the people who follow it. What I can say is that it is all about control, lack of tolerance and an enormous need to control women because some misguided men will not ever trust women in general, especially women in positions of power.

And, of course, there are Muslim women who choose to cover their head or face. I think that this should always be a matter of freedom of choice because once a government takes away the freedom to choose what to wear, that lack of freedom becomes politicized and extremists take advantage of it. Beyond that, I don't believe governments or those in positions of authority should tell women what to wear.

Mona Darwich-Gatto, an Arab-American, has lived in several places throughout the world and has moved around with her husband, a former member of the U.S. Marines. You can read her blog, "Salaam Sahuarita," and add your comments at Send your questions to

All questions for Ask a Muslim will be considered but because of volume, not all can be answered.

* Habibi and Habibati are the male and females forms of a commonly used Arabic word that means "darling," "honey," "dear" or "friend."




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