Many religious groups encourage both men and women to dress modestly. Often, for women, this prescription means covering their head, shoulders, neck, and even their face. For example, Catholic nuns have traditionally worn a black veil and wimple. In some Muslim groups, women frequently don some sort of veil that covers at least their hair and neck. Muslims can interpret the meaning of this garment quite differently from one another.
Hijab vs. Niqab
Two common types of Muslim coverings are the hijab and the niqab. The latter is typically black, but does appear in other colors. Usually, the niqab covers a woman's full body from head to feet. Only the eyes stay visible, although in some cases, even these disappear behind a translucent strip of cloth. A hijab is much less conservative, covering only the woman's hair and neck. It also tends to come in a variety of colors and patterns. When referring to the Muslim "veil," most people mean the hijab, which is also the word used in one of the main Quranic verses used to justify the practice.
In Sura 33:59, the Quran says: "Tell your wives and your daughters, and the women of the believers, to wrap their veils close round them. It is better that way, they can be recognized but not annoyed." Dr. Sahar Amer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill explains that the dress code in this Sura "is not aimed at prescribing the wearing of a hijab for Muslim women; rather it is meant to distinguish between the clothing of free aristocratic women from that worn by the female slaves. The dress code here is a social marker, and has nothing to do with a gender dress code." Nonetheless, some people have taken this piece of text to mean that all Muslim women should dress modestly all the time. Specifically, they should cover a certain amount of their body, so that they will not attract the wrong kind of attention or create unwanted feelings in the men around them. In this way, the black niqab is the pinnacle of modesty, while the hijab or headscarf is a more common version of the same idea. However, many Muslim groups assert that women can choose to wear these veils or not; it is not a religious imperative.
Muslims are not the only people to ever wear veils. "It is a well kown [sic] fact that women in the Roman, and therefore pre-islamic, world, but also in the Jewish and Christian traditions wore veils," Dr. Amer writes in his paper "Uncovering the Meaning of the Veil in Islam." Arab cultures have also long worn the hijab, as Farzana Hassan discusses in an article in "Peace Magazine." Therefore, the clothing existed before it received Muslim connotations. Today, though, the veil has acquired a variety of meanings within the religion.
Scholars Jen'nan Ghazal Read and John P. Bartkowski have argued that veiling is becoming an "increasingly pervasive practice ... among Muslim women." They also believe that "Muslim elites strongly [favor] this cultural practice," whereas Muslim feminists in the United States, at least, are speaking out against the veil. In this way, some followers of the faith see it as a symbol of piety or independence from Western society, while others view it as oppressive and representative of sexist control over women. There is no single accepted meaning throughout the Muslim world.
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