One of the most mis-understood and mis-represented segment of Islam by the “west”, is probably the veiling of Muslim women, and has led to much controversy and stereotyping.
Women covering their hair and heads has been in many cultures from way back in the past and is still present in many countries and cultures even today. As the saying goes: “Islam did not invent head covering for women: however, Islam did endorse it! “
One can trace back the origins of veiling in Islam to the teachings of their Prophet: It was suggested by many of the travelling seekers, who came to hear the Prophet teach, that perhaps his wives should be kept “hidden” from the many travellers and seekers who were being taught in the courtyard below. The word “hijab” means:
+ to separate (with a curtain)
+ to divide
+ to partition
+ to cover
In later revelations, we read verses that all women (those having reached puberty) should be veiled: modesty was the key principle here. In fact, modest dress is viewed as protection, and the veil a sign of that modesty.
The wives of the Prophet were totally/completely covered (including hands), and some chose to follow this practice, but stipulated in the Quran is that the hair, neck and “chest” should be covered modestly with a loose cloth, and that the rest of the clothing should not be such that attracts attention. Only your hands and face should be visible to the general public. However a woman is able to let her hair down (literally) at home, in presence of her husband, father or brothers…. no other men…ever!
It is generally understood today, following many teachings on the writings of the prophet, and applying “logic”, that the modesty requirements of women’s clothing can be summarized as follows:
- it should not be tight at all: loose and wide
- nothing that highlights the shape of the body
- nothing should be transparent
- no perfumes
- no sounds as they walk (bells on feet!)
- no make-up
- no decorations
- no nail polish
There should be nothing to attract men, or to single a woman out by her choice of clothing. It is “haraam” (punishable by gaining “negative” points from your “paradise scoreboard”) to draw attention to your body shape. This is because the woman is viewed as the “queen of desire” so should guard herself carefully!
The ‘veil’ can take many forms.
1. The Hijab, although this is the term for all the required conditions of dress, it is generally used to refer to a head-covering which covers the head and the neck, leaving the face uncovered. These head coverings come in many shapes, colours and styles but the objective is to cover the hair completely, and be draped over the “chest” area.
2. The Niqaab is generally understood as clothing that covers the face as well as the head, with the eyes showing.
3. The burqa is a veil which covers the head, face and body of a woman from head to toe, allowing her to see through a gauze like material over the eye area.
On the streets of busy Cairo and Alexandria, you will see the whole spectrum of dress options. Many women say that which form of veil/dress you wear is your personal choice. However, sometimes the father or the husband can have the final say. But on any busy sidewalk you will see the young women in bright, trendy veils, in fun styles, with matching handbags and shoes…. often walking next to a mother or aunt fully veiled in billowing black… in total harmony!
At this stage in this country there is no law stipulating dress specifications, so there is still room for some debate and discussion as to exactly where one is to draw the modesty line. In the past there were furious debates as to whether women should wear trousers of any kind, as this was traditionally “men’s” clothing, and the Prophet speaks out against women wearing men’s clothes. But today, on the streets, you will find jeans of all shapes and colours, although many still prefer dresses (the traditional aabeya is popular) or skirts.
So when you come to visit, take time to have a look at all the various colours, styles and shapes of veils….. you will need to buy at least one to cover your hair (if you are a woman) when you visit the mosques. Ask some of the women you meet about how they choose their veils, how they put them on, how long it takes them to put on….. even how they choose the pins that hold the veils together…… it will open your mind to a whole new level of shopping!