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The Hijab: Your Questions Answered!

By Klein sassy

November 11, 2007

A simple wrap-and-tuck job: Me wearing hijab at the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul

I write this title with a bit of sarcasm in my tone; however, based on some comments and questions I've received from the people back home, I've decided it would be instructive for many to clear up some things about "the Islamic veil." Here I present a brief summary of hijab and other forms of coverings which Muslim women wear, informed by what I've observed here in Egypt.

In Egypt, about 90% of people are Muslim, 9% are Coptic Christians, and 1% are other Christians. Coptic women do not veil themselves so what I will be speaking about here pertains to Muslim women. Although most women that I observe in Cairo are covered (wearing hijab or more), many, including many Muslims are not. Before I get into the specifics of what I believe this indicates, I'll take a moment to explain some forms of covering.

The most basic covering is the hijab, sometimes called a headscarf. The hijab is simply a scarf worn around the head, concealing the hair, ears, and neck (although some women wrap their scarf into a large bun at the base of their necks and leave their necks uncovered). Wearing the hijab in Egypt usually also entails covering the arms to the wrists and the legs to the ankles. Depending on personal preference, some women take this to mean wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans while others eschew pants in favor of ankle-length skirts. This style (of Western dress and hijab) is most common among younger women and teenagers.

This photo is of a girl in London wearing this style of hijab. (You probably wouldn't see that little triangle of skin above her chest in Cairo).

The khimar is a covering which comes over the head, revealing the face, but extending over the shoulders to waist-length. It is worn with an ankle-length skirt of similar fabric (my guess is rayon) and the result is conservative but flowing and probably pretty comfortable. This is standard uniform for many older women in Cairo and khimar of many colors can be seen daily.

(o.k. so obviously these aren't my photos. I'm going to work on post some of my own.)

A black covering which drapes over the head, covering the forehead but revealing the rest of the face. It extends to floor-length and has wrist-length sleeves.

The niqab is a veil worn across the face just under the eyes. This can either mean a separate piece added to an abaya or it can be a piece which covers the face and forehead entirely, leaving a slit for the eyes. Women who wear the niqab are usually conservative enough to also wear black gloves.

Sometimes a niqab may be part of a larger veil called a...Boushiya:
The boushiya is a niqab which ties around the back of the head, leaving a slit for the eyes. It also has another veil of sheer fabric attached just above the eye slit which may be lain back over the top of the head or pulled down to cover the eyes.

Sorry for the miniscule pic. Though I have seen women wearing the boushiya, I haven't taken pictures of them. They're not circus freaks or tourist attractions, and if a woman feels the need to be that covered, I'm guessing she doesn't want her picture taken. Respect.

The burqa is a large piece of fabric which fits like a cap over the top of the head and extends to floor length usually in two pieces like a khimar and skirt. It has a screen over the eyes rather than a sheer piece of fabric that can be pulled back like a boushiya.

It is important to note that I have never seen a burqa. Burqas are worn in Afghanistan and have become especially symbolic of the repression imposed by the Taliban. They are NOT typical of the dress worn in more central countries of the Middle East such as Egypt, Jordan, or Iraq.

Moreover, following the invasion of Afghanistan, the term burqa has wrongly been used by many Americans to describe any sort of Islamic veiling. This is indicative of ignorance on the part of the American public of the nuances within and between Muslim societies. Also, this inattention to detail suggests a larger and more problematic tendency within America to view any sort of veiling as oppressive. It follows from this that many of the people who misunderstand the nature of covering wish to impose their concepts of "freedom" on the Muslim societies of the Middle East. Just why that is a bad idea I'll get into in a later post.
Ma' salama -- Goodbye, or literally, (go) with peace

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