Why Some Cultures Require Women to Wear Veils

By: Molly Edmonds & Yves Jeffcoat  | 

veiling
While most people associate veiling with the Middle East, other countries like Eritrea in Eastern Africa also support the custom. Here, a portrait of a Rashaida tribe girl from the Northern Red Sea, Massawa, Eritrea, shows how she is veiled. Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Every once in a while, veiling becomes a trending topic. The practice of covering the head and face for religious, cultural or customary purposes is one that has endured centuries and transcended borders.

But in contemporary debates, it's difficult to divorce veiling from polarizing issues like women's rights, morality, politics and feminism. That's why stories about bans and mandates on burqas — garments that cover the entire face and body worn by some Muslim women — make headlines.

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Veils are common in Islamic dress, though not all Muslim women wear them. And the practice isn't exclusive to Islam; some Orthodox Christians and Jewish people wear head coverings, as well.

But despite being a historical and worldwide practice, veiling remains a mark of difference, danger, extremism or oppression to people and governments that do not support the custom. Switzerland passed a ban in 2021 on certain facial coverings in public, joining a long list of Western European countries with similar laws. Even some Muslim-majority countries, like Chad, Morocco and Tunisia, have banned the wearing or sale of certain veils. And even in places where bans are not in place, discrimination against veiled people persists.

In 2021, the European Court of Justice upheld its ruling that companies in Europe can ban headscarves in the workplace. In the United States, the First and Fourth amendments to the Constitution, as well as federal civil rights laws, protect the rights of people who adhere to religious practices like hijab (the act of seclusion often expressed through the donning of a headscarf). But schools and employers have fired, suspended and otherwise punished or reprimanded students and employees for wearing hijab.

On the other hand, people have been penalized for not wearing their veils. Requiring women to wear a burqa in public is just one way that the Taliban has terrorized women in Afghanistan. Members of the Taliban have even beaten women for failing to don the garment.

To some people, the burqa is an enduring symbol of an oppressive and dangerous regime. But even outside of Taliban rule, women have chosen or been compelled to wear burqas, for protection or as an expression of their modesty, faith, culture and preferences.

Veiling means so many things to different people that it can be difficult to suss out its real meaning and purpose. Some people believe that the veil is a dehumanizing prison that turns women into second-class citizens. To others, the veil is a sign of modesty and piety as well as a badge of honor. It's possible to see the veil as a rejection of Western values and a symbol of empowerment. In fact, some people insist that veil bans are repressive and an affront to freedom of religion.

So what does the veil mean, exactly?

Veiling Vocabulary

abaya
Young women wear the traditional abaya in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The history of veiling is so long that it's impossible to know when or where it started. Though Muslim women are associated with veiling, the practice began before the rise of Islam. There is record of veiling in Assyrian society, as far back as 1200 B.C.E. It's likely that the veil started as a sign of privilege. Upper-class women who didn't have to work outside the home wore veils to distinguish themselves from enslaved people, peasants and other women who were deemed to be of lower status [source: Amer].

Before we go any further, though, it's necessary to stop and clarify some vocabulary. Burqas, primarily worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are full-body cloaks that thoroughly cover the face of the wearer and may only have a mesh screen for the eyes. There are also full-body cloaks that don't obscure the face, such as the abaya in Saudi Arabia and the chador in Iran. Women in Iran have been required to wear headscarves in public since the early 1980s.

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Hijab is a general word that encompasses all sorts of head coverings and scarves. These scarves don't necessarily have full gown accompaniments, but they might. Styles of head coverings include the shayla, al-amira and khimar. A niqab is a face veil that can be worn with a hijab so that everything but the eyes remains veiled. The two terms at the center of many debates about the veil, therefore, are burqa and niqab, as these are the coverings that obscure the face.

Though hijab refers to the headscarves that Muslim women wear, the word also refers to the reason why many women wear the scarves in the first place. The Arabic word hijab loosely translates to the English words "cover" or "veil." But within the Islamic religion, hijab also refers to principles of modesty and behavior that adherents believe the Prophet Muhammad wishes them to live by. Calls for modesty appear in the Quran and in hadith (recorded sayings and customs of Muhammad), but scholars are divided on what exactly the verses mean.

Burqas and the Quran

Afghan women wearing burqas
Afghan women wearing burqas walk after Eid al-Adha prayers at the courtyard of the Jami mosque in Herat in August 2019. Many women consider the burqa as a sign of modesty and their devotion to Islam. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

In the Quran, policies for women's dress are mentioned in several passages. Here are excerpts from two of the most often-cited scriptures.

Chapter 33, Verse 59: O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested.

Chapter 24, Verses 30-31: Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. 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.

Islamic scholars generally agree that faithful Muslims of any gender must maintain modest dress. Men should be covered between the navel and the knee, and according to hadith, they are directed not to wear silk.

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But there is debate over appropriate dress for women because of the words "except what must ordinarily appear thereof." Some believe that the hands and the face must ordinarily appear in the course of a woman going about her day, and that a full face veil isn't required. After all, if Muhammad meant for women to be completely covered, then why would men be instructed in the very same passage to avert their gaze in the name of modesty? If a woman was fully covered, there would be no need for a man to look away. People who follow this logic deem a head covering necessary, but consider a niqab or burqa unnecessary [source: BBC].

A minority of scholars, though, believe that since full covering is possible, faithful women should cover their face and hands completely. Full covering, including veiling of the face, is interpreted as a sign of piety. Regardless of how one chooses to interpret the passage, modesty and devotion play important roles in Islam.

It's worth noting that another passage in the Quran includes a list of people in whose presence a woman may go unveiled. These include husbands, brothers, fathers, enslaved people and other women. What constitutes women's awrah (the intimate parts of the body that must be covered) in front of non-Muslim women is a topic of debate. Many scholars posit that wearing a headscarf or full-body veil is not mandated by Islamic law, and that recommendations on veiling must depend on cultural norms.

Next we'll consider some reasons why women wear full-body veils.

Reasons Women Wear Burqas

Afghan women wearing burqas
In some conservative countries, like Afghanistan, where the Taliban is now in control, women are forced to wear burqas out of fear of beatings, arrests or honor killings. AMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Debates over whether to ban the burqa often assume that men force women to wear it. In many Muslim countries, women face gender-based persecution. Therefore, the burqa appears to be a symbol of patriarchal control.

There is some evidence that women in particularly conservative countries are forced to wear a burqa or niqab out of fear of beatings, arrests or honor killings. And many Muslims have protested compulsory hijab in anti-government, pro-women's rights efforts. But women in countries with and without Muslim majorities have insisted that wearing a full covering is their choice and their right. As believing Muslims, they interpret their holy text to mean that their faces must be covered.

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Many women also say that the burqa isn't a tool of subjugation at all, but rather a means for equality. This is because they aren't judged on their appearance, and they are liberated from unwelcome advances and objectifying leers. Choosing to wear the burqa or hijab, instead of being forced to do so, is a matter of freedom of expression. That said, women who wear hijab sometimes face discrimination or acts of hostility and violence based on Islamophobia.

Another reason women say they continue to wear the veil is for purposes of group identity. It's a badge of honor, solidarity, and ethnic pride in a world that often values Eurocentric beauty standards and cultural assimilation. But proponents of veil bans maintain that the garments are a security threat, and that bans promote unity over oppression. So are bans of full-face veils justified, or are they a human rights violation?

Are Burqa Bans Reasonable?

burqa ban
Many countries, including Switzerland, have enacted bans on veiling. But is banning veils a human rights violation? Sirio Tessitore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The burqa is banned partially and nationwide in many countries around the world. (A note on terminology: So-called "burqa bans" often prohibit the public wearing of a range of face and full-body coverings.) Some people who support burqa bans cite reasons of politeness and respect to local customs.

Other people who support burqa bans focus solely on the garment as a sign of a human rights violation. These people would argue that the veil should be removed in order for women to have any chance of achieving equality. They may view veils as sexist representations of the burden that women face to be responsible for men's sexual desires. They suggest that women cannot ever be seen as full people if their face is covered, and if they continue to wear the veil then they are complicit in their own subordination.

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Burqa ban advocates may also say that women who wear veils stick out like sore thumbs in the West and can face anti-foreign and anti-Muslim harassment. But one major defense of burqa bans is the need to ensure public safety. According to this argument, criminals can conceal their identities and weapons beneath veils. Add to this the garb's association with extremist groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and veils have been targeted as harbingers of terror.

Sri Lanka approved a ban on full-face veils, including the burqa, in 2021 due to national security concerns. But while the need to remove a face veil to confirm someone's identity is reasonable, some people argue that a blanket ban is extreme and violates rights to freedom of religion. They also conclude that burqa bans exacerbate discrimination against and repression of Muslims, potentially inciting Muslims' radicalization. Therefore, the bans are more of a security threat than the veils themselves.

However, to women who choose to wear a veil, the call from the West to remove it seems hypocritical. Women are objectified through dress in the West, too, and patriarchal norms sometimes dictate what is appropriate and safe for women to wear in public. Who has the right to decide what is oppressive to women and what is not, especially when the women themselves defend their decisions as matters of preference?

Yes, girls and women have been oppressed in some countries where veiling is the norm. The Taliban, for instance, has limited education for girls and women, shut down women's clinics, and prohibited women from leaving their homes without a male relative. Some Muslim women claim these are the causes worth fighting for, and matters of wardrobe are less pressing [source: Abu-Lughod].

And if certain Western religious coverings are considered acceptable, you might wonder why the hijab is not. After all, no country has banned nuns from wearing wimples or Jews from donning the yarmulke, though some places have banned people from wearing religious symbols in schools and the workplace.

While a nun's habit may be seen as a sign of devotion to a morally respectable religion, a Muslim veil is viewed as a sign of submission and a disturbance to others. A ban on the hijab and burqini is then justified as a boon to secularism, public safety and gender equality. In the years since the 9/11 attacks, Islam has become increasingly associated with violence, and Islamophobia and counterterrorism policies aimed at Muslims have been on the rise in Europe and the United States.

Whether freedom of religion and expression is truly extended to everyone in Western countries is a point of contention. Does it make any sense to say women have freedom of expression, yet aren't allowed to decide what they can or cannot wear? Or is a burqa truly a threat to others' ways of life? In a world where people have to take off their shoes before boarding an airplane, is it fair to ignore security concerns about a full-body garment?

These questions will be debated for a long time, and the answers will likely be imperfect when it comes to this controversial piece of cloth.

Originally Published: Feb 19, 2010

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