Muslim women wear head scarves for a variety of reasons, but scriptural teachings, national or local custom, and tradition are three of the most common. Women who choose to cover themselves typically do so as a demonstration of hijab, or “barrier.” Hijab is an Islamic concept that has many interpretations and applications, but where head scarves are concerned it is typically intended to separate women from the eyes of men outside of their immediate family circle. The idea of hijab has its origins in religious scripture, and the coverings can also be a way for women of faith to outwardly identify with their beliefs and align with their Islamic culture. Some Arabic and Middle Eastern countries require women to cover their heads by law, and though this isn’t always the case, women in these countries often feel intense social pressure to cover themselves. Things are often different outside of these zones, but women frequently choose to wear the scarves for reasons of personal or cultural significance.
One source of support for Muslim women wearing head scarves comes from the Qur’an, which is the holy book of Islam. The Qur’an commands women to adopt certain measures of modesty and chastity, and it describes how the prophet Mohammed’s wives were always veiled or covered in public. Many scholars and religious experts have interpreted the Qur’an to require women to cover at least their head, but sometimes also their face, hands, and feet, when in the presence of men who are not their husbands or not in their households. Veils and scarves aren’t usually worn at home and not around small children, but are usually required anywhere a women might encounter a man — at school, at the market, or in the office, for instance. Head covering is also traditional during prayer.
Head coverings are very common in Islamic countries like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The laws of these countries sometimes actually require women to cover themselves when in public, though this is increasingly a matter of some controversy. Women who live outside of these countries aren’t usually required to wear scarves by any sort of law, but many still choose to as a matter of cultural significance or expectation. This is particularly true of women who live in large Muslim communities where most if not all of the women are covered.
Tradition and Self Expression
Some women choose scarves as a way of personally identifying with their faith and making an outward statement of their beliefs that even strangers can recognize. For these women adopting hijab is less about diverting the eyes of men and more about embracing their Islamic culture. In most Muslim communities outside of the Middle East, scarves are entirely optional. Women choose them for largely personal reasons, reasons that can vary widely.
Different Sorts of Coverings
The simplest Muslim headscarf is one or two pieces of fabric that is loosely draped around the head and shoulders, covering the hair but leaving the face totally visible. This is simply called a “hijab,” or sometimes a khimar if it also covers the shoulders. The chador is more intensive; it is usually a large piece of cloth that covers not only the head and shoulders but also most of the body. Women wear chadors like long veils, often pinning them or tying them at the neck.
The niquab goes a step further, covering everything but the eyes. Total body coverings, usually with a mesh panel to allow vision, are called burquas. Niquabs and burquas are generally very rare outside of heavily Muslim countries, and have actually been banned by some schools and universities in these countries as being too disruptive to studies. Whether or not women can wear even simple headscarves in places like schools has also become a topic of debate in a number of countries and localities in the West.
Some westerners view wearing head scarves as oppressive to women, but this isn’t always the case. In many instances it is simply a traditional part of local dress or a means of self-expression. Further, unless one lives in a restrictive, theocratic country, wearing the scarves is optional. A number of Muslim women also find it saves time to don a scarf rather than to style the hair. They argue that women who spend a lot of time before a mirror each morning are experiencing oppression by fashion dictates.