Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Meaning of Hijab: Voices of Muslim Women in Egypt and Yemen

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Meaning of Hijab: Voices of Muslim Women in Egypt and Yemen

Article excerpt


This work examines perceptions associated with Islamic dress among a sample of Muslim women in Sana'a, Yemen and Cairo, Egypt. The majority of women in Sana'a wear the niqab in combination with a one-piece balto or abaya, or two-piece sharshaf. The niqab itself is the part that covers the face, with holes or a slit to see through, and is secured by tying or pinning the fabric (which is usually black) in the back of the head (Vogelsang-Eastwood and Vogelsang 2008). The one-piece balto and two-piece sharsharf are loose-falling, full-length garments that serve as overcoats. The abaya is also full-length, but is more form-fitting and is made of a slightly thinner material. These garments are typically black in Yemen (Moors 2007). There are many variations of Islamic dress, from the way the garments are tied, pinned, wrapped or draped to their color arrangements, patterns and sizes. The specific nature of the dress involved can vary considerably among different schools of legal interpretation, sects, and cultural backgrounds (Young 2008). Some interpret the religious texts to mean the entire body is to be concealed with one or more pieces of cloth from head to toe; however, others interpret the Qur'an and Hadith to mean that a woman is only required to dress modestly (Young 2008).

Varieties of Islamic Dress

There are a variety of different clothes Muslim women wear that can be classified as Islamic dress. The two most focused pieces of clothing under the Islamic dress umbrella with which this study is concerned are the hijab and the niqab. The majority of Muslim women in Cairo wear the hijab and most women in Sana'a almost exclusively wear the niqab. For this study the niqab refers to not only the piece covering the face, but the entire ensemble worn along with the face covering. It is also important to keep in mind that the concept of hijab involves more than covering just the head and hair. Some of the women in this study assert that the hijab means more than simply the attire worn; it is the act of modesty in terms of behavior that goes along with wearing the hijab. Some also consider the hijab to represent all forms of dress. Therefore, one is constantly wearing more or less hijab or displaying more or less modesty (Ruby 2004). Thus, Wher (1994) defines the Arabic word for hijab with the following in English: cover, wrap, drape; curtain; woman's veil; screen, partition, folding screen; barrier. Despite the hijab being tied to Islam, there are few references to it in the Qur'an. Stillman (2007:141) explains how the use or lack thereof of hijab or veiling of any specific type is unclear in both the Qur'an and the Hadith, writing that it was not clear "how important a social and moral issue was veiling in the early Islamic centuries."

There are two Qur'anic verses typically used to describe the women's dress code for Muslims (Fernea and Fernea 1979; Hoffman-Ladd 1987; Zenie-Ziegler 1988; Zuhur 1992; Read and Bartkowski 2000; Parshall and Parshall 2003; Ruby 2004; Stillman 2007; Heath 2008). The following quotes are from AL-QUR'AN (Ali 2001):

   Tell the believing women to lower their eyes, guard their private
   parts, and not display their charms except what is apparent
   outwardly, and cover their bosoms with their veils and not to show
   their finery except to their husbands or their fathers or
   fathers-in-law, their sons or step-sons, brothers, or their
   brothers' and sisters' sons, or their women attendants or captives,
   or male attendants who do not have any need (for women), or boys
   not yet aware of sex. They should not walk stamping their feet lest
   they make known what they hide or their ornaments, O believers,
   turn to God, every one of you, so that you may be successful

   O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the women of the
   faithful, to draw their wraps a little over them. They will thus be
   recognized and no harm will come to them. … 
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