The veil, also referred to as “hijab” or “purdah”—words that literally mean “curtain”—has various meanings in the Islamic context. In Sufism, for instance, it can refer to a barrier that interferes with a person’s search for God. The terms are popularly used, however, to refer to women’s seclusion in the private sphere or to a form of dress. This dress can take the form of a head scarf, but it can also cover other body parts through loose, enveloping garments worn on top of a woman’s clothing. This entry focuses primarily on veiling as a form of dress.
Veiling and the seclusion of women have a pre-Islamic origin and a long history in the regions surrounding Arabia. These practices were institutionalized in Mesopotamia in order to make a distinction between “good women” and “bad women” in pre-Christian times and became a characteristic of the upper class in various cultures—such as the Hellenic, Christian, Persian, Byzantine—in the Mediterranean Middle East and beyond by the time of Islam’s advent in Arabia. It also existed as a marker of social status in the urban areas of Arabia at this time.
Veiling initially was prescribed only for the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, and later as a marker of all “believing women” in order to distinguish them from nonbelieving women so that they would not be harassed (Q. 33:59). The practice was largely limited to the Prophet’s wives during his lifetime but became more widespread over time. Commonly suggested sociological reasons for veiling include the desire to emulate the Prophet’s wives; the increased wealth of Arab families, who took pride in knowing that the women in their families no longer had to work outside the home; and Islam’s spread into neighboring lands, where veiling already existed as a marker of social status.
For Muslims who see the veil as a religious symbol and a sign of piety, such sociological reasons are reductive and take attention away from the role religious faith plays in the adoption of this practice. A survey of ethnographic studies published between 1990 and 2010 strongly suggests, however, that to simply label the veil as a religious symbol simplifies a complex reality no less than arguments that draw solely upon sociological reasons. Paying attention to the sociopolitical context in which veiling occurs—both in a particular moment and across time—is essential to bring out the multiple meanings of veiling.
The veil and varying degrees of seclusion in the private sphere continue to be seen as a marker of economic status in many societies. Yet women of varying economic status also have been known to take it up as they enter the public sphere to pursue their education, go to work, or engage in other activities. The veil becomes a means of appeasing family concerns as the women venture out in public, for it marks them as respectable and moral individuals. The belief is that this sign of morality, which also hides their body, will protect them from sexual harassment in public and serve as a signal to men to not bother them. Veiling in this context becomes a ticket to increased participation in the public sphere and, as such, has the potential to lead to social, economic, or political empowerment. Some women also seem to take up the veil so as not to stand out among other veiled women, because it is a tradition to do so in their community, or as a way of holding on to “traditional” values when migrating to urban areas or whenever those values are felt to be under attack. Some women believe that it prevents them from being treated as sex objects. Others say that men have a low threshold of control when they see unveiled women, and it is women’s responsibility to veil themselves in order to prevent “chaos” in society.
These reasons do not detract from the fact that veiling is sometimes also a manifestation of religious faith—a practice justified by the belief, among many Muslims in general and among religious revivalist movements around the world in particular, that veiling is an Islamic tenet. While some Muslim women do not feel the need to justify their wearing of the veil, others are vocal in highlighting religious reasons for it without, however, excluding social benefits of the sort mentioned earlier. Regardless of whether women veil primarily for religious reasons or not, a close association between the veil, Islam, and Muslim women has developed over time.
Non-Muslim observers have played a significant role in highlighting the connections between the veil, Islam, and Muslim women, but in particular ways. The Orientalist discourse, particularly during the Romantic Era, marked the veil as exotic, while the colonial discourse depicted it as a marker of women’s oppression. For some women it is forced oppression. However, the veil’s link with oppression in the colonial narrative, as well as non-Muslim attacks on the veil and what it symbolizes—a group’s boundaries and tradition, both commonly mapped on the female body—have led some Muslims to use the veil as a symbol of resistance to imperialism, whether colonial or postcolonial. In the Algerian liberation struggle, for example, Algerians resisted the French colonists’ desire to control the country by affirming the veil as a symbol of their culture and identity. The veil has also been used as a symbol of resistance to authoritarian regimes. In the course of the Iranian Islamic Revolution from 1978 to 1979, many women decided to don the veil as a way to challenge an autocratic establishment that had