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What is Hijab?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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Many Muslims around the world practice hijab, which is Arabic for cover, but is extended to mean modesty and privacy. For non-Muslims, hijab is most often associated with the modest clothing that Muslim women wear. In actuality, hijab is practiced by both men and women, and includes other requirements of modest behavior. Muslims follow the rules of hijab to show their submission to and love for God.

The rules for hijab are discussed in the Hadith, an oral tradition which accompanies the Qur'an and helps proscribe the ways of Muslim life. According to the Hadith, men and women should behave modestly in situations where they meet each other. Modest behavior includes averting your eyes from someone of the opposite sex, speaking with respect to one another, and not touching members of the opposite sex.

The Hadith also includes rules for dressing. Both men and women are directed to cover themselves when they are in public areas. For men, following hijab means that the body should be covered at a minimum from the navel to the knees in loose, opaque clothing. Some interpretations of the Hadith suggest that the covering should be longer, from the navel to the ankles. All agree that the modest covering should be worn at all times, including prayer.

For women, the rules of hijab are more complicated. There is a great deal of debate in the Muslim world about how strict the rules are for women. Some Muslims interpret hijab as a minimal covering of the face and body, while others believe that hijab requires a complete obscurement of the entire body in opaque garments. In a basic form, the Hadith states that women should cover their bodies in loose, nontransparent clothing to prevent the shape of the body from being seen. Hair and the upper chest should be covered, a rule many women accomplish by wearing a headscarf, also called a buknuk or khimar.

More strict interpretations of hijab include an understanding that the face should be covered as well. Perhaps the most enveloping is the Afghan burqa, which not only covers the face but also covers the eyes with a netting sewn into the burqa. Another alternative is the boushiya, a veil which covers the face entirely but still allows women to see. In other countries, a niqab is used. A niqab is a scarf which is tied over the face but has a small slit for the eyes. Tied over a headscarf, it covers the entire head.

There has been much debate over hijab in the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Some critics feel that hijab is very restrictive for women, while some Muslim women say they actually feel more comfortable in hijab. Most non-Muslim countries have ruled that if a woman chooses to wear hijab, she should be permitted to do so. Muslim policewomen, lawyers, doctors, aerobics instructors, and teachers can be seen wearing hijab in many countries.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon304334 — On Nov 19, 2012

I think the hijab is to cover up the women from the men that are not related to the women in any way. It keeps the women's modesty and does not attract men.

By anon148967 — On Feb 03, 2011

Certainly the idea of hijab dates back to the time of the prophet Muhammad, Sallalahu Alaihi Wasallam, and is spoken of in the Qur'an. On the other hand, there is much evidence to indicate that Burqa style clothing was worn before the birth of Islam.

There are writings from missionaries to pre-Islamic Arabia that speak of women covering their whole face, such as this passage by the Roman African Christian Tertullian speaking of "pagan Arabian women" who "not only cover their head, but their whole face, preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face." (Chapter 17 of The Veiling of Virgins c.a 200AD,

Please note that I am neither a Muslim myself, nor am I here to comment on the fairness or equality of the burqa, or of hijab. I am just a scholar who wants to make sure that this subject is given fair treatment.

No one should be persecuted for their beliefs. If a woman chooses to follow hijab, no one should try to tell her otherwise. And Northglen, I have heard such things said before. They are at best, people's misinformed opinions, and at worst, people trying to associate and discredit Islam as a whole by associating core Islamic beliefs with the oppressive regimes in certain primarily Islamic countries that appeared in the 1970s. Always do your research before saying something that could be considered offensive.

By anon133800 — On Dec 12, 2010

i don't think that's right that burqa and hijab existed back only in the 1970s. this is because they wore burka and hijab at the time of our prophet (s.a.w) and he was not here around in the 1970s.

By Northglen — On May 21, 2008

How long have the burqa and hijab existed? I have been told they date back only to the 1970s.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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