What Is the Difference between a Hijab and a Burqa?

Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen
Two women wearing burqas.
Two women wearing burqas.

The differences between a hijab and a burqa are significant, as these are two different types of garments. The hijab is a headscarf that covers the hair, neck, and sometimes a woman’s shoulders and chest. The burqa is an enveloping garment that comes in a variety of designs, but typically covers a woman's face and head entirely and may cover most or all of the rest of her body. Both a hijab and a burqa are garments worn by women in observance of Islamic modesty codes. The burqa, however, is more likely to be worn by women living in Afghanistan or Pakistan, while hijabs are worn by women in many different cultures.

A woman in a burqa.
A woman in a burqa.

The term “hijab” can be used in two different ways. The first is as a description of a Muslim woman's general adherence to modesty standards in dress. The word is also used to describe a specific garment, namely a headscarf or covering that Muslim women use to conceal their head and hair. There are many different styles of hijab available, and these styles vary by culture and the preferences of the women wearing them. Typically, a hijab covers the hair of the woman who wears it as well as her neck. In some cases, a hijab may extend past her shoulders for additional coverage. The hijab generally does not cover a woman’s face, although she may choose to wear a face veil in addition to the headscarf.

Only a minority of Muslims believe in the mandates that women should wear a burqa.
Only a minority of Muslims believe in the mandates that women should wear a burqa.

A burqa is a traditional garment that provides significant coverage to its wearer. Unlike the hijab, the burqa completely covers the wearer’s face, including her eyes. A mesh square sewn into the burqa allows a woman to see what is in front of her. Some styles of burqa simply drape over a woman’s head, face, and body, while others have an attached face veil that a woman can lift without exposing the rest of her body if she needs or wants to. The covering of a woman’s face and eyes is an important distinction between the hijab and a burqa.

There is some disagreement among Islamic scholars on the extent to which a woman should be required to cover her head and body when in public or in the presence of men who are not closely related to her. Many of these scholars point out that while modesty in dress is proper in Islam, some of the more rigorous dress codes for women are cultural in nature rather than religiously mandated. When it comes to the differences between a hijab and a burqa, it should be noted that requiring women to cover even their eyes in public is a minority practice within Islam. Wearing a headscarf of some sort, on the other hand, is a common practice within the Islamic world, even among women who wear contemporary fashions without additional body coverings.

Why Do Woman Wear Head Coverings in Islam?

Are you planning a trip to a Middle Eastern country, or do you have a close friend who hails from this region of the world? Or, perhaps you’ve just started dating a person from a culture in which women wear head coverings and you’re curious about — or confused by — the custom. You may have heard these traditional garments referred to as burqa, hijab, niqab, or abaya. Which garment is which? And what significance do they have for their wearers?

Though all of these traditional head coverings are worn by Muslim women to demonstrate their respect for and submission to God and to protect their modesty outside of their homes, the style and appearance can differ greatly from country to country — and even from woman to woman.

What Is a Burqa?

Burqa (or burka) is typically the type of head covering that provides the most coverage for its wearer. A burqa may cover the entire body and leave room for the eyes, or there may be a mesh screen instead of an open hole so that the woman can see. This garment is usually worn in countries with more strict modesty codes. While it would be common to see a woman wearing a burqa in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it would not be as typical of a choice in Europe or the United States.

What Is a Hijab?

Hijab can take on two meanings when it refers to Muslim women’s clothing: It may refer to the modesty rules and regulations within Islam, or it may refer to a specific head covering. If you hear your friend referring to a hijab in Western culture, she may be speaking about a smaller headscarf that covers the hair and leaves the face area open. Unlike a burqa, it does not conceal the face or the eyes. Your friend’s headscarf may be dark, light, plain, or patterned, but it will certainly provide coverage for her hair when she leaves her house or dorm.

What Is a Niqab?

A niqab is a veil that covers a woman’s face. A full niqab or a half-niqab can be worn with a matching head covering, such as a burqa. These coverings may be part of the traditional Muslim dress code for some women, but not all. Again, it’s more common to notice a woman wearing a niqab in the Middle East or in areas in which modest stress is more strictly adhered to as a culture. In some Western countries such as France, the niqab is a controversial piece of clothing that has been banned from public spaces as it covers most of a person’s face.

Burka vs Hijab vs Abaya

As you may have guessed, Muslim women from around the world wear many different types of head coverings. Depending on the cultures they come from, their dress standards may be very strict or relatively relaxed. Additionally, it may be a Muslim woman’s personal choice to wear a headscarf even if her culture does not regulate clothing. While a burqa may seem like a drastic choice in Western culture, they are common in certain areas of the world. Hijabs are seen worldwide but are more common in the west.

An abaya is a long, flowing dress that covers the woman’s body and may be worn with any of these head coverings. You may see a college student wearing jeans and a sweater with a hijab in the United States, but in more traditional countries, women will wear clothing that provides more coverage such as the abaya. Like many burqas, abayas can be either plain and monochromatic or decorated with patterns and very stylish. Depending on the woman’s culture and her personal values, she may wear many different types of head coverings and she may switch between an abaya and Western clothes such as pants and a sweater. While abaya dresses are typically viewed as hot and uncomfortable, they often provide coverage from the sun and allow the skin to remain cool due to their loose design.

What Are Other Terms That Refer to Head Coverings?

There are many more terms you may hear your Muslim friends talking about when they speak of covering their hair. A shayla is a long, flowing scarf that may be tucked around a woman’s shoulders. A chador is a long cloak that many Iranian women wear alone or with a headscarf underneath. If you have genuine questions about these garments, or if you are trying to figure out what to wear on your trip to a Muslim country, most Muslim women will be happy to explain the differences to you.

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