The veil, which is an article of clothing that covers a portion of the head or the face of the women, is not exclusive to Muslim women or to Islam, it has been widely practiced through the centuries by European, Asian, and African societies. The meaning and significance of the veil has also changed time and again based on the society it was being practiced in.
The Veil From Greek History
In ancient Greek and Persian empires as well as in Mesopotamia, around 1400BC, the veil was used as a way of differentiating between respectable ladies and others. The rich and higher-class women were expected to cover themselves and those who were of lower standing in the society were forbidden to do so. The Assyrian laws were so strict regarding the veil that commoners wearing it could have their ears cut off for committing such, as it was thought, a sinister atrocity.
Greek women also wore veils as a sign of submission to their husband's power over them, a woman who ditched the veil was thought to be announcing her decision to withdraw from her marriage. They also thought that covering their face and head would protect them by concealing them from evil spirits who might try to cast spells on them.
Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman women in the time period leading up to 1175, were known to wear a veil that covered their entire head, neck and a portion of their face up to the chin. This was somewhat similar in style to a wimple. In Italy, women wore veils that covered nearly the entire face, as a symbol of piety and modesty, as late as the 1970s. These veils consisted of a cap called a cuffa and then had a fazzoletto, which was a triangular scarf, that was worn over the cap.
A garment similar to a veil was worn by married Hindu women in the subcontinent around 1BC. They would draw their shawl over their heads in an attempt to partially hide their face. This practice was quickly countered by the Buddhists in 3BC as they tried to discourage the practice. But it gained popularity in the region again under the rule of the Medieval Islamic Mughal empire and then again in the 15th and 16th century and is recorded in Hindu scriptures.
Veils had as much to do with religion as with region. Clothing has been long been used by women and men to show their dedication to religion or simply just as compliance with the rules of it.
Followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all wear similar types of veils or garments in differing styles.
The Veil Across Multiple Religions
Jewish laws consider a woman's hair to be ervah (an erotic stimulus) and enjoin its concealment, along with other body parts that it also terms as ervah. A lot of married Jewish women will cover their hair as proof of their modesty. This covering, mostly followed by orthodox Jews and Hasidic Jews, displays their dedication to the Torah.
Some more extreme sects of Jews wear a covering similar to the Muslim Burqa to hide the shape of their body and cover their faces too.
Christian women also observe the veil. Especially when they're praying either at the church or at home. This practice has been around for over 2000 years. Besides this, Christian women are also known to wear a veil at their weddings and at funerals.
Nuns are expected to wear a veil of a specific style to distinguish them from other women. The color of their veil depends on their qualification level and the place where they are serving.
The Muslim Veil
Muslim women have worn veils since the dawn of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. These veils are worn as a symbol of piety and modesty. They are also believed to be worn to keep men from getting temptations and hence disrespecting them. The style of the veil varies greatly from place to place and time to time.
Despite its notable presence throughout the history of the world, the Muslim veil and the women who decide to observe it, have come under a lot of fire and are at the crux of much controversy.
Of recent, many countries have been seen banning it while many others that previously forced women to cover are now seen to be chucking such laws from their system. In the midst of such heat, a lot of people have been wondering why all the variations to the Muslim veil exist and which one is considered most authentic. Well, we are here to tell you that.
The hijab is the most common sort of head covering that is observed all over the world. It is what you see modern women around you wearing on the subway or in cafes, etc. It consists of a headscarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face completely uncovered. Its style varies greatly from place to place and person to person.
Most women coordinate the color with their outfits. In countries such as Turkey, women will often add volume to their hijabs to style it better and it is tightly pinned to their head and shoulders to cover all their hair. Persian women, on the other hand, will often wear their hijab loosely and don't mind their hair being seen.
The abaya is a loose garment that comes in many shapes and styles. It was commonly worn in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa but can now be seen in other parts of the world.
The abaya was traditionally black and had a straight cut, but women now wear it in differing styles and fancy cuts and will even modify the colors. Abayas are usually paired with niqabs (see below) but can also be worn with a simple hijab for those who wish to do so.
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The burqa is a garment that was introduced during the Taliban reign in Afghanistan. Afghan women can be seen in this attire which covers their head, body, and even their faces. It also has a screen in front of the eyes and is considered the strictest and concealing of Muslim veils. Though previously restricted to the Afghanistan region, it can now be seen in the northern areas of Pakistan too, worn by Afghan refugees and locals who have taken inspiration from it.
Popular in Egypt, the Khimar is a veil that has a hole cut out in it for the face. It covers the head, shoulders, and neck. Normally it is of waist length, but some women may choose to wear it down to their knees.
Al-Amira means the princess, and this sort of veil is considered a princess veil. Consisting of two parts, the Al-Amira is similar to the Khimar. The Khimar is in actuality a variant of this type of veil. Al-Amira is supposed to be an easy to wear hijab and comes as a tight-fitting cap that covers all the hair, and long rectangular tube-like silk scarves which can be pinned to the head or shoulder, as need be.
The chador, native to Iran and surrounding regions, is a semi-circle of fabric that wraps around the women's body from head to toe. It is floor-length and it clutched at the front with the hands or teeth, or sometimes wrapped around the arms.
It became common when the Iranian government put into place their hijab law which made it mandatory for all women to cover in public places.
The niqab covers the face, leaving only the eyes visible, and comes in two main styles. The full niqab, common in Gulf countries, is a wide garment that covers the head and face, and sometimes even the back and chest regions. It is worn with an abaya or other similar attire. A full niqab often has multiple layers of sheer fabric attached which may either be thrown back over the head or allowed to fall forward to cover the eyes.
The other type, the half niqab, can be seen in various parts of the world and is simply a piece of cloth with a slit for the eyes and is tied at the back. This sort of niqab requires a separate headcover along with an abaya.
This is a metallic-looking mask that has become nearly obsolete in the modern world. It is made of stiff fabric such as leather but gives a metallic feel because of its shiny surface. It was worn by women in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and is thought to have originated in Gujrat in the 18th century. It is considered to be a cultural variant of the niqab and is said to be used by older, married women more commonly than unmarried, younger ones.
The boshiya is similar to the niqab and nearly identical to the full niqab. The difference between the two is that the boshiya doesn't give the option of leaving the eyes uncovered and covers the entire face with a sheer fabric. The sheerness of the front fabric allows the women to look outside but the observer cannot see the face of the women.
The Bottom Line
What one considers modest is a question of personal choice. What they choose to wear is also between them and their Lord. But what we can do is respect them and their right to express and keep in mind that the outfit a person dons don't necessarily reflect what's inside them.