Although we often assume that a woman who covers her head and face in public is Muslim, especially if she has a Middle Eastern background, there is a cultural tradition among Arab nations that predates the Prophet Muhammad by as much as half a millennium. However, the Quran does offer some guidance toward maintaining a woman’s modesty, including the covering of the head.
Differences of opinion among Islamic scholars over how much of a woman’s head should be covered (for example, does that include the face?) and whether or not such covering is obligatory have led to an array of coverings for Muslim women to wear when they are out in public.
In news and popular culture, we hear references to burqas and hijabs often enough, but women have more options than that, depending on their culture and religious beliefs. Here are four types of coverings to keep in mind:
The word hijab describes the act of covering up to maintain modesty, but it’s also used to describe the headwear used to do the covering. Used generically, hijab normally refers to headscarves that leave the face uncovered.
There are different types of hijab — like the rectangular shayla, the longer khimar, and the two-piece al-amira — though, like in many other areas of fashion, exactly what separates one type of hijab from another isn’t universally accepted.
The niqab is a cloth that covers the nose and mouth but not the eyes. It is paired with another type of hijab that covers the head.
A body-length cloak that covers the head and is open down the front, the traditional chador has no hand openings or fasteners; the women who wear them hold them closed. According to their beliefs, a woman may wear a niqab beneath the chador or leave their face uncovered.
This is the full-body outer garment that covers everything; even the eyes are covered by a mesh. The burqa is often associated with the Taliban, which enforced their use in Afghanistan, though Muslim groups and individuals from other locations require women to wear a burqa when in public, too.
Accuracy for the sake of accuracy is important enough, but when the subject is religion, opportunities for mistakes, misrepresentation, and offense seem to multiply. While a Western perspective might categorize hijabs, niqabs, chadors, and burqas under the broad (and sedate) category of “clothes,” to Muslims, they are part of both a cultural statement and a sacred covenant, with the same weight of meaning and importance of a Jewish yarmulke, a Catholic priest’s collar, or a Mormon temple garment.