The Arabic word literally means curtain or cover (noun). Most Islamic legal systems define this type of modest dressing as covering everything except the face and hands in public. According to Islamic scholarship, hijab is given the wider meaning of modesty, privacy, and morality; the word for a headscarf or veil used in the Qur’an is khimār (خمار) and not hijab. Still another definition is metaphysical, where al-hijab refers to “the veil which separates man or the world from God.”
Muslims differ as to whether the hijab should be required on women in public, as it is in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia; whether it should be banned in schools, as it is in France; or whether it should be left for the women to decide.
According to the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, the meaning of hijab has evolved over time:
The term hijab or veil is not used in the Qur’an to refer to an article of clothing for women or men, rather it refers to a spatial curtain that divides or provides privacy. The Qur’an instructs the male believers (Muslims) to talk to wives of Prophet Muhammad behind a hijab. This hijab was the responsibility of the men and not the wives of Prophet Muhammad. However, in later Muslim societies this instruction, specific to the wives of Prophet Muhammad, was generalized, leading to the segregation of the Muslim men and women. The modesty in Qur’an concerns both men’s and women’s gaze, gait, garments, and genitalia. The clothing for women involves khumūr over the necklines and jilbab (cloaks) in public so that they may be identified and not harmed. Guidelines for covering of the entire body except for the hands, the feet and the face, are found in texts of fiqh and hadith that are developed later.
Traditionally, Muslims have recognized many different forms of clothing as satisfying the demands of hijab. Debate focused on how much of the male or female body should be covered. Different scholars adopted different interpretations of the original texts.
The standard typical hijab headscarf worn on the head of a mannequin.
The four major Sunni schools of thought (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali) hold that entire body of the woman, except her face and hands – though a few clerics say face, hands – is part of her awrah, that is, the parts of her body that must be covered during prayer and in public settings. There are those who allow the feet to be uncovered as well as the hands and face.
It is recommend that women wear clothing that is not form fitting to the body: either modest forms of western clothing (long shirts and skirts), or the more traditional jilbāb, a high-necked, loose robe that covers the arms and legs. A khimār or shaylah, a scarf or cowl that covers all but the face, is also worn in many different styles. Some scholars encourage covering the face, while some follow the opinion that it is only not obligatory to cover the face and the hands but mustahab (Highly recommended). Other scholars oppose face covering, particularly in the west where the woman may draw more attention as a result. These garments are very different in cut than most of the traditional forms of ħijāb, and they are worn worldwide by Muslims.
Detailed scholarly attention has been focused on prescribing female dress. Many Muslims believe that the basic requirements are that when in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (other than a close family member – see mahram), a woman should cover her body, and walk and dress in a way which does not draw sexual attention to her. Some believers go so far as to specify exactly which areas of the body must be covered. In some cases, this is everything save the eyes but most require everything save the face and hands to be covered. In nearly all Muslim cultures, young girls are not required to wear a ħijāb. There is not a single agreed age when a woman should begin wearing a ħijāb; however, in many Muslim countries, puberty is the dividing line.
In private, and in the presence of mahrams, the rules on dress are relaxed. However, in the presence of husband, most scholars stress the importance of mutual freedom and pleasure of the husband and wife.
A woman wearing a burqa or chadri in northern Afghanistan.
The burqa (also spelled burka) is the garment that covers women most completely: either only the eyes are visible, or nothing at all. Originating in what is now Pakistan, it is more commonly associated with the Afghan chadri. Typically, a burqa is composed of many yards of light material pleated around a cap that fits over the top of the head, or a scarf over the face (save the eyes). This type of veil is cultural as well as religious.
It has become tradition that Muslims in general, and Salafis in particular, believe the Qur’ān demands women wear the garments known today as jilbāb and khumūr (the khumūr must be worn underneath the jilbāb). However, Qur’ān translators and commentators translate the Arabic into English words with a general meaning, such as veils, head-coverings and shawls. Ghamidi argues that verses [Qur'an 24:30] teach etiquette for male and female interactions, where khumūr is mentioned in reference to the clothing of Arab women in the 7th century, but there is no command to actually wear them in any specific way. Hence he considers head-covering a preferable practice but not a directive of the sharia (law).
In more secular Muslim nations, such as Turkey or Tunisia, many women are choosing to wear the Hijab, Burqa, Niqab, etc. because of the widespread growth of the Islamic revival in those areas. Similarly, increasing numbers of men are abandoning the Western dress of jeans and t-shirts, that dominated places like Egypt 20 to 30 years ago, in favor of more traditional Islamic clothing such as the Galabiyya.
In Iran many women, especially younger ones, have taken to wearing transparent, colorful and very loosely worn Hijabs instead of Chadors or mantoos to protest but keep within the law of the state.
The colors of this clothing varies. It is mostly black, but in many African countries women wear clothes of many different colours depending on their tribe, area, or family. In Turkey, where the hijab is banned in private and state universities and schools, 11% of women wear it, though 60% wear traditional non-Islamic headscarves, figures of which are often confused with hijab.
In many of the western nations, there has been a general rise of hijab-wearing women. They are especially common in Muslim Student Associations at college campuses.
Some Muslims have criticized strict dress codes that they believe go beyond the demands of hijab, using Qur’an 66:1 to apply to dress codes as well; the verse suggests that it is wrong to refrain from what is permitted by God.