Signs and Symbols

Are Muslim women required to veil their faces?

Use of the veil depends a great deal on cultural custom. The Qur’an does not explicitly require that women cover their faces. It calls for modest dress, but some have interpreted one ambiguous text—”they should draw their veils over their bosoms….” (Qur’an 24:31)—to mean that the head covering should continue down over the upper body. In some cultures, Muslim women wear various forms of facial covering, whether drawn across the lower face from side to side or covering the head completely like a small tent. Those coverings also vary in texture from a fine gauze to a fairly heavy weave with slits cut at eye level. The majority of women who wear some form of distinctive clothing, technically known as hijab (pronouned hiJAAB, veiling or covering), opt for a head scarf down to the mid-forehead so that it covers all the hair. Some wear a flowing gown (jilbab, pronounced jilBAAB) that extends to the ankles; some a face veil (niqab) that leaves only the eyes exposed; still others the burqa, a tentlike garment that covers all but the feet.

Note that the emphasis is on modesty rather than on some specific style of covering. Muslim immigrants to Europe or the United States from the Middle East or southern Asia might choose to continue wearing styles common in their homelands. Where prevailing social norms allow greater latitude in choice of dress, Muslim women often report that they opt for fuller covering for two reasons: They seek an explicit symbolic connection with Islamic practice and they choose to make a statement of personal freedom from the general exploitation of women that they often experience in society at large.

Muslim women are not required to wear veils. The Qur’an only states that they should dress modestly.


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