What Is the Niqab Worn by Muslim Women?

A Face-Covering Veil That Displays a Woman's Modesty

A woman wears an Islamic niqab veil stands outside the French Embassy during a demonstration on April 11, 2011 in London, England
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The niqab is an Islamic face-covering for women that veils almost her entire face and hair down to the shoulders. Part of the hijab family of traditional Islamic women's clothing, the niqab is recognizable because of the slits that reveal only a woman's eyes.

What Is a Niqab?

Usually black, spartan, and designed to efface personality and physical suggestions, the niqab is pronounced ni-ˈkäb.

It is part of a full-body covering favored in Middle East countries east and south of the Levant, where the influence of fundamentalist Islam, or Salafism, is more pronounced. These nations include Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the tribal or rural areas of Pakistan.

Since the 1970s, the niqab has made an appearance in Turkey, beginning in the east and migrating to the more urbanized west. It is also commonly seen in parts of Europe where Muslim populations are significant and growing, albeit in small numbers.

The niqab did not originate with Islam. The niqab - or face-coverings similar to it - were worn by Christian women in the Byzantine Empire and in pre-Islamic Persia. Islam adopted the practice, which was not, contrary to common perceptions, required by the Koran.

The Niqab Compared to Burqas, Hijabs, and Chadors

The niqab is similar in some respects but not identical to the burqa favored in Afghanistan or the chador favored in Iran. The three are often confused, although only pedants, nationalists, and clerical sticklers are offended by the confusion.

  • A burqa is actually the full body covering worn by many Muslim women. It may include the niqab as a veil which may or may not reveal her eyes. In some areas, such as parts of Afghanistan, it is customary for the eyes to be covered by a screen. In some views, the Afghani style is the 'true' definition of the burqa.
  • A hijab is technically a headscarf that is wrapped around a woman's head. Quite often, however, the term 'hijab' is used to refer to a Muslim woman's full dress.
  • A chador is typically worn by Muslim women in Iran. This is a cloak or robe that does not include a veil. It rests on the woman's head and flows down to her feet. Chadors may be left open or fastened in the front.

Black fabric is often associated with many of these styles of women's clothing. Yet, in some regions and sects, it is acceptable to wear different colors and patterns of fabric. Given the climate of these regions, the fabric is often very lightweight and flowing so women remain comfortable.

Controversy Surrounding Traditional Islamic Dress

Scholars, students, and common folk in Islam are in the midst of a rich and varied debate over the importance, necessity, or mere validity of the niqab and its sister-negators of the female body as required or even acceptable dress. The debate is nowhere near its conclusion.

As the Muslim population expands into Western countries, the debate is taking new turns as well. A number of countries and local governments throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa have banned some form of veil, burqa, or women's full covering. The reasons vary greatly though they often refer to the perceived oppression of women. Opponents say that these bans strike blows to religious freedoms.

In 2016, some French beaches even banned the 'burkini.' This swimsuit covers a woman from head to toe, revealing only her face, hands, and feet. According to many Islamic women who wear them, it helps them feel comfortable on the beach where revealing clothing is the norm.

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Tristam, Pierre. "What Is the Niqab Worn by Muslim Women?" Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-a-niqab-2353520. Tristam, Pierre. (2020, August 26). What Is the Niqab Worn by Muslim Women? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-niqab-2353520 Tristam, Pierre. "What Is the Niqab Worn by Muslim Women?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-niqab-2353520 (accessed July 29, 2021).