In celebration of Muslim Women’s Day on March 27, Brit + Co is highlighting the real stories of Muslim women. Muslim Girl says, “This day is all about centering Muslim women’s stories and voices. We call upon our allies to pass the mic to Muslim women by elevating their narratives online for the day.” If we want to do our part in supporting Muslim women, getting educated is an important step.
We spoke to Hassanah El-Yacoubi — one of the premiere modest fashion bloggers of today, a current PhD student in Religious Studies at UC Riverside, and the mastermind behind PFH (Perfect for Her) — and asked her to shine a spotlight on the differences between the most commonly seen types of headscarves: the niqab, shayla, turban, chador, and burqa.
“HIJAB” does not literally mean “HEADSCARF”
To learn more about headscarves, it’s good to start with the hijab. Here in the West, the hijab is used interchangeably with headscarf, but according to El-Yacoubi, that’s something of a misnomer. “Hijab comes from an Arabic word which means multiple things. It could mean a covering. It could mean a partition. It could mean a physical barrier between you and someone else. It doesn’t translate literally to a headscarf. That’s been a mistranslation. The actual word for a headscarf is khimar,” El-Yacoubi tells us. “Hijab, I would say to be on the safe side, translates better as veil or veiling practices, and multiple things can fall under that definition.”
There are a lot of different styles in which women wear khimar — or headscarves — of course, and the reasons for doing so run the gamut of aesthetics, religious interpretation, and personal preference. But regardless of style choices, there are some basic tenets of modest fashion — that the veil must cover the head — but there are several interpretations.
“The orthodox, traditional understanding is that the entire neck area should be covered, because when you look at the verse in the Qur’an about head covering and how a woman should do it, the general consensus amongst scholars is that the entirety of the body should be covered with the exception of the hands and the face. That means that the neck should be covered, so you do see many women wearing scarves [that] cover their ears and covers their neck,” El-Yacoubi informs us. “And then, [there are] some women who have interpreted the verse a little differently, and they wear it as a turban where the neck is showing. You have other styles where they’re covering some of their neck as well, but they’re showing some of their hair.”
But beyond that, there are a lot of “cultural nuances” in hijab. Styles also vary by region. “[The shayla] is when the headscarf covers the chest area and wraps around the shoulders as well, or when it’s more of a scarf that wraps around the head and neck. The shayla is more something you’re gonna see in the Middle East. It’s not something you see in the West primarily. I would say there are cultural nuances when it comes to veiling practices,” she informs us. The shayla itself is a long rectangular scarf that lays over the head and can be wrapped around the shoulders and then pinned into place.
“Another instance is the niqab, when the headscarf also wraps around even the mouth area, leaving only the eyes exposed. This is a cultural interpretation of the veil that you see predominantly in the Middle East,” she says. “The burqa and the niqab [are] almost synonymous, and that is the covering of the face with the exception of the eyes. And that’s not a religious mandate. That is just a cultural manifestation of the veil that is more prevalent within the Middle East and not really in the West.” The slight difference is the burqa often covers the eye area with a layer of mesh.
In the West, popular styles include the simple headscarf worn around the head and neck, and also the ever-so-stylish turban. “You definitely see a lot of the turban, but [also] just the headscarf itself that wraps around the head and the neck, and that’s it,” she says. “It doesn’t wrap around the chest or go all the way down to the hips or to the stomach area as you sometimes see with the shayla, or like the chador, which covers even the back area and the stomach area. In the West, it’s usually just an accessory. With the chador and the shayla styles, the scarf itself is the outfit, whereas now with the West, the scarf is just the accessory. It’s just the cherry on top of your outfit.”
“Even though there is definitely a guideline with how the headscarf should be worn, you’re seeing it change so much now more than ever — especially now with the modest fashion revolution — and you’re seeing so many different styles,” El-Yacoubi says. There’s a palpable excitement in her voice as she speaks. “And now, even when it comes to just the turban style, there are 10 to 20 different ways of wrapping it in the turban style.”
interpretations of head coverings can vary
“The reality is that the verses that mandate the head coverings and modesty that a woman should enjoy are not so specific, and so we yield to secondary sources which are the Hadith, a collection of narration by the prophet relayed to us by his companions, that gave us the explicit details on how to cover,” El-Yacoubi says. “We also see this when it comes to, for example, Ramadan. In the Qur’an, it tells us to fast for Ramadan and it tells us to pray, but it doesn’t get into exact details as to how to do it. And so in that regard, we yield to the Hadith to explain to us what the Prophet said in terms of how to perfect these performances.”
“You have Muslims from different sects that reject these translations, or who accept them but they regard it as something that’s just a product of its time — not meant to translate transnationally or historically,” El-Yacoubi concludes. “And then you have the more traditionalist orthodox [who is] more literalist, who understands it to mean exactly what it has said and continues [the practice] into modern times.”
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(Photos via Regor Fischer/AFP/Getty, Jessica McGowan/Getty )