Common Forms of Headdress in the Middle East
“Why do Arabs wear burqas in the dessert? Don’t they get hot?”
“What am I going to wear when I go to Jordan? I don’t have a burqa, but maybe I can buy one there.”
These questions would make any Muslim cringe. And by Muslims, I mean Muslims – not Arabs. Many Arabs are Muslim, of course, but not all Muslims are Arabs.
23% of the world’s population is Muslim.
20% of the world’s Muslims are Arab.
Top 5 countries with Muslim populations are not in the Arab world (Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nigeria)
Top 5 languages spoken by Muslims are Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Malay
Source: any Google search
Why would Muslims cringe to hear these questions? Because the term burqa is not the correct term for all headscarves and veils worn by Muslim women.
If you plan on visiting the Middle East or Central Asia, have a business trip with Muslim counterparts or simply want to be aware of the diverse customs around you – I would suggest getting your lingo down. To ask for a burqa in a Jordanian marketplace is silly. And you should know why.
The Middle East and Central Asia are vast territories, home to numerous long-established ethnic groups and religions. Depending on the traditions, tribes and political situation, you will find different styles of dress. While there are immense differences between each style of dress in the Muslim world, there is some neutral terminology you can utilize in casual conversation. The term burqa isn’t a neutral terms and should not be used to reference Muslim women’s headdress, headscarves or veils.
Here are some basic definitions and examples of the most common headdress types for Muslim females. The list below is by no means, a comprehensive guide to all fashion in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is simply to capture the most common types of headdress I have encountered in my travels.
The burqa is a traditional outer garment for women in Central Asia that is typically a large single cloth that drapes from the head and falls to the ankles. There is a grill or sheer fabric around the eye and mouth area. Americans most likely remember images of the burqa on Afghan women living under Taliban control during the Bush, Jr. years, and in particular, the lead up to the US led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in March, 2003. Former President Bush’s administration capitalized on the misogyny of the Taliban, by using Afghan women “trapped behind the burqa” as a symbol for oppressed women in the Middle East — appropriating Afghan and Arab women as signifiers in the “war of civilizations.” Besides Afghanistan not technically being a part of the Middle East, the burqa is not commonly worn in the region anyways, and should not be used as a reference to all Arab women’s headdress.
In my experience, the hijab is the most common headdress among women in the Middle East. I’ve traveled primarily to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and UAE, as well as have done business all around the region, including Pakistan.
The hijab covers the ears, neck and hair, and is usually a single long scarf — about 2-3 feet long and about 1 foot wide. Some women will wear a soft material band about 4-6 inches thick to cover the hairline and ears, first. This material band is comfortable, snug enough to keep the baby hairs back, and matching according to the main headscarf. Then, on top of this material band, they will then wrap the head scarf to cover the rest of their hair and neck.
While I can’t post any pictures of my cousins or relatives wearing the hijab without their explicit permission, here is one with my beloved cousin Rama in the background wearing hijab in Syria.
There are various ways to wrap the headscarf. In Syria, I noticed that after they put the material headband they simply place the scarf on top of their head, equal lengths on each sides hanging down. Then, they pin it in the center, under their chin.
In Jordan, the hijab has a bit tighter of a fit. After the material head band is in place, you start wrapping the hijab from one end to the other. So, you take the short edge of the scarf and place it under the left jaw bone, wrap up and over until you are about 6-8 inches away from the other end of the scarf and bring it under the chin. Then, you pin it anywhere you like — on your head, near the ear, closer to the neck. Depends on where you are most comfortable.
The hijab is typically worn with traditional full length dress-like garments, like the abaya (typically black and bejeweled in the Gulf countries), jilbab (colorful), thoub (often embroidered and with a pattern) or with regular clothing (jeans or a skirt).
The niqab covers the hair, neck, ears as well as the face (except the eyes). It is commonly worn with a abaya that covers the woman’s hands and feet, and is very loose on the body. The piece of the veil that covers the face is usually a separate fabric attached to the headscarf or ties to the back of the head.
I have limited experience with the niqab, however while attending mosque in the United States, I found that most women that wore the niqab were white women who converted to Islam. This is not to say that all women converts or only women converts wear niqab, it’s just to say that I have never met niqab enthusiasts like I did when I spent time getting to know the women converts at the mosque.
There are many other styles of headdress, including Arab Christian women, Bedouins, Muslim and Christian men, and more. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, please leave a comment on this post or write me in the “Contact” section of the website.