Understanding the Face Veil
The Face Veil in Islamic Law
Why Do Some Muslim Women Wear the Face Veil?
The purpose of this article is to discuss the question of face-veiling by Muslim women. What is the basis of this practice? What motivates women to conceal themselves so completely?
If you feel that a Muslim woman is oppressed by covering her head, the face veil can only seem like a still greater oppression. I personally do not find veiling to be oppressive in and of itself. The oppression comes when women have no choice in the matter. If you find even the headcovering oppressive, you will not likely be convinced by anything I am writing here about face veils. I do encourage you to read "Why Do You Dress Like That?", my primer on the rules of women's dress in Islam, and On Veiling..., in which I discuss some issues related to the Islamic modest dress in order to argue that it is not oppressive. This article assumes that you have read both of the referred articles and are familiar with the arguments made there.
The Arabic word that is most often used by Muslims to refer to the face veil is niqab. There are various other names that are used in different Muslim cultures to refer to various styles of face veil, but niqab is the most widely used. It may be used to refer to any type of outfit that covers the face, not just to the actual face veil. You can see some examples of different niqabs and face-veiling styles in my Glossary of Hijab Styles.
The Face Veil in Islamic Law
There is much confusion and dispute even among Muslims about the status of the niqab (face veil) in Islamic law. There are some Muslims who reject it vigorously but they agree with the headscarf. There are other Muslims who accept it while feeling that it is an extra thing and a recommended act but not obligatory. And there are also Muslims who assert that it is the required form of modest dress for women. This last group are very vocal and thus get more attention that their numbers would otherwise suggest.
I have been researching the question of the niqab (face veil) for more than two years, learning exactly what the textual sources of Islamic law say, and what the opinions of the scholars are. I have written several articles for Muslims setting out what I have found and what my opinion is. These are probably too technical for non-Muslims, but if you wish to look at them they are the following:
In the first paragraph of this section, I listed three positions that are held by Muslims in regard to niqab (the face veil). As you can see from the summaries of my articles, I take the middle position. I do not feel that face veiling is obligatory, but I accept it as a recommended act. Based on my studies, I believe this to be the most correct position under Islamic law.
If you have the patience, I would like (God willing) to try to provide a non-technical summary of my position. If you are not interested, you can go on to the next section of this document Why Do Some Muslim Women Wear the Face Veil?.
Still with me? Great. In order to understand this discussion, it will be very helpful for you to have read my article "Why Do You Dress Like That?". That article explains the textual sources concerning women's dress in Islam.
To review, there are two verses in the Quran that concern women's dress. These are Surah an-Nur verse 31 and Surah al-Ahzab verse 59. Surah an-Nur verse 31 contains two commands that particularly relate to women's dress. The first is that women shall cover all of their beauty except "what is apparent of it" around men who are not related to them. The second is that women should extend their headcoverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms. As for Surah al-Ahzab verse 59, it commands that women shall wear long, loose outergarments (jilbabs) when they go out from their houses. These two verses together set out three parts of the hijab or modest dress:
In "Why Do You Dress Like That?", I said that the exempted parts, which are referred to in the phrase "what is apparent of it," are the face and the hands. So where does the face veil come into it?
Those who claim that face veiling is obligatory try to read it out of each of the three parts of hijab. Their reasoning is: if the Quran actually does direct women to cover their faces, then it would naturally be considered obligatory.
Their first claim is that the khimar, which I have translated as "headscarf" or "headcovering", is actually a face veil. This claim is actually very weak since it is against the meaning of the Arabic. The essay A Study of Surah an-Nur ayah 31 analyzes and refutes this claim (I have also written a separate essay that examines only the question of the khimar, which is What is the Khimar?)
The second claim that is made is that "what is apparent of it" does not refer to the face and hands, as I have argued. Instead, those who take this position say that the phrase refers to the exterior surface of the women's garments. That is, around non-related men, women should conceal all of their attractions except the exterior surface of their garments. This would obviously mean that the entire body, including both the face and the hands, should be covered. This claim actually has a slightly stronger basis than the previous, since it has always been a minority opinion among the Islamic scholars. However, it is still a relatively weak claim, and the much stronger opinion is that the phrase "what is apparent of it" refers to the face and hands. Most of A Study of Surah an-Nur ayah 31 is devoted to showing why the face-and-hands opinion is best.
The third claim that is made is that the jilbab, which is translated as "outergarment", is something that is wrapped to cover the face. Oddly enough, this is the strongest of the three claims. There are a number of reports that indicate that when the verse was first revealed, the women drew their jilbabs close in such a way as to cover most of their faces. In other words, this evidence seems to indicate that the explanation provided by the Prophet (pbuh) of "tell the faithful women to draw their jilbabs close around themselves" (from 33:59) was that they should draw it over their faces, just as his explanation of "what is apparent of it" (from 24:31) was that it refers to the face and hands. The essay What is the Final Rule on Hijab? addresses the question of whether or not this evidence makes face veiling obligatory. The understanding that I have come to is that during one period of time the women did cover their faces but later, when the situation was more secure, they were permitted to display their faces and hands, and this is the final rule.
There are really two things you should understand from the above. First, that those Muslim scholars who argue for the niqab (face veil) to be obligatory are not just doing this on the idea that more modesty is always better for women, but instead they base their position on their understanding of how the Prophet (pbuh) explained the Quran, although some of them may try to stretch their arguments further than the evidence can support. Second, that there is a complex and subtle debate within Islam about this issue; Islam is not a monolith.
In this section, I have discussed some of the debate among Muslims about the status of niqab in Islamic law. In the next section, God willing, I will turn to the question of why Muslim women do wear niqab.
Why Do Some Muslim Women Wear the Face Veil?
In the previous section, The Face Veil in Islamic Law, I looked at the debate among Muslims over the status of the niqab (face veil) in Islamic law. In this section, I would like, God willing, to take a more personal approach. Why do some Muslim women wear niqab?
First, there are a number of Muslim women who believe that niqab is obligatory for them. They would give the same kind of explanation for their dress that I did in "Why Do You Dress Like That?"; they would just provide a different explanation of the extent of veiling that is necessary. The possible bases for this position are discussed above.
But there are also many Muslim women who believe that niqab is not required and yet they wear it. Why do they find it good to veil themselves so completely, when this isn't a religious obligation?
The essay Why Wear Niqab? is an address to Muslim women in favor of niqab. A summary is provided here. Hopefully if you have made it this far through the essay, you have already read On Veiling.... If not, this would be a good time to go and do so. In that essay, I discuss several aspects of hijab (the ordinary modest dress of the Muslim woman). Several of these are pertinent here.
In On Veiling..., I discussed the importance of privacy in the Islamic social code. Everything that is not necessary to be known in public should be concealed and kept private. There is an entire code of conduct that a Muslim follows in order to uphold the importance of private space and private things. Hijab is a part of this. A Muslim might desire to be especially careful in protecting privacy. This might involve using extra vigilance in guarding one's tongue and averting one's gaze, above and beyond what is required. It might also involve extra-modest dress. When a Muslim woman is already covering everything but her face and her hands and she wants to dress more modestly, the only things left for her to cover are her face and hands. Seen in this light, niqab is not "extreme", but rather is a natural extension of the principle of privacy.
In On Veiling..., I also discussed some of the spiritual aspects of hijab. In particular, I talked about how it can increase awareness of God, and how it is a struggle that can purify the inner self. Both of these are also true of niqab, and to a greater degree than they are true of hijab. A Muslim woman might want to wear a reminder literally on her face that God is watching everything she does. Or she might find that the struggle to adopt an extra observance improves her faith and her character.
The basic point is that niqab is an extra degree of observance in something that is already done (in this case, dressing modestly.) It is recommended to Muslims, and beneficial for them, to do other extra observances, for instance to offer more prayers than are required, to fast days beyond Ramadan, or to give extra money in charity. Niqab as an extra obersevance is no different than this. This may seem odd or not make sense to non-Muslims, but it is a very real motivation for many Muslim women. At the very least, you should try to understand that it is an act of religious devotion, not part of some inferiority complex. Nearly all niqabi (face-veiling) women that I have talked with have adopted niqab completely by their own decision. They were not forced to it by their husbands or fathers, but chose it for themselves as a way to become closer to God.
Beyond the reasons that I have given above, Muslim women look to see if niqab is part of the recommended way that God and the Prophet (pbuh) have set out. There is very good evidence of this. As I mentioned in The Face Veil in Islamic Law above, the historical evidence seems to indicate that during a troubled time in the early Islamic community, women were commanded to draw their cloaks (jilbabs) to cover their faces. This was to protect them from harassment, and to distinguish them as Muslim women and assert their Islamic identity (these reasons are mentioned in Surah al-Ahzab verse 59 as benefits of the jilbab.) Later, when the Islamic community was secure, this requirement was lifted. The fact still remains that niqab is clearly the way recommended by Islam for a woman to protect herself and to assert her Islamic identity to an extra degree.
As well, the wives of the Prophet (pbuh), who were in the position of "first ladies" and required to answer questions from the ordinary Muslims (Surah al-Ahzab verse 53) and to interact a great deal with men, wore niqab. This is verified from many reports and accepted by all Muslim scholars. From this two lessons can be drawn. First, if a woman will be in a position where she is required to interact a great deal with men, far more than usual, or if she will be the center and focus of attention, the best way for her to screen her privacy is for her to wear niqab. Second, the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) are examples to ordinary Muslim women of what a truly pious and devout woman is like. And in Islam, the examples of the truly pious and devout veiled their faces.
Additionally, there is a good deal of evidence of ordinary Muslim women wearing niqab as they went about their daily lives, with the approval of the Prophet (pbuh).
To summarize, niqab is an extra degree of observance in the area of modesty and privacy and is recommended for being an extra degree, just as extra degrees of observance are recommended in other areas, like prayer or giving to charity. Niqab is also the specific form of extra-modest dress established by Islam. It is part of Islam, and is the clear example of those who knew Islam best.
This, then, is the way that Muslim women approach the question of niqab. If nothing else, I hope that I have given you some insight into the way that Muslims think about veiling issues. It is not about the oppression of women or a sign of their inferiority. It is seen as a guard of privacy, a reminder of God, a personal struggle to improve, and an act of religious devotion following in the footsteps of the righteous predecessors.
Note: Since 2002 I have worn the face veil part-time. You can read my niqab story online or those of other Muslim women.