September 29, 2011

A veil is a length of cloth worn by women as a covering for the head and shoulders, and often in Eastern countries for the face. The practice of veiling began in Mesopotamian cultures as early as 4,000-5,000 years ago as an adaptation to desert life, that is, for protection against the sun, wind, and sand. A variety of religions and cultures with roots in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions incorporated the practice of veiling. Veiling was seen as a ritual to purify, and Greeks, Jews, Hindus, and Christians all practiced veiling. Catholics in particular used the ritual of veiling for covering things and persons. In Catholicism, for example, the paten veil covers the bread before consecration while the chalice veil covers the wine. Nuns, brides, and young girls receiving communion all wear veils. Although the practice of veiling predates Islam, it has been embraced and spread by that religion. Many Muslims view the practice of veiling as a symbol of virtue, modesty, and privacy for women.


In the Middle East there are many terms used to describe a variety of veils. The type of veil used depends on what body part is to be covered and the geographic region in which it is to be used. There are dozens of veils used in the Middle East; below are descriptions of the most commonly used veils. Hijab means to cover or screen in classical Arabic. Muslim women use the word to refer to a variety of styles in which one uses scarves and large pieces of cloth to cover their hair, neck, and sometimes shoulders. The hijab often leaves the entire face open. Most Muslim women living in the United States wear the hijab.

The chador is a full-body cloak that conservative Muslim women in Iran wear outdoors. Depending on how it is designed, the chador may or may not cover the face. In 1979, the Iranian revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini brought about required veiling in its strictest form, the chador. Government officials arrested and sometimes flogged unveiled women. Today Iranian women are required to veil, but in the less strict hijab form rather than chador. A similar full-body cloak is called the abaya in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian women are also required to wear the abaya outdoors under penalty of arrest.

The nikab is a veil that covers everything below the bridge of the nose and the upper cheeks, and sometimes also covers the forehead. It is most commonly worn by women with roots in Pakistan and Morocco. The nikab is worn with a head scarf and body cloak.

The burka comes in many variations but in its most conservative form, it thoroughly covers the full body and face of the person wearing it, leaving only a meshlike screen to see through. The burka is most associated with the Taliban regime, which ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Women were beaten in public if they refused to wear the burka.


The veiling of Muslim women has fueled and continues to fuel fierce debate. Although there are no laws requiring veiling in most Middle Eastern countries, conservative and traditionalist Muslims justify their pro-veiling stance on a number of grounds:

  1. Traditionalist Muslims argue that men’s sexuality can be ignited through unregulated social contact with women. Thus, the purpose of a veil is to regulate social contact and to “protect [a woman's] virtue and to safeguard her chastity from lustful eyes and covetous hands.”
  2. Traditionalist Muslims argue that the veil is a symbol of the Muslim woman’s obedience to Islamic principles.
  3. Some individuals feel that veiling reflects cultural and ethnic identity.

Muslim feminists, on the other hand, have argued that veiling is a means of oppression:

  1. The veil clearly marks Islamic women who wear it and places unveiled Muslim women in the position of justifying why they do not wear it.
  2. In some Middle Eastern countries, most notably Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, unveiled women are flogged, arrested, or beaten by government officials and family members.
  3. The forced veiling of women can be seen as a tool for exercising political power, control, punishment, and obedience.


While the beliefs and customs of veiling are a mystery to many Western health care professionals, most acknowledge that they appear to have a substantial influence on the delivery of health care services in the United States. A recent study on breast cancer screening found that Muslim women who practice veiling felt uncomfortable participating in recommended cancer screening programs. Muslim women expressed concern over exposing their bodies to men and non-Muslim women except in circumstances where there were obvious symptoms of disease present, thus making disease prevention activities difficult. The study concluded that failure to accommodate the beliefs, customs, and lifestyle of Muslim women into health care delivery could significantly affect their participation in health care.

See Also: Cancer screening, Discrimination, Ethnicity, Feminism, Spirituality

Suggested Reading

  • Bartkowski, J. P., & Ghazal Read, J. (2003). Veiled submission: Gender, power, and identity among evangelical and Muslim women in the United States. Qualitative Sociology, 26(1), 71—92.
  • Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). (1994). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
  • Moghadam, V., & Faegheh, S. (2002). The veil unveiled: The hijab in modern culture. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34(3), 597-599.
  • Sanders, E. (2001, October 5). Interpreting veils. The Seattle Times.
  • Underwood, S. M., Shaikha, L., & Bakr, D. (1999). Veiled yet vulnerable. Cancer Practice, 7(6), 285-289.


Category: V