In the Qur’an women are admonished to cover their heads and to pull their coverings over their bosoms. However the style and degree of veil varies according to the situation. The veil affords women modesty, respect and dignity and protects herself from harm and the evils of society by covering her beauty.
In Chapter 33, verse 60 of the Holy Qur’an Allah says :
‘O Prophet! tell your wives and your daughters, and the women of the believers, that they should pull down upon them of their outer cloaks from their heads over their faces. That is more likely that they may thus be recognised and not molested. And Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.’
In light of this instruction some women choose to cover their faces whereas others prefer to cover their heads only leaving their faces uncovered and bare of makeup – both of which are valid interpretations according to various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Some choose to adopt a compromise between the two by covering their faces when they apply make up.
The ‘veil’ can take many forms.
The Hijab generally refers to a head-covering which covers the head and the neck, leaving the face uncovered. These head coverings come in many shapes and styles but the primary objective they all have is to cover the hair completely.
The Niqaab is generally understood as clothing that covers the face as well as the head, with the eyes showing, or with a netting over the eyes.
The burqa is a veil which covers the head, face and body of a woman from head to toe, allowing her to see from a gauze like material over the eye area. This style of veiling is seen in the Middle East more so than in the West and is the way in which some Muslim women choose to cover themselves. (Some cultural traditions can influence the style of veil women prefer to adapt).
The covering of the head is not a concept that is unique to Islam, but is found in Biblical literature also. The Bible taught the wearing of a veil long before Islam. In the Old Testament we read:
“When Re-bek'ah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel. For she had said unto the servant 'What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us?' And the servant had said 'It is my master' Therefore she took a vail and covered herself.” [Genesis: 24:64-65]
In the New Testament we read:
“But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.”(1 Corinthians: 11: 5-6)
There is no law in Islam that punishes a woman for not wearing a veil and according to Islamic law a man has no jurisdiction in forcing a woman to wear a veil or hijab. He can, if he has some authority over a woman (as a husband or father or brother) admonish, request, and in the case of a father to require it of his daughter, but absolutely no right in actively forcing a woman to adopt the hijab. However women are strongly advised to veil themselves as appropriate to maintain their honour and dignity.
Perhaps the view that the veil inhibits freedom and equality is a reaction to the original Biblical edict where St. Paul teaches
‘For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the Glory of the man. For man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.’ (1 Corinthians, 11:7-10).
According to St. Paul the veil is a sign of man's authority over her. It is possible that St. Paul’s pronouncements may have led many in the West to see the veil as a symbol of inferiority, subservience and degradation. In contrast, the veil in Islam signifies modesty as well as serving as a means of protection.