Since the seventh century, Islam has grown to be one of the major world religions. As it spread through the Middle East to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, to Central Asia, and to many different societies around the Arabian Sea, it incorporated some local veiling customs and influenced others. But it is only recently that some Islamic states, such as Iran, have begun to require all women to wear the veil (in Iran it is called the chador, which covers the entire body).
Critics of the Muslim veiling tradition argue that women do not wear the veil by choice, and they are often forced to cover their heads and bodies. In contrast, many daughters of Muslim immigrants in the West argue that the veil symbolizes devotion and piety and that veiling is their own choice. To them it is a question of religious identity and self-expression.
What are the origins of the obligation to wear the Islamic veil (or hijab in Arabic)? Do all Muslim women wear the veil? Do they have to? Also, are all veils the same, or do they take different forms and shapes? And, finally, what objections does the veil raise in some countries in the West? Sociologist Caitlin Killian explains that, in the past as in the present, the tradition of veiling has been influenced by different religious interpretations as well as by politics.
Muslim religious writings are not entirely clear on the question of women veiling. Various statements in the Quran and the Hadith (statements attributed to the prophet Mohammed) make reference to Mohammed’s wives veiling, but it is debatable whether these statements apply only to the Prophet’s wives or to all Muslim women.
While the need for women to be modest is mentioned, the area women must cover depends on the source and ranges from “the bosom” to the whole body except the face and hands. The veil is a vehicle for distinguishing between women and men and a means of controlling male sexual desire. . . . Muslim men are also urged to be modest and to cover themselves between the waist and the knees. . . . [In some Islamic societies] an immodest woman brings dishonor not only on herself but also on her male family members. . . . The veil itself, however, predated Islam and was practiced by women of several religions. It also was largely linked to class position: Wealthy women could afford to…