The Nikab Unveiled
by Shakeel Shafi 1/29/06
Muslim women wear garments that cover their head and face when in public places. Many muslims and non-muslims do not understand the purpose of these coverings or their relevance in Islam. Therefore, there is a lot of false information regarding the covering's relevance and requirements as will be discussed. People being unaware of the truth or not open to ideas that differ from the accepted norm combined with false conjecture are the underlying reason for many disputes for Muslims and non-Muslims today. To exacerbate the problem, the vast majority of Muslims today have not read the Koran and if they have, they’ve read it in Arabic, which in many parts of the muslim world is not spoken by the indigent. (The Arabic speaking Arab world constitutes only one fifth of the entire Islamic world and even though they understand the words of the Koran they tend to follow culture and conjecture instead of the teachings.)
In Muslim countries such as Pakistan, it is instilled in the public to read and recite the Koran in Arabic, however understanding the Arabic language and the direct translation of the Koran is not stressed. To make a non-Pakistani person understand this more clearly it can be compared to a person who only knows English. Sure he can read the German language because he knows the English characters, but he won’t understand the meaning of the German writing or how to even pronounce it correctly until he learns the German language. Many actually believe or are lead to believe that it is not possible to understand the Koran without being highly educated. This may in part be because the ones forcing the Islamic teachings in the public may not actually have read the translation themselves. On the other hand, many highly educated people have read and understand the Koran; yet they only follow culture and conjecture rather than the words of the Koran because it is easier to conform then go against the grain of society. The end result of this is that reading the Koran in tongue is ritualistic and it does not gain a non-Arabic speaker any knowledge or understanding. For these people the knowledge is imparted by peers, mullahs, religious gatherings, and other indirect means. This method may have worked in the past, and was really the only way of spreading Islam, but this method is no longer acceptable.
Before I read the Koran, many would tell me that Islam requires women to cover their faces. Others would say that it is not an Islamic requirement. The search for truth prompted an investigation. So what is the truth?
Before the investigation begins, some definitions of the types of outer garments must be provided:
- Hijab is an integral part of Muslim women’s dress and it is worn when she is outside of her maharam 1. The hijab is similar to a headscarf and it is worn in addition to other body covering garments. It covers the hair but leaves the face exposed. ( 1Men who are in a woman’s maharam consists of her husband, her father, the father of her husband, her sons, the sons of her husband, her brothers, the sons of her brothers, the sons of her sisters, gentlewomen, her maidservants, such attendants who have no desire for women, and such children who have no knowledge of the relationship between the sexes.)
- A nikab is usually worn in combination with a hijab. A nikab is a piece of fabric that covers the face. Sometimes the eyes are exposed by a translucent piece of cloth to allow sight, while other times the eyes are not covered at all. It is usually worn with a full-length gown that covers the entire body.
- A burka is a one-piece garment that covers the woman from head to the toe. There are holes in the cloth around the eye section to allow for sight. The burka is generally seen in Afghanistan and its proximities.
Note: There are many Muslim women who do not wear these specific coverings which may not be because they understand or don’t understand the teachings of the Koran, it is because they may have a liberal approach to the practice of the religion.
This article primarily explores the nikab (in the remainder of this article, when the nikab is mentioned it is assumed that the associated hijab and gown are also being worn), the burka’s relevance and requirements in Islam, and the effects these coverings have on society and individuals. Most women in Pakistan tend to wear a hijab and the more “modern” tend to go without. The nikab and the burka are functionally the same so when the nikab is mentioned it includes the burka. The individual garments will be distinguished as necessary.
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