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Islam / Popular religion / Muslim dress codes /
Arabic: niqāb
Also called: Purdah

Female Muslim clothing
Muslim dress codes

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From Madaba, Jordan (2007).


From Damascus, Syria (2007).

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Niqabi and her young daughter. From Amman, Jordan (2007).

Rare example of niqab hiding even the eyes. Damascus, Syria (2007).
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Rare example of niqab hiding even the eyes. Damascus, Syria (2007).

Type of extremely conservative dress used by some Muslim women, which hides most of the face, usually only showing the eyes. A niqab may also come to cover everything, yet with a semi-transparent fabric over the eyes. The niqab is not a variation of the less conservative hijab.
A niqab has no specific form, and is allowed in more colours, although black is by far the most common. A niqab is usually undecorated.
A female wearing a niqab is referred to as niqabi.
For the geographical area of this encyclopaedia, the niqab is common in countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Palestine and Syria, but is in use in most of the other countries, save Turkey. In Egypt, the niqab is quickly gaining ground.
The practice of niqab is hotly debated within Islam, where the majority of scholars and common Muslims consider it to be a highly voluntary custom, and perhaps even an non-Islamic custom. Conservative Muslims claim that it is the consequence of a few Koranic verses and a slightly larger number of hadith verses, hence that it is either highly recommended or obligatory.
At no point does the Koran clearly say that a Muslim woman should hide her face, rather the Koran 33:59 clearly states that a woman using the veil "... can be recognized but not annoyed". It can therefore be alleged that the use of niqab contradicts the Koran. There are however two verses (see Hijab for full treatment) in the Koran that express the needs of a woman to dress modestly, but exactly which parts of a woman's body should be hidden does not come clear.
Some understand these passages that a woman's bosom should be hidden, some that her hair and neck should be hidden (involving the use of hijab) and some that everything should be hidden except one or both eyes.
But there is one line in 24:31 which says that a woman should hide "... ornaments, except those which are outside...". This, being among the foremost indicators to female modesty, gives extremely little support to those claiming that it is unambiguous that niqab, or even hijab, are commanded by Islam.
The often expressed reason for using a niqab is to avoid sexual attraction between man and woman. Books, articles and websites promoting the use of niqab never deal with the danger of sexual attraction a niqabi may feel by seeing unveiled men.
The origins of the niqab are not clear, but there are plenty of evidence showing that similar types of dressing were used in many circumstances and with many groups in Arabia (and elsewhere) prior to the emergence of Islam. Whether the Muslim use of the niqab is a continuation or a fresh new tradition independent of prior traditions cannot be clarified with evidence, but stating that it is a non-Muslim, or a pre-Muslim tradition will not violate facts.
In many Muslim societies, niqab is a preferred garment by prostitutes, allowing her to hide her identity in exposed situations.

2008 November: Saudi cleric, Shaykh Muhammad al-Habadan, calls for the introduction of a niqab that only reveals one eye, pointing at the potential seductive potential with showing both eyes, emphasized with the use of make-up.

By Tore Kjeilen