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Veiling and Sexuality

Sahar Amer
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Veiling and Sexuality

In most Muslim-majority societies and for the majority of Muslim women, veiling is a choice freely adopted, a visual sign of belonging to a larger community. Only four Muslim-majority societies in the world today require women to cover their hair: Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Sudan, and the Aceh Province of Indonesia. These countries invoke a traditional interpretation of Islamic texts to justify their laws and practice. In their view, women are a source of fitnah (chaos) in the Muslim community (Mernissi, 1991); their bodies are a zīna (adornment) and their `awra (private parts) must be covered. They must therefore be secluded or hidden from view in order to limit the threat they pose to the social fabric.

Even though some governments and Muslims maintain that the Qurʾān requires the veiling of women, there is in fact a wide range of divergent opinions about what the Qurʾān actually says about women’s dress. Most discussions of veiling in the Qurʾān focus on a few key passages none of which uses the term hijāb which today is the most commonly used word to refer to Islamic veiling. While the Qurʾān mandates modesty for both men and women, the text remains open ended and does not specify any particular type of clothing, or head or face cover; it does not stipulate any color, and it does not offer any firm or unambiguous requirement to wear what has today come to be considered “Muslim dress” or veiling (Amer, 2014).

When addressing the question of women’s dress, the Qurʾān uses instead the term jilbāb (33:59), stating simply that it could serve to distinguish and protect free women. Verse 31 in chapter 24 of the Qurʾān uses the term khimār, pointing out that such attire marks women’s modesty by hiding their “adornments” and covering their “private parts,” a recommendation also made explicitly and firstly to men. Much debate continues about what jilbāb and khimār could have meant in seventh-century Arabia. Much debate has also always taken place as to what those “private parts” (`awra) and “adornments” (zīna) referred to.

In their exegesis of the Qurʾān (tafsir), male Muslim theologians from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, beginning with al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), al-Rāzī (d. 1209), al-Jawzī (d. 1200), and Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), are responsible for defining for generations to come the meaning of the terms `awra and zīna and thus of the allegedly singular correct way of observing hijāb. In their works, these ʿulamāʾ interpreted the open-ended Qurʾānic passages according to the social and sartorial customs of their own times. If for al-Ṭabarī women were expected to cover their entire bodies except for their hands and face, for al-Jawzī women had to be “imprisoned” in their homes, concealed behind a solid veil made of stone: “imprison them in the homes…[for] like female snakes, women are expected to burrow themselves in their homes” (Hajjaji-Jarrah, 2003; Goto, 2004; Clarke, 2003). These increasingly restrictive interpretations of the Qurʾān and particularly of the words zīna (women’s adornments) and `awra (those private parts that required covering) quickly became orthodox prescriptions and replaced the more general Qurʾānic mandate of modesty for men and women.

Based on such tafsīr, one witnesses, over time and across Muslim-majority societies, a proliferation of scholarly, theological, and popular voices defining with greater and greater specificity those female body parts and adornments (zīna) considered “shameful” (`awra) and introducing chaos (fitnah). It hence became permitted for some governments to require and legally punish women’s use of jewelry, makeup, or those who uncover any body part including ears, neck, arms, or feet.

In fact, the English translation of the Qurʾān produced by the government of Saudi Arabia is based precisely on such conservative tafsīr. Rather than maintaining the fluidity of the Arabic text, the translators deliver instead an explicit and specific mandate for women to cover their entire body: “Tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron, etc.), and to draw their veils all over juyubihinna (i.e., their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms), etc. (al-Hillâlî and Khan, n.d., pp. 470–471).

In parallel to the proliferation of conservative voices calling for the total covering of women, Muslim societies have also witnessed the growth of a whole new industry of Islamic fashion, catering to the growing number of Muslim women from all levels of society who have adopted veiling since the 1970s. Its goal is to demonstrate that Islam and fashion are not contradictory practices, that pious Muslim women can be both devout and trendy (or sexy). Despite the internal and external criticism that the Islamic fashion industry faces from the Euro-American fashion industry and from Muslim secularists, it continues to have great appeal, especially to the younger generations as it allows them to assert at once their piety and their modernity and cosmopolitanism (Lewis, 2010; Gokariksel & Secor, 2010; Jones, 2010).


  • Amer, Sahar. What Is Veiling? Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Clarke, Linda. “Hijab According to Hadith: Text and Interpretation.” In The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, edited by Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, pp. 214–286. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.
  • Gökarıksel, Banu, and Anna Secor. “Between Fashion and Tesettür: Marketing and Consuming Women’s Islamic Dress.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6, no. 3 (Fall 2010): 118–148.
  • Goto, Emi. “Quran and the Veil: Contexts and Interpretations of the Revelation.” International Journal of Asian Studies 1, no. 2 (2004): 277–295.
  • Hajjaji-Jarrah, Soraya. “Women’s Modesty in Quranic Commentaries: The Founding Discourse.” In The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, edited by Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough, pp. 181–213. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.
  • Hilâlî, Muhammad Taqî-ud-Dîn, al-, and Muhammad Muhsin Khân. Trans. Translation of the Meanings of The Noble Quran In the English Language. Medina: King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qurʾan, n.d.
  • Jones, Carla. “Fashion and Faith in Urban Indonesia.” Fashion Theory 11, nos. 2–3 (2007): 211–232.
  • Jones, Carla. “Images of Desire: Creating Virtue and Value in an Indonesian Islamic Lifestyle Magazine.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6, no. 3 (Fall 2010), 91–117.
  • Lewis, Reina. “Marketing Muslim Lifestyle: A New Media Genre.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6, no. 3 (Fall 2010), 58–90.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist’s Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. Reading, Mass.: Perseus, 1991.
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