How and to what degree women cover themselves can be about a sense of style, a cultural choice or a religious requirement. Some women focus on ‘no skin showing’ (and therefore cover their arms as devout Mormon women in North America do). Muslim women’s clothing choices range from modest attire to full body covering. The challenge for individuals, organizations and governments is deciding what is acceptable in communities and organizations – and what is inappropriate and even unacceptable.
In January 2017, Austria’s governing coalition decided to ban full-face veils in courts, schools and other “public places” as part of a reform initiative aimed at countering the rise of the far-right in the country. The conversations about a ban on head covering illuminates once more the public’s general lack of understanding of the differences in terms such as hijab, burqa, abaya and niqab.
An abaya is known by various names but all serve the same purpose, which is to cover up the body except for the face, hands and feet. An abaya is best described as a caftan – often cut from light, flowing fabrics. Some abayas are open at the front, some not, some are black and some are bright colours. The Koran verse “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment” is the basis for wearing this type of garment.
A burqa or burka is an abaya on steroids. It is an enveloping garment where the face is hid by a rectangular piece of semi-transparent cloth or lace from which the wearer peeks out at the world. A burqa covers the woman literally from head to toe.
A scarf, hijab and niqab are often confused terms.
A scarf is worn by women around the world for all kinds of reasons – weather, wind, modesty, style or religious adherence. In Canada, religiously orthodox women often cover their hair – women who are Hutterite wear scarves and women who are Orthodox Jews wear wigs. To this day, many Christian Catholic women still wear hats or scarves in church as a sign of piety or respect.
A hijab is a scarf or series of scarves that completely cover the hair, the neck and cleavage.
A niqab is a veil that covers the face of the woman, leaving only the eyes and occasionally part of the forehead in view.
In a previous article on this topic, I stated that I believe the niqab is a troubling garment if worn in the workplace. One, it makes it difficult for the woman wearing it to have clear periphery vision. This restriction makes it more dangerous and difficult for her to drive, walk and be aware of her surroundings. Secondly, it makes it difficult for her voice to be heard clearly which makes communication difficult and misinterpretation more likely. Thirdly, for hearing impaired people (more and more as we age), it makes reading speech impossible for the person in the conversation with the woman wearing the niqab. Lastly, and perhaps why niqabs are particularly dangerous, is that a covered face (without a cold weather reason for one) triggers human beings to distrust and fear. This was a deciding factor in France’s law enacted in 2011.
All these factors are identical for a woman wearing a burqa and are exacerbated by the severe limitation to the vision of the wearer.
A Muslim woman may wear a niqab, a hijab, a scarf, or nothing at all on their head or face. Muslim women are as diverse as women from other religions as they seek their own definition of modesty and appropriate garb.
As we move forward in increasingly diverse communities and workplaces, we need to have respectful conversations about difference.
In the workplace as we make decisions on policy, we need first to determine our common understanding of terms and definitions. Only then can we ensure productive and respectful policy development.