Hijab, niqab, burka, scarf: Are Muslim women really taking their picks?

My heart does sink rather when confronted with more facts and figures about headgear

Ahlya Fateh
Ahlya Fateh
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Hijab, niqab, burka, scarf – it sounds like a children’s rhyme chanted in a Islamic school yard eeny meeny miney mo and out you must go! There is so much to being a Muslim – the intellectual challenges; dietary pitfalls – vegetarian gelatine only please; that my heart does sink rather when confronted with more facts and figures about headgear.

Indeed I have written about hijab and the bad hair day at length over the past six months, so when I saw the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research had conducted an extensive survey covering seven Muslim-majority countries, I was skeptical to say the least.

That is until I saw the chart...I am about to make another confession, I do love a good chart. Tables, especially multi-coloured ones, have the power to put a smile on my face – throw in a spreadsheet and I am really on board. This lovely chart asks the question – What Style of Dress is Appropriate for Women in Public – now mind the 6 dinky pictures only show the women from the neck upwards so one is assuming that for the more covered styles, the dress code extends down the body.

I have yet to see anyone rocking the hijab with a matching swimsuit and sarong. The choices range from burqa, niqab and variations on the hijab to the final option – a woman with her head uncovered.

Now the results and this is where the findings do get interesting, even for those of us suffering hijab-lag. The survey conducted polled both men and women (50%/50%) across all social and religious demographics, in order to obtain an accurate set of results. So the Niqab is most popular among conservatives and fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Countries, no surprises there.

On the other end of the scale no head covering of any sort is preferred by 32% of Turkish respondents and 49% of Lebanese respondents. Overall however, the simpler hijab style was considered the most appropriate form of dress to wear in public. The survey also asked “Should women be able to choose their own clothing?” begging the question, “Why ever not?”!

Surprisingly 47% of Saudis polled said they should – which to my mind is pretty ground breaking, until I understand that it doesn’t matter what a Saudi woman is wearing, when 63% of respondents feel that she should throw an all-covering niqab over the top of it! However, for me the results from my home country Pakistan were perhaps the most perturbing, with only 22% of respondents believing that a woman is capable of choosing her own clothing and only 2% voting for the “no head covering option.”

Sympathetically and not a little smugly, my first born turned to me and said kindly, “It’s not a bad effort, Mama, but mine is just more....appropriate!”

Ahlya Fateh

Is this really what people think or what they think they should vote for when asked in public? One girlfriend who was in London over the holiday break told me that she needed to buy lots of dresses, the shorter the better, as everyone was wearing western designer gear to all the hip and cool restaurants in Karachi – based on these numbers she should keep a burqa in her handbag to throw over her couture as she trips from the car to the party!


I have two daughters, the youngest refuses to dress herself, “I need help, Mama,” she insists imperiously, luckily she is still open to suggestions and manages to leave the house looking like she hasn’t been dragged through a hedge backwards. My oldest daughter though will not accept any advice, no matter how gently it is offered.

So I spend the weekend, the two days of the week that they aren’t in uniform, trying to get one to dress herself and trying to persuade the other one to let me dress her in something that isn’t made of denim. Last Saturday we had been invited to a formal party and I came up with a solution that would hopefully keep the peace. We would both style two outfits and see which one was better.

Now, I have watched internationally famous stylists and fashion editors at work, so I was under no illusions, of course I was going to win. That was until I saw her version which wiped the floor with my offering. Sympathetically and not a little smugly, my firstborn turned to me and said kindly, “It’s not a bad effort, Mama, but mine is just more....appropriate!”

Ahlya Fateh knows all about fashion and publishing. As the former managing editor of Tatler magazine and the managing director of fashion brand, Tata Naka, she has combined a strong creative vision with an understanding of strategy and management. Ahlya lives in London and is a mother of two.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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