Today’s post in the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is by…me. I figured before we get too far we needed some definitions.

Hijab. Burka. Head scarf. Chador. Niqaab. Shalmad. Jilbaya. Al-Amira. Shayla. Khimar. Masar. Abaya.

What is it? That depends. The article Not all headscarves are burkas is a helpful starting point. (And please correct me or offer new insights where I’m wrong here, I’m still learning too and am more than willing to be corrected.)

When we talk about hijab, what exactly are we talking about? I read the blog of a woman embarking on a ‘burka experiment.’ I’ll let you google it if you must. One problem with her experiment is that what she is wearing isn’t a burka.

There are different styles of Islamic coverings for women and different names for them depending on what language you speak and different assumptions made about the woman beneath the covering depending on who you talk to.

The abaya, for example, is a black robe worn by Arab women and exported to other countries via expatriates, immigrants, refugees, and fashion tastes. In Djibouti the abaya is worn by Djiboutians of Yemeni descent, my Somali house helper when she is going to Quranic classes, high school or college students who wear skinny jeans beneath the robe, and women who wear it for modesty but need to shed the robe someplace else, like girls who run at the track – they wear the abaya on the bus, whip it off for practice and throw it back on for the return trip. Or by me when I am on my way to a funeral sitting in a conservative area and realize I’m not dressed modestly enough but only have a minute to throw something on. Bam, on goes the abaya and I’m ready.

However, when I told a friend who lives in Pakistan that I sometimes wear the abaya, she was shocked. She said in her city, the abaya was only worn by extreme fundamentalists and was as far from a mere fashion statement as Daallo Airlines is from being reliable.

An example of assumptions…some people tell me that women wearing the niqaab, which is the veil that covers the face, are all possessed by jinn and are the most likely women to cheat you or rob you or insult you. I have been robbed by men and by a woman in a Somali-style shalmad, the colorful, rectangular scarf, and have been insulted by girls in abayas. I have also been cared for and served by women in niqaab so this belief is, um, totally unverifiable.


Hijab is the most basic and all-encompassing term available. According to Islamicity,

Commonly, the term hijab is used to denote the scarf or other type of head-covering worn by Muslim women throughout the world. However, the broader definition of the term refers to a state of modesty and covering that encompasses a woman’s entire body, excluding hands and face.

So when we talk about hijab, we are talking both about an article of clothing and a state of being, similar to Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 3 for early Christian women.

Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

What I see here is a point of similarity, a value Christian and Muslim women can share and support one another in. The out-workings of the clothing might look different, but the attitudes of modesty and a spirit precious in the sight of God are shared.


Stocking caps, modest and trendy and convenient.

Also, surprising as this might sound to American Christian women, on a global scale, Muslim and Christian women dress much more alike than they do in downtown Minneapolis.

In Djibouti, local women no matter their faith convictions generally dress the same, right down to the hijab choices. This is true in many cultures and countries. It may look to an outside observer that I dress like a “Christian” and my Djiboutian friends dress like “Muslims.” But, also and accurately, I dress like an “American” and my Djiboutian friends (Somali, Afar, Ethiopian, Yemeni…) dress like “Djiboutians.”

The point of all this is that clothes do not necessarily communicate what an observer thinks they communicate, that clothes are culture-based and religion-based, and that modesty is both external and internal.

What have I missed? What are some of your, or your culture’s, distinctives regarding hijab?

The intent of the Let’s Talk about Hijab series is to host an on-line conversation where people are free to ask questions, open to learning, and as a place to share experiences, convictions, and ideas about hijab. As a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country, this is almost a daily topic of conversation and I am eager to hear from people from all around the world.

Other posts in the series:

Let’s Talk about Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab?, by Anita Dualeh