Arabic traditions on covering a woman’s face are typically attributed to sharia law advocated by the teachings of Islam. While there is some debate as to whether sharia law requires women to cover their head with a scarf, known as the hijab, the BBC reports the Quran does not explicitly direct women to cover their faces as well. Some Muslim countries have, instead, a cultural tradition that requires women to cover their faces in public, and in front of all men who are not their husband, brother or father. The veiling of the face was historically practiced by many cultures even before Islam, leading some scholars to believe the religion adopted the practice as a way of conforming to its surrounding society.

The Quran and Modest Dress

The Quran’s mentions of clothing mainly center on emphasizing the importance of modesty for both men and women. Both men and women are commanded to “guard their modesty,” according to the BBC. Women, the Quran says, should “draw their veils over their bosoms,” which some say could simply mean that women should cover their chests. However, some scholars say the phrase, along with the Hadith, the recorded words of the Prophet Muhammad, support the idea that women must cover the head and face to preserve modesty.

The Burqa

The burqa is a garment that covers the body from head to toe, with netting on the eyes to enable vision within. The garment is common among Muslims in India and Pakistan, according to "The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures: Family, Law and Politics." However, the full-body covering is gradually being replaced by the hijab in urban areas of those countries. The burqa is still commonly worn by women in Afghanistan, where the practice was required by law when the Taliban controlled the country.

The Niqab

The Niqab is a cloth that covers the face and head in the style of the hijab, with a space left open for the eyes. Like the burqa, the niqab is worn in public areas and in front of men who are not the woman’s father, brother or husband. The garment is primarily worn in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. While the niqab is also often worn by conservative Muslim countries in the West, multiple European countries have moved to ban the wearing of either the niqab or burqa in public.

Symbol of Oppression?

While the West often interprets head scarves or face coverings on Muslim women as a symbol of oppression, BBC News reports that is not necessarily the case. Although some women may be forced to wear those garments, others choose to don them for religious purposes or to represent their Muslim identity. Some women also believe covering their hair with a scarf emphasizes the beauty of the face, according to Religion Dispatches.