The act and art of veiling in Middle Eastern culture

Story by Hanna Trudo // Photos by Valerie Sarnartaro

AMMAN, Jordan– Orange and cerulean cloths dangle off of dusty pipes in Roaz Bouteek, a standalone scarf loft on King Faisl Street in Amman. On busy days, wives and daughters browse both intricate fabrics and modest pieces.

The four-decades-old shop carries traditional head wraps, or hijabs – a word that means to “cover” or “block” in Arabic. When a Muslim woman wears a hijab, she’s shielding in modesty her hair and neck, considered sacred, and obeying a central tenant of the Islamic faith. Only the fabric is in view.

Hussein Bteibet in the scarf shop he owns in downtown Amman.

In the Qur’an – the Holy writings of Islam revealed by God to the prophet Muhammad – a hijab is not described as a physical object, but rather a metaphorical “curtain” providing privacy for a woman. Today, a hijab is something tangible, typically a soft, draping scarf, ready to be wrapped and secured in place.

In Jordan, covering is not compulsory by law, unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia; however, remaining modest in front of men and non-Muslims is entrenched in Islamic thought.

“The hijab is part of Islam, and any woman can do this,” says Associate Professor Amal Mohummad Ali El Kharouf, from the Center for Women’s Studies at the University of Jordan. “In Saudi Arabia they are doing it because the people are from an Islamic religion. [In Jordan] the people are free to think and wear a hijab if they like. Sometimes they are taking care of wearing the hijab through religion and sometimes it’s the culture.”

It’s a Muslim woman’s choice – to veil or remain unveiled – however, according to Kharouf, now, more than ever, women in Amman are covering their hair.

“People are becoming more and more covered in the last 10 years. Many women think about it, and they think that it is better [to cover],” she says. It depends on what she thinks and what she believes. No one tells you ‘you should do that.’”

In the last decade, many Jordanian women have opted to wear hijabs as expressions of modernity and personal taste.

“They have modern hijabs now where they wear different colors related to their clothes,” Kharouf says.

Some women choose trendier outfits to balance the traditional hijabs, while others prefer to remain completely covered. The full-body shield that exposes only the eyes is a niqab.

There are only ink-colored niqabs on the racks in Roaz Bouteek, and more than 3,000 scarves in stock. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, there’s a lull in the muggy loft. No one’s rummaging through the selection, and there isn’t a customer to sell to. Only the scarves occupy the second floor’s space.

Hala Bteibet points to her favorite scarf design.

Hala Btiebet, the 14-year-old granddaughter of storeowner Hussein Bteibet, is on the vacant floor with her grandfather. Hala sifts through rows of soft silkly material and finally settles on a blush and white swirled pattern pinned to the wall. No scarf costs more than 6 Jordanian Dinars (just over $8), Hussein insists.

The scarves from her family’s store are inexpensive treasures Hala’s been collecting since she began covering her hair, just over one month ago. This is typically the time when a girl starts to wear a scarf because it is when she begins menstruating and is considered a woman. Now, she’s known as “muhaajaba,” or person who wears a hijab.

Although Hala’s proud to wrap her hair, she doesn’t always wear a scarf at home. She says she’s still young.

In public, however, Hala insists on remaining veiled at all times. And after fewer than 30 days, she’s made up her mind: the hijab stays.

“I like to wear it every day [in public],” she says, while sitting cross-legged on her grandfather’s unvarnished floor. “If some people see me in a hijab and others don’t, it’s not good. It’s not a game, to wear it and take it off.”

In the privacy of the loft, Hala sheds a scarf and continues.

“There are so many styles to wrap,” she says. “The modern style is to put a flower in the back of the head,” Hala says. Flowers – sometimes fresh, sometimes fake – are generally intertwined with the hair before it’s wrapped. “I don’t like to wear the flower though. I just add another scarf [underneath].”

Still, there’s a white, polyester-like cap covering her hair. It’s called an “amta,” and although she removes it every day for washing, she won’t take it off in the store. She wraps a soft, black scarf around her head, and strategically adds layers. Holding three tiny pins, Hala first secures the left side, then the right. She continues primping, and tucks the left corner into her gingham shirt. She does this every morning, for about five minutes, before her 8 a.m. class starts.

Unlike her 17-year-old sister who doesn’t wear a hijab, Hala is proud to be of a faith that’s easily distinguishable by outward expression. “My dad always tells us, ‘love it before you wear it. If you want to take it off, you say [to yourself], ‘no, I like it. I’ll wear it by myself. I want to be responsible.’”

Responsibility, through ownership of faith and body, for many women in Muslim countries, carries into adulthood.

Lana Qrabawi, a 45-year-old resident of Amman, has covered herself since she was Hala’s age. She’s finished with her afternoon prayers at home, and takes off her pink floor-length covering. Underneath, she’s wearing her “house outfit,” a red, sporty tracksuit with the words “For You” printed across the chest.

“When I go outside, I go like this,” she says holding her niqab. “The first time you dress like this, it’s very difficult, and then it becomes very easy.”

She finds peace and comfort in shielding herself from the world’s view. “A man mustn’t see our hair. When a man sees a woman’s hair, he might want to make an illegal relationship with her,” she says.

Her coverings offer her protection from unwanted male attention. According to the Qur’an, Qrabawi says, a man should only see a woman’s hair and body when she’s married. She should remain virginal, until then, and conceal everything that only her husband is meant to view.

Qrabawi’s hair is black with maroon highlights streaked through her unkempt layers. It’s henna, she says, although only her family and other women are allowed to see it. She mostly keeps it wound in a messy bun.

Her daily routine – putting on a niqab before she leaves the house – is duplicated by thousands of Muslim women in Amman. And for women who favor individual clothing alternatives, hijabs are more popular in Jordanian society. Elements of cultural modesty and religiosity are woven through both coverings, creating viable options for modern women of faith.

“God created us,” Qrabawi says. “We must care for [our] God. He gives you the beautiful eyes and hair, so we must care for it [by covering].”

(Click here to watch reporter Hanna Trudo have a traditional hijab wrapped around her head and hair.)


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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