Muslim women who wear a head covering often feel they represent their entire faith based on first impressions.

This is regularly described as both a blessing and a burden.

While being a flag-bearer of their faith can bring a sense of pride to Muslim women, it can also trigger curiosity, othering and casual racism.

And, in extreme cases, Muslim women are subjected to hate and overt racism.

As assumptions and misconceptions about Muslim head coverings prevail, we’ve answered some common questions to help set the record straight.

And just a quick note before we go on — the information below has come about after consultation with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, to make sure we reflect and include multiple Muslim perspectives.

What is a hijab?

In short, a hijab is a physical headscarf, but it also has different meanings.

Zuleyha Keskin is an associate professor at the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation at Charles Sturt University (CSU) and explains that the word hijab is multifaceted.

She says it can be translated to mean a “veil of protection” or a “spiritual veil” that shields a person from negative influences.

“[It] protects one’s spirituality against anything that will negatively impact one’s connection with Allah [God],” Dr Keksin says.

Hijab can be practised by wearing a head covering, Dr Keskin says, and also through mannerisms, morals, and values.

And, much like aspects of other faiths, hijab is open to interpretation.

Dr Keksin says the hijab is a headscarf and also a metaphorical “veil of protection”.(Supplied: Zuleyha Keksin)

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What is the purpose of the hijab?

The hijab is about observing modesty and according to Islamic law should begin from the age of puberty.

In Islam’s sacred book, the Qur’an, two verses talk about the notion of hijab and how modesty should be observed by both Muslim men and women.

  • The first: Asks men to lower their gaze when looking at women and observe modesty — known as “hijab of the eyes”
  • The second: Says women’s clothing should be modest and cover their bodies, with many interpreting this to include women’s hair too
Hijabs are made from countless fabrics and colours, with women choosing to wear them in a variety of styles.(Supplied: Pexels)

Professor Keskin says hijab also means both men and women need to be conscious of their interactions with people, making sure to act with morality based on Islamic values.

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What is a hijab vs. burqa?

When referred to as a garment, the hijab is defined as a headscarf Muslim women wear to cover their hair and neck, according to Professor Hakan Coruh, a senior lecturer in Islamic studies at CSU.

There are distinct differences between the types of garments Muslim women might wear.(ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

As Professor Hakan notes, there are many different ways that women can wear their hijab, such as:

  • How they pin their scarves in place,
  • The amount of coverage their hijab provides, and,
  • The colours and fabrics they choose to wear

How a woman styles her hijab is often influenced by fashion trends and her cultural background.

Muslim women wear their hijabs in distinct styles around the world.(Top-left: Pexels, Bottom-left: Pexels, Right: Yagazie Emez/iPhotodisc via Getty Images)

Other than the hijab, there are other garments that Muslim women may wear depending on their interpretation of the Qur’an.

The burqa covers the entire body and face, with a mesh window or grille across the eyes for women to see out of.

A jilbab is an outer garment that covers the entire body. It is commonly worn with a niqab, which covers a woman’s face and hair.

The chador is a full-length cloak that covers a woman’s head and clothing but leaves her face uncovered.

Similar to a hijab, a khimar is a type of headscarf but is longer and wider, so it also conceals a woman’s upper body.

A dupatta can be loosely worn at the back of a woman’s head, with some of her hair showing at the front. It can also be worn as a scarf, veil, or shoulder wrap.

Learn more about the different types of covering women opt to wear below.

ABC News: Sharon Gordon

ABC News: Sharon Gordon

ABC News: Sharon Gordon

ABC News: Sharon Gordon

ABC News: Sharon Gordon

ABC News: Sharon Gordon

ABC News: Sharon Gordon

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Why do some women cover their faces?

While covering the hair is considered compulsory by many scholars, most agree that a woman covering her face with a niqab or burqa is not obligatory.

Instead, this is seen as an extra form of modesty.

However, some schools of thought in Islam, particularly those practised by the Taliban in Afghanistan, see veiling the face as a compulsory part of the hijab.

Different types of coverings are also influenced by different cultures and national dress.

Some women choose to veil their face with a niqab as an additional form of modesty.(Supplied: Pexels)

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Do women have a choice in wearing a hijab?

For the most part, yes.

Muslim journalist Shazma Gaffoor says she wasn’t forced into wearing the hijab and explains it is a misconception to think women have no choice in the matter.

While Shazma chose to start wearing a hijab, she acknowledges that that choice is a Western privilege.

“It’s been almost second nature to look at a woman covered in hijab as being coerced or forced when that is really not the case,” she says.

“In many instances, particularly in the West … it’s a choice, ultimately, that someone makes.”

When she was 20, Shazma chose to start wearing her hijab and has viewed it as integral to her sense of self.

“[It’s] part of my identity, part of my style,” she says.

Deciding whether she’d wear a hijab was “a very personal journey”.

“My story is going to be different to someone else’s,” Shazma says.

“That’s the beauty of it — we all have different reasons [for wearing it].”

For Shazma, wearing a hijab is about representing her faith and modesty as well as helping her connect to God.

Muslim author Amal Awad doesn’t wear a hijab and says while it should always be a woman’s decision whether she wears one, that’s not always the reality.

“There are women in the world who don’t have a choice [to wear it] … you see discussion of choice more in the West,” she says.

“It’s very much a Western privilege to have Muslim women talking about how putting on the hijab was their choice, and it most likely was.

“But we have to be honest about this not always being the case.”

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Do women feel empowered in a hijab?

Yes, many women do.

Shazma says the first time she wore the hijab she felt “liberated”.

Wearing a hijab means different things for different Muslim women.(ABC)

“To me, it felt that I was in control [of] who could say what [to me],” she says.

“When people speak to me, there is this veil of respect … where they speak to me rather than objectify me.

“I’ve not felt objectified at all, since I’ve [started wearing] the hijab whilst in many instances, I felt objectified prior to wearing the hijab.”

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Is it appropriate to ask about someone’s hijab?

The answer isn’t straightforward, and it depends on the person.

In general, Muslim women often say they don’t mind answering questions about their hijab, as long as cliches and stereotypes are avoided.

Shazma isn’t bothered by questions but says some can get annoying, particularly when people make assumptions. 

“It is almost stock standard that people ask me if I’m hot in my hijab,” Shazma says.

“I mean, this is something we dread every summer, particularly here in Australia, because it is such a typical question that is asked of us very often.”

House of Gods depicts the way the burqini has allowed Muslim women to participate in Australia’s swimming culture.(ABC)

She says it’s a “silly” misconception to assume Muslim women can’t dress according to the weather.

“I remember one particular incident where I was waiting for the elevator and this lady … literally stopped the elevator just to ask me, ‘Oh, hey, I hope this is not offensive, but are you hot wearing that?'” Shazma says.

“Even though I’m used to getting this response, I was still tongue-tied.

“It’s indirectly assuming that no, we can’t think for ourselves [or that] we are not aware of our environment.”

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When can a woman take off her hijab?

A common misconception about the hijab is that it’s worn at all times.

In reality, a woman only has to wear a hijab if she’s going to be seen by a man who isn’t her husband or a blood relation.

If a woman is in a public place where only women are present, according to Islamic law she doesn’t need to be covered.

However, some women may still choose to be.

Batul leaves her hair uncovered as she talks with her father and Isa in House of Gods.(ABC)

In ABC TV’s drama series, House of Gods, many female characters wear a hijab, but in some scenes, they’re shown unveiled — like when friends Batul and Jamila are at a women-only pool or in their homes.

In other episodes, Batul and her sister Hind are seen reaching for a scarf when they’re likely to see a man who isn’t family.

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Why do some Muslim women not wear the hijab?

In Islam, the hijab is considered a requirement, but in the words of the Qu’ran, “there is no compulsion in religion”, meaning Muslims have a choice in their religious practice.

This is why some Muslim women choose not to wear the hijab and instead observe modesty in other ways.

Amal says wearing the hijab is symbolic and carries “meaning and purpose”.(Supplied: Hoda Afshar)

Amal says Muslim women are diverse in their appearance and may not always look visibly Muslim.

But she says it doesn’t mean they are any less devout.

“I’m really tired of the one-note portrayals of Muslim women,” she says.

“If you look up Muslim women online, the first thing you will see is a veiled woman and probably a desert landscape.”

As shown in House of Gods, Muslim women can dress less modestly when enjoying a swim at a public, women-only pool.(ABC)

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What is ‘de-jabbing’?

Choosing to stop wearing the hijab is known as “de-jabbing”.

For many Muslim women, their journey of wearing the hijab is a beautiful and spiritual experience, but that’s not the case for everyone.

At one point in her life, Amal wore the hijab, but over time she gradually modified her headscarf before deciding to completely take it off 10 years after first wearing it.

Amal says her decision to take it off was influenced by how she started to view the hijab.

“I outgrew it. It was no longer who I was … It no longer felt like a sincere act of devotion,” she says.

“I did not want to cover my hair anymore.

“I wanted anonymity, to not stand out, and I didn’t feel hijab resonated with me and the person I was becoming.”

Amal’s decision didn’t come without criticism.

Three years after she chose to take it off, she wrote an article about her hijab journey.

“The fallout from that was extraordinary,” Amal says.

She says some people in the Muslim community struggle to understand why she would have had an issue with continuing to wear her hijab.

“[People say], ‘Oh, but it’s just the scarf’, but it’s not. It’s a symbol,” Amal says.

“It carries meaning and purpose. It says something about the wearer.

“There’s so much more to hijab.”

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