History of the Hijab

The image of the hijab and an encouragement to break down societal, cultural barriers were shown through the piece by Thanya Mavish, presented at Project Birmingham and Medicine’s event. Born and bred in Birmingham, Mavish is in her third year of university, studying fine art. The project ‘Surah Nur Ayah 30-31’ was displayed as one of the focal points of the exhibition. Her work is an investigation into the relationship between the historical and contemporary understanding of the hijab. 

[Screenshots taken from the film 'Surah Nur Ayah 30-31' by Thanya Mavish]


Head coverings have played a very significant role in many religions: the Orthodox Church, Judaism and Catholicism, to name a few. In Judaism, they were required to cover their hair until they were married - this practice is still used in some Orthodox Jewish communities. Scarves and veils of different colours and shapes were customary in countless cultures. However, the earliest known reference to veiling (the act of covering one’s hair with cloth) comes from the 13th century B.C. Assyrian text.

Furthermore, long before that, the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Persian societies all engaged in the practice of veiling. When Islam arrived in the 7th century, the common veiling custom in the Arabian Peninsula was taken into their religion. Though the word ‘hijab’ (which means ‘partition’ or ‘curtain’ in Arabic) appears in the Quran, it is not used in relation to women’s clothing. The concept of modest dress does appear for both men and women, however. The Quran’s verses about modesty have been interpreted by Muslims’ in various ways — some see the head covering as obligatory, others as a choice. Other factors such as geography, ethnicity and political systems also influence this myriad of interpretations, dismantling the monolithic perception of Islam and its practices.

The Westernised perception of veils being a form of oppression isn’t a new concept, but one that began 300 years ago with Orientalism. Mavish’s piece is informative, structured in order to highlight how Western perception needs to be changed. In travelling, writing, fiction and art, veiled Muslim women were portrayed as exotic and mysterious and they were sexualised through the male gaze. Artists like Mario Simon portrayed this type of imagery. Orientalism allowed for the idea that these societies needed to be conquered and civilized - the veil became a justification to do so. 

So, it is clear to see that mankind’s relationship with veiling and the hijab is far more historic and complicated than modern day perceptions really allow for. Nonetheless, Mavish’s unique piece allowed for a bridge to be built, many of the public coming away from the exhibition with an educated understanding of the history of the hijab. 

- Wendy Misumi