When you hear the words “head covering”, what do you think of? For many, religious or cultural beliefs may come to mind — and they are right! There is, in fact, not just one form of head covering within the vast diversity of humanity. It is a practice which is followed by many people of different faiths, all across the world. From Muslims to Jews to Sikhs and more, head covering holds deep significance and represents the values of a culture and a community. The intersection of clothing with religious beliefs in the form of a head covering is a visual indicator of the dedication and faith that people of many cultures have in their religious and cultural beliefs.
The practice of head covering is not restricted to any one gender as well: both men and women can have head coverings depending on the religious tradition they follow. By exploring the practice of head covering in various cultures, we can learn about its historical meaning, rich heritage, and how people today have adapted their lives to this anthropological practice!
The Islamic religion is one of the main traditions in which followers commonly wear head coverings. There are a variety of head coverings within the religion, especially in the countries in which Islam is the most prevalent. Some of these include the hijab, the niqab, the tagelmust, and the keffiyeh.
One of the most prevalent and recognizable head coverings in Islam is the hijab. Worn by women to hide their hair and sometimes cover their upper bodies, the hijab is a symbol of modesty in Islam. Women who choose to wear the hijab do so in front of males not in their immediate family. The word “hijab” itself is translatable to “veil” — referring not just literally to a separation between a Muslim woman and the public/male eye, but also a metaphorical veil between man and God.
There are many different hijab styles that are worn today, and it has become a diverse and fast-expanding fashion field in and of itself. While the guidelines surrounding the hijab and its mandate in the Qur’an are interpreted differently through the law, depending on the country and/or Islamic community, it still represents an important religious practice of head covering for women who choose to follow it.
Another type of Islamic head covering for women is the niqab. It is a more conservative form of the hijab, covering the entire face as well as the hair, extending down to shield the upper body completely. It is commonly worn in Arabic countries, such as Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the niqab as outlined in the Qur’an and the Islamic community is similar to the hijab: modesty and religious propriety. Interestingly, however, the niqab style of full-face coverage also originates with the Bedouin people. They live in the deserts of the Middle East, the Levant, and northern Africa, and have to wear such a veil to protect them from the hot, dry desert wind and sand. Read more about the Bedouin tribes here. Islamic women in these areas, therefore, commonly wear the niqab for these reasons, while also in accordance with their religious faith and tradition.
Tagelmust: Tuareg Berbers
Islam does not just have head coverings for women, but in some cases for men as well. Among the Tuareg Muslim Berber population in western Africa, men wear the tagelmust. It is a cotton cloth that can be more than 32 feet long, and is commonly dyed a deep indigo blue. Adult Berber men wrap it around their heads in a turban shape, and over the nose and mouth. The coverage is similar to a niqab, and allows for protection against the Sahara winds and sand. Those who wear the tagelmust in the Tuareg community are called Kel Tagelmust, or “People of the Veil”. These men cover their faces to hide their facial features when talking to strangers, or those of higher social standing. Therefore, the tagelmust is culturally significant in its color, and the way it is wrapped and worn, because it represents social standing, wealth, and origin.
The keffiyeh is another Islamic head covering for men, typically seen in Saudi Arabia. It has a red and white checkered pattern, although the colors can vary depending on culture and region. This long cotton scarf covers the head and is held in place using a black cord/circlet called an agal. The origins of this Arabian headdress lie within Yemen, but it is now used throughout the Middle East as well. The keffiyeh is also a strong symbol of nationalism for the Palestinian people, and is a representation of Palestinian solidarity during their ongoing conflict with Israel. Read more about the keffiyeh as a Palestinian symbol here. Because of this, the keffiyeh is no longer restricted to men — anyone can be seen wearing it, whether it be for cultural or political reasons.
The Sufi Order is a Muslim sect also known as “Islamic mysticism”, since it places an emphasis on connections to the spiritual. The traditional head covering for this religious group is the sikke, a cylindrical hat made of camel wool. Originating around Turkey and the Anatolian peninsula, the sikke is part of a symbolic whirling dance ritual performed by the Sufis. It represents a gravestone, said to mark the grave of one’s ego. The Sufis perform this whirling dance in order to ascend towards heaven and God. The sikke, therefore, is a very important head covering practice for this religious community. We can see here that head coverings do not necessarily have to be worn all the time, but can be used in certain rituals or events for their religious significance.
The Sikh religion originating in Punjab, a state in India, is based on many principles and articles of faith. One of these virtues to be followed by Sikh men and women is uncut hair — and a head covering is worn by men to cover this long hair. This covering is a turban called the dastar, and it represents equality, spirituality, self-respect, piety, and courage. The dastar is distinctive to the Sikh faith, and it is practiced to show respect to one’s spiritual teacher as well as love for God.
In fact, the point in a boy’s life when he transitions into wearing the dastar is considered very important in the Sikh community. It is celebrated with a ceremony called the Dastar Bandhi, around when the boy is between the ages of 11 and 16. Read more about this ceremony here! Here, the practice of head covering is a coming-of-age symbol, marking one’s entrance as a fully inducted member into the religious group.
Not only are head coverings common in Islam and Sikhism, but also in other religious groups such as the Amish. The Amish are a traditional Christian church that is of Swiss-German and Anabaptist origins. They are generally found in the Midwestern and Eastern United States, where they have settled after escaping persecution from Europe. Emphasizing a simple life without modern technology, family, and traditional Christian values, the Amish also use head covering as a way to express their faith.
The Amish follow the conservative Biblical message that women must cover their hair and ears at all times in public. Amish women wear plain white bonnets called prayer kapps, as an everyday head covering. A black bonnet is worn as a second “outdoor” bonnet, and also by unmarried Amish women. These plain colors signify modesty, and that they are living a life devoid of material pleasures and modern conveniences (which are seen by the Amish as straying from the simple and traditional life they value).
Black Felt Hat
Men within the Amish religious community also wear a head covering, although not all the time like the women. These are black felt hats, which are donned by boys from the age of 10 until they are 40 years old. A different type of plain hat is worn after that. What is interesting is that these hats signify social status and community ranking through their size, band, and brims. Like the women’s bonnets, these hats are mostly black, or otherwise plain colors. The Amish men therefore also exemplify a traditional and conservative lifestyle through their head covering practices.
The Catholic faith also has many instances of head covering as a religious practice. Two examples of these are habits and mantillas.
Catholic nuns wear a veil as part of their nun outfit, which is called a habit. Habits represent the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience that nuns take when they choose this life path. The veil covers up the hair and head of the nun, and the color changes depending on their seniority (for example, a white veil is worn by novices). These coverings and veils also vary between Catholic orders, both in their style and complexity. If you want to learn more about the different types of nun habits, visit here!
While nun habits are prescribed “uniforms” for their work, mantillas are caps worn by any Catholic woman attending Mass or church. The mantilla is also known as a “chapel veil”. It is made of lace, and is used as part of traditional Catholic veiling practices. The history of the mantilla goes back to the aristocracy of Spain, and it has been used as a fashion item in various other European countries in the past. For these reasons, the mantilla is not just a representation of religious modesty within Catholicism, but also of a woman’s socioeconomic status. It is interesting to see how head covering practices can stem from a variety of historical origins!
Moving to a different culture on the other side of the world, we now arrive at the Caribbean. Here, the Rastafari (also known as Rastas) participate in their own practice of head covering. The Rastafari religion originated in Jamaica in the 1930’s, focusing on a specific interpretation of the Bible. Within this faith, the rastacap is a crocheted or knitted head covering that is beret-shaped. Made with the symbolic colors of red (bloodshed of African slaves), green (rich vegetation of Africa), and yellow (gold treasure that was stolen from Africans) to remind the Rastafaris of their African history, the cap serves as a connection with the spiritual. Men who wear these rastacaps also have dreadlocks in their hair, which are thought to enhance the cap’s crown-like powers.
Another major religious sector which utilizes head covering as a traditional practice of demonstrating faith and modesty is Orthodox Judaism. This term encompasses all the traditional branches of modern Judaism. There are head coverings for both women and men within this faith. The sheitel, kippah, and shtreimel represent just a few of these head coverings.
Hasidic Judaism: Sheitel and Shtreimel
This branch of Judaism is on the more conservative and orthodox side, and has some interesting head covering guidelines for those who follow and practice this faith. Married women are required to veil themselves to hide their hair — a head covering of any kind is referred to as “teichel” in Hebrew. However, a specific kind that some Orthodox Jewish women choose to cover themselves with is called the sheitel. In this practice, one wears a wig after shaving their own head. However, it is a contentious option of head covering as the sheitel can be encouraged or discouraged based on the rabbi or Hasidic group.
For men, a more traditional head covering is the shtreimel. It is a fur hat that can be traced back to when it was adopted by European Jews, most likely from Eastern Europeans. Reserved mostly for married men, the shtreimel is only worn during Jewish holidays or celebrations. The shtreimel itself does not have as much religious significance, other than its status symbol as a precious and beautiful clothing item. However, it fulfills the requirement for Jewish men to have their heads covered, as it acts as a second layer that sits on top of the already-present kippah.
Speaking of the kippah, we come to it as the last example of religious head coverings from different cultures and religions around the world. You can probably recognize it as the common head covering worn daily by boys and men in Orthodox Judaism (and in non-Orthodox communities during prayer). The kippah represents a symbol of masculinity and belonging within the Jewish community, as it follows the head covering guidelines set forth by the religion. As with the other head coverings we’ve explored, the kippah also comes in a great variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. Read about the different types and styles of the kippah based on Judaic branch here. Overall, wearing the kippah is a basic head covering practice for men within this religious community.
Rooted in Religious Tradition
These head coverings from around the world demonstrate how important this practice is for maintaining religious tradition and passing down cultural heritage. Many of these examples we have looked at stem from the Abrahamic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Rastafari. However, there are also other religions such as Sikhism that use head covering as a way to emphasize commitment to a religious belief, and to ensure one’s position as part of the community. The anthropological practice of head covering is not limited to just these examples here — many other cultures and religions use veiling or head covering as an expression of faith.
By learning about and understanding these practices and the impact they have on a religious group over time, we can continue expanding our worldview on different religious beliefs. Doing this will help us recognize that despite the multitude of head covering practices that exist across cultures, they are all connected together because all of them represent a person’s commitment to protect and practice their own respective religious faith for all to see.