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What is the significance of covering the head?

Covering the head has been a common practice across many cultures and religions throughout history. The reasons behind head covering vary, but often relate to modesty, protection, or religious observance. Some of the key questions around head covering include:

Why do some religions require head covering?

In several major religions, including Islam, Judaism, and certain Christian denominations, women are required to cover their hair as part of their religious observance. This requirement comes from modesty doctrines in these faiths. Covering the head is seen as a way to avoid drawing unwanted attention to oneself and to show humility and devotion to God.

In Islam, the Quran calls for women to draw their headcoverings over their chests as a way to be recognized as believing women and avoid harassment. In Judaism, married women must cover their hair as a sign of their marital status. In some Christian sects like Orthodoxy, headcoverings are worn during religious services as a symbol of piety.

When did head covering emerge as a religious practice?

The practice of head covering goes back centuries in many religions. In Judaism, head covering for married women is mentioned in the Talmud, which dates back to around 200 CE. In Christianity, head covering was widely practiced starting in the New Testament period. The tradition of wearing veils and headscarves was common in ancient Mesopotamia and the Byzantine Empire, which influenced Islamic practices.

When Islam emerged in the 7th century CE, the Quran instructed women to draw their veils over their heads as part of proper dress. Head covering thus became obligatory for Muslim women. So while the exact origins are unclear, the religious prescription of head covering for women has roots that go back over 2,000 years.

What other reasons exist for covering the head?

Beyond religious reasons, head covering also serves practical and cultural purposes:

Protection – Covering the head shields against the elements like sun, wind, cold, and rain. Historical workers often wore headscarves, caps, or hats for protective purposes.

Hygiene – Head coverings prevent loose hair and dirt from interfering with activities. Surgeons wear caps to keep hair away from surgical sites. Food preparers wear hairnets for sanitary reasons.

Social status – Headgear can denote someone’s position, occupation, marital status, or rank. The elite have worn elaborate hats and crowns to display status.

Modesty – In some cultures, covered hair is seen as a sign of modesty and virtue, especially regarding women.

Tradition – Ethnic, regional, and cultural groups often develop distinct head covering styles as part of their identity. For instance, many African women wear geles or head wraps.

Fashion – Hats and headscarves have simply evolved as garments for style, adornment, and protection against the sun. They go in and out of mass fashion trends.

History of Head Covering

Covering the head with veils, turbans, hats, caps, and other garments has been common across most civilizations through various eras. Here is an overview of head covering traditions worldwide:

Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt

The earliest records of veiling and head covering come from ancient Mesopotamia (around 4000 to 1000 BCE), where elite women wore veils as a status symbol. Ancient Egyptian women also wore head veils as a sign of social rank and modesty. Both men and women sported ornamental headdresses for ceremonies, celebrations, and festivals.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In ancient Greece, headbands, scarves, caps, and veils were popular accessories and symbols of social position. Married women covered their hair with veils, while courtesans and female slaves went bareheaded. In Rome, married women wore a palla (mantle) over the head when appearing in public. Elite Roman women wore ornate headdresses, turbans, and wigs as well.

Byzantine and Medieval Period

Veiling and head covering continued as a customary practice in the Byzantine Empire between the 4th and 15th centuries CE. Wealthy Byzantine women wore elaborate and bejeweled head wraps. In the medieval era, married Christian and Jewish women wore head coverings, while nuns and monks donned hoods and veils. Muslim women wore hijabs and niqabs. Men wore hats, caps, turbans, and hoods.

Renaissance and Baroque Periods

Intricate hats, veils, cauls, and hair nets came into vogue during the Renaissance. Women often covered their hair, especially at church. Turbans were also popular for men and women. In the Baroque era, extravagant wigs, hats, bonnets, and hair accessories became the fashion. Aristocratic women wore caps and nets over towering coiffures.

19th Century to Today

In Victorian times, women continued wearing modest caps and bonnets that covered most of the hair. Married Hasidic Jewish women shaved their heads and wore wigs or headscarves. Muslim veiling persisted in the Ottoman Empire but declined in the 20th century under secularization pressures. In the late 1900s, head coverings receded in Western fashion but remained important in traditional societies. Global diversity today means head covering carries many different meanings.

Religious Perspectives on Head Covering

The major religions prescribe head covering for women in some form, with differences emerging in interpretations and practice:


– The Quran commands women to draw veils over their chests and cover their adornment in public. This has led to the widespread practice of hijab – covering of the head and neck – among Muslim women.

– Headscarves come in many styles such as the hijab, chador, niqab, and burqa. Styles range from loose scarves to full facial veils.

– Compulsory veiling is enforced legally in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Elsewhere, the degree of veiling varies by region, culture, generation, and personal choice.


– Married Orthodox Jewish women must cover their hair in public as a sign of modesty and fidelity to their husbands. This is based on passages in the Talmud.

– The hair may be covered with a scarf, hat, wig, or other head covering. Hair coverings range from wigs that mimic real hair to simple caps.

– Unmarried women are not obligated to cover their hair, though some still do out of tradition. Reform and Conservative Jewish women mostly do not cover their hair.


– Head covering was customary for women in Christian churches until the 20th century and still is in some conservative denominations.

– Covering the head in church comes from Biblical injunctions for women to have long hair and cover their heads while praying.

– Many nuns, especially in orthodox Catholic traditions, wear head coverings and veils as signs of modesty and devotion to God.

– Some Christian sects like Amish and Mennonite women wear head coverings like bonnets in daily life.


– Married Hindu women traditionally covered their heads with veils or scarves as a sign of respect and honor for their husbands.

– Unmarried girls often wore hair ornaments without any head coverings.

– Covering practices have varied by region, community, and family customs across India and southern Asia.

– Today, head covering is no longer widely practiced except in rural areas and among very traditional Hindus.


– In Sikhism, covering one’s head is mandatory for all men and women as a sign of respect before God.

– Married Sikh women must cover their heads with a dupatta or chunni scarf in public and while in gurdwaras.

– Sikh men cover their heads with turbans. The turban signifies spirituality, honor, self-respect, courage, and piety.

– Keeping one’s head covered at all times is one of the Five Ks – obligatory religious articles of faith – baptized Sikhs must wear.


– In Theravada Buddhism, shaving the head is a sign of renouncing worldly concerns and entering monastic life. Monks and nuns often have shaved heads and wear simple caps.

– In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, elaborate caps and hats form part of ritual garments and hierarchy. High-ranking lamas wear ornate headpieces.

– Lay Buddhists do not have specific head covering rules but may wear ritual garments to temples and for ceremonies.


– Daoism does not have particular prescriptions on head covering for everyday life.

– Ritual hats and crowns are worn by Daoist masters and monks during ceremonies and rites. These signify their religious status and spiritual rank.

– Daoist laity often wear amulets or caps with religious symbols while worshipping, but no head coverings are mandatory.


– Followers of the Shinto religion do not have specific head covering customs or rituals as part of worship practices.

– Ritual hats and veils may be worn while making offerings at shrines or performing certain ceremonies. These signifiy respect and purity.

– Brides often wear white wedding hoods during Shinto marriage ceremonies, symbolizing maidenhood.

Cultural and National Traditions

Apart from religious reasons, various cultures and ethnic groups around the world have unique traditions related to head covering. Here are some examples:


– Russian women traditionally wore headscarves called babushkas.

– Dutch women wore intricate caps covering their braided hair.

– Alpine regions like Bavaria have women’s hat styles featuring flowers and ribbon.

– Lace mantillas are worn at church by women in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Latin America.


– Geles, vibrant head wraps made from cloth, are commonly worn by women across West Africa.

– Masai tribespeople in Kenya and Tanzania wear colorful shukas or kangas as headdresses.

– North African women sport heavy white hijabs and veils that cover the face.

– Zulu married women wear isicholo caps that reveal the hair in front.

Middle East

– The keffiyeh or shemagh, a checkered head scarf, is commonly worn by men across the Middle East.

– Women wear veils and hijabs styled in regional variations, like the burqa in Afghanistan.

– Persians sport elaborate turbans tied in specific ways to indicate social rank and profession.

– Bedouin tribes have distinctive practices like male keffiyeh and female face veils.


– saris pallus are commonly used to cover women’s heads across India, and as hijabs in Southeast Asia.

– Dastar turbans signify the Sikh faith for men in India and surrounding regions.

– Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people historically wore silk caps and head wraps according to social station.

– conical hats called salakot and kalpong hats are everyday wear in Philippines and Indonesia.

Pacific Islands

– Flowers and leaves are traditionally worn ornamentally behind the ears across Polynesia and Hawaii.

– Maori people of New Zealand wore the maro, a carved head pendant, and the korowai cloak.

– Fijian potoa headdresses are crafted from palm fibers and worn ceremonially.

– Turbans and laplaps wrapped around the head are common to Pacific islanders in Papua New Guinea and Micronesia.

Secular Functions of Head Coverings

Aside from their religious and cultural significance, head coverings serve various practical functions:

Protection from the elements

Covering the head shields people from UV radiation, heat, cold wind, snow, rain, and other effects of weather. Farmers, construction workers, and outdoor laborers often wear hats, caps, or bandanas.

Hygiene and healthcare

Headgear maintains hygienic practices in settings like food service and medicine. Hairnets prevent contamination. Caps keep doctors’ and nurses’ hair back. Surgical masks protect patients.

Occupational identification

Certain hats convey occupations – firefighter helmets, military caps, police hats, chef toques. Headgear marks professions and social roles.

Fashion and self-expression

Beyond function, hats and headwraps have long served as fashionable attire and ways to project identity. Headgear makes statements about style, personality, social class, and attitude when worn voluntarily.

Sporting activities

Sports headgear like helmets, caps, headscarves, and sweatbands keep perspiration from athletes’ eyes and provide protection against injuries. Certain coverings denote team membership.


As parts of uniforms, head coverings can quickly identify civil services, companies, and organizational affiliations – pilot caps, fast food visors, valet hats, bellhop caps.

Controversies Surrounding Head Covering

Though head covering carries cultural and religious significance, it has also been controversial in many societies. Reasons include:

Gender inequality

– Critics argue mandatory head covering for women reflects sexist attitudes and the policing of women’s bodies.

Restricted freedom

– Some see enforced veiling and covering as infringing on women’s personal liberties and rights.

Security concerns

– Full face veils are opposed in some countries due to fears of terrorism and the inability to identify individuals.

Social integration

– Coverings that conceal the face or hair can be seen as inhibiting integration and communication.

Anti-religious sentiment

– Some governments have banned religious coverings to distance the state from religion.

Racism and discrimination

– Bans on headscarves and turbans disproportionately affect minorities and target religious groups.


– In the 20th century, secularization and modernization led to decreased head covering in many societies.

Changing views of modesty

– Younger generations often reject the patriarchal symbolism of compulsory head covering for women.

Contemporary Trends and Analysis

Head covering practices remain varied and shifting in the 21st century. Some patterns and analyses include:

Decline in Western nations

– Daily head covering for women has generally declined in Europe and North America over the 20th century but persists among traditional religious minorities.

Politicization and debate

– Headscarves and veils have become politicized asicons of integration, nationalism, women’s rights, and terrorism fears.

Diversity in the Muslim world

– Despite stereotypes, veil wearing is not universal or uniform among Muslim women. Styles and norms vary greatly by region and class.

Secularization versus fundamentalism

– Head covering has lessened in secular Muslim nations but remains staunchly enforced in fundamentalist regimes like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

Globalization versus tradition

– While Western fashion erodes some traditions, ethnic pride and resistance to assimilation perpetuates local headgear styles.

Stigma and prejudice

– Negative views of practices like hijab wearing fuel stereotypes, discrimination, and racism against visibly identified religious minorities.

Feminist debates

– Covering remains divisively viewed by feminists – either as an oppressive imposition or as a symbol of resistance and freedom to conservative dress norms.


Head covering has served vital social, cultural, and religious functions across the globe for centuries. While practices have shifted over time and sparked much debate, headgear retains deep symbolic importance in most societies. As a visual marker, covering the head conveys a wealth of complex and nuanced meanings about identity, belonging, and personal conviction. With increased multicultural contact and sensitivity, head covering traditions can hopefully be appreciated in all their diversity.