Human clothing is about society and about culture. It communicates social standing, group identity, cultural values, gender, religion, cross-cultural influences, political resistance, and more. It can yield meaning at the material, the symbolic, and the sociocultural levels. Arab-Islamic clothing is no different. Not equally common among all cultures, however, is the fact that Arab culture has developed between a crossroads of cultures, empires, and civilizational developments since antiquity. Trade, contact, and conquest brought and spread diverse influences including clothing styles that enriched and diversified Arab dress forms and clothing vocabulary and their uses. Arab clothing serves in multiple ways, has various symbolic functions, and yields complex meanings in secular and religious settings. Despite cross-cultural and cross-ethnic similarities, certain symbolic and functional attributes and cultural nuances in usage and practices make Arab-Islamic clothing unique.
The word djellaba, or jillaba, refers to one of three related terms used in Arabic for a garment variably worn by men, by women, or by both. They are jilbab, jillaba, and gallabiyya (or jallabiyya)—the "g" consonant is characteristic of Egyptian Arabic and a few other spoken Arabic forms in different parts of the Arabic-speaking world. The verb derivative jallaba or tajallaba means to clothe or be clad in a garment, used in material or metaphoric terms. The djellaba connotes a mid-calf or (most commonly in the early 2000s) ankle-length, loose-fitting, shirtdress or garment worn in different Arab societies and among other Islamic groups. In most cases, it would be made of cotton, although less commonly of silk or wool fabrics. The garments referred to by the related terms jilbab, jillaba, and gallabiyya are similar in form and are worn as traditional secular garments throughout the region but acquire special meaning when applied to contemporary Islamic context.
In the contemporary Arabic usage, jilbab refers to a full-length, loose shirtdress and does not in itself connote head or face cover. In Morocco jillaba is the word used to refer to the long, hooded robe worn as an outer garment by both sexes. When hooded it is commonly referred to in Maghrebi societies (Arab societies of North Africa) as burnus. Neutral or dual-gendered dress among Arabs is not associated with unisex identity, behavior, or attitude. Even when similar or identical in form, dress items are "worn" differently by women and men, who carry themselves differently in ways that are culturally understood. Differences between culturally defined femininity and masculinity is seen in gait and body language evident even when both sexes wear identical garments.
It is significant to stress that men, not only women, in traditional Arab culture and in Islamic societies practice "veiling"—head and face covering. Islam and traditional Arab culture are concerned with clothing forms for both sexes, and that includes head and face covering for men and women. A systematic study (El Guindi) points to the importance of clothing, including veiling, for men and how, contrary to popular misconceptions, the Hadith sources point to the disproportional attention given by Prophet Muhammad during Islam's early days of community formation in the seventh century, to men's modesty in clothing and public behavior in comparison to women's. To fully understand Arab and Muslim dress, sartorial practices by both sexes must be examined.
Clothing is of special significance for Muslims because Islam prescribes a code about privacy-reserve-sanctity, which applies to cultural notions of body, dress, home, womanhood, and sacred space. In application, the code extends beyond body covering to general comportment and public behavior and applies to the notions of home, womanhood, and family (bayt, harim) and house of worship (bayt al-haram). Islam is specific about the extent of body coverage for Muslim men and women in times of worship and in sacred spaces. It is less specific when it comes to ordinary life. The phases in an individual Muslim's life cycle are clearly marked by specific rites, all of which involve a sociomoral code that translates through clothing forms in sacred time and space, such as during daily prayer and during the annual pilgrimage (the hajj). The latter consists of a complex set of rites during the individual's pilgrimage in Mecca, much of which involves the body and how it is clothed.
The term jillaba is henceforth used in a generalized way to refer to both a traditional (secular) garment worn by men and women, and also to women's and in some cases men's garment as part of the overall contemporary Islamic dress (libas shar'i or ziyy Islami) revived during the mid-1960s in the Islamic world. In its beginnings, Islam did not introduce new clothing forms. There was continuity in dress forms from the earlier period in Arabia that extended into the period of formation for the Umma (Islamic Community) in the seventh century. Clothing style was, however, influenced by new ideas emerging and new meanings rendered during Islam's early days.
Among these were concerns about marking group identity, distinguishing the status of the Prophet's wives, protecting the moral integrity of Muslim women, and establishing a sociomoral code for public behavior of Muslim men and women. References to clothing for both sexes reflected these concerns. There was a stress on a general comportment of reserve. Men's clothing was to be austere and modest, layered during worship and prayer to prevent body exposure when bending and prostrating.
With regard to women, the Qur'an mentions two clothing items: khimar and jilbab. Reference to these two is found in poetry and other literary forms as evidence of their use in pre-Islamic society. With the birth of Islam, special significance was given to them. References in the Qur'an regarding these two clothing items are specific. First, consider the reference to khimar. The most cited is Sura (chapter) 24 that refers to khimar (women's head cover) in the general context of public behavior and comportment by both sexes. This passage implies that women are singled out for "reserve" and "restraint." This selectivity also distorts Islam's intent by the Sura. Preceding this, is a sentence which addresses men first about "re-serve" and "restraint" translating thus: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and conceal their genitals; for that is purer for them, God knoweth what they do. The following sentence continues the same theme: And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and conceal their genitals, and not reveal their beauty, except what does show, and to draw their khimar over their bosoms, and not to reveal their beauty except to …. (emphasis added).
Jilbab is mentioned in Sura 33:59, which enjoins the Prophet's wives, daughters, and all Muslim women to don their jilbab so they are easily recognized and protected from molestation or harassment. It translates as follows: O Prophet tell your wives, daughters and believing women to put on their jilbabs so they are recognized and thus not harmed (33:59).
Jilbab refers to a long, loose shirtdress. It does not in itself connote head or face cover. However, cross-cultural ethnography and Islamic references point to the practice by which these and similar outfits (referred to by different terms) can be physically manipulated in different social situations to cover head or face. Examples can be found among the Rashayda Bedouins of the Sudan, Muslim rural Indian women, and elsewhere. A systematic study on dress of women and men in Arab-Islamic culture (El Guindi) reveals a pattern of flexibility and fluidity in the manner by which women and men use clothing to cover face and head. Long, wide sleeves are often used to cover the head and face, and head covers to cover face. Some clothing items are inflexibly used in a single way, but other items are fluidly used in multiple ways, to cover and uncover, tighten or loosen. The face veiling by the men in the Berber group, the Tuareg, is only for face covering but is manipulated fluidly. Such complex, nuanced movements that communicate different messages about rank, gender, and identity characterize men's face-veiling behavior.
In the several-decades-old contemporary Islamic movement in Egypt and subsequently the rest of the Arab region, hijab is used to refer to women's Islamic head cover. However, it also referred to the general Islamic attire for women composed of at least two items, body cover and head cover. Similarly, in Indonesia jilbab became commonly used to refer to women's overall Islamic dress. Like the Arabic usage hijab, jilbab in Indonesia sometimes refers to head covering only and sometimes to the entire Islamic outfit that includes garment and head cover.
There is a language underlying dress usage and meaning derives from the social and cultural contexts of dress and movement and manipulation of dress items in particular situations. Often focusing analysis on the code underlying dress forms can prove more revealing than exploring a clothing item in material and functional terms. Other than its religious dimension, clothing for Arab and Muslim women and men cannot be reduced to a material element with utilitarian functions. It reflects a core code of privacy, functions to communicate status and identity, and even when identical in form for both sexes it communicates gender boundaries. It is intricately connected with historical situations of resistance to foreign occupation and against European ideals and Eurocentric images imposed through state or colonial sartorial rules and restrictions on people's choices of dress.
Brenner, Suzanne. "Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and 'The Veil.'" American Ethnologist 23, no. 4 (November 1996): 673–697.
El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1999.
Young, William C. The Rashaayda Bedouin: Arab Pastoralists of Eastern Sudan. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.
Fadwa El Guindi