The Oxford Dictionary defines modesty as “behaviour, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.” What constitutes modesty is understood differently by Muslims in different cultures, and can include the type of dress as well as the level of interaction with the opposite gender. For some Muslims, modesty also includes humility towards the Creator (God) and other people. Modesty is described by the Prophet Muhammad pbuh as an important virtue.

The Arabic word hijab literally means “curtain.” When used to refer to dress, it either implies modest dress that includes a headscarf or refers only to a headscarf. “Hijab” is often incorrectly used interchangeably with the terms burqa and niqab. “Hijab” is generally used to refer to a headscarf, ”burqa” to a covering of the entire body including the face, while “niqab” refers to a face covering that conceals most of the face but exposes the eyes. Some Muslim women wear hijab while others do not and expressions of hijab vary greatly by culture, individual taste, and conviction.

Practising Muslim women wear the hijab, an early practice established in the formative period of Islam that references Quranic verses and hadith (prophetic sayings) which requests obligating women to cover their hair and much of their body for the sake of modesty.

Women who choose to wear the hijab do so for a variety of reasons: religious duty, as a sign of identity, as an act of devotion to their faith, or to indicate that they do not want to be judged by their physical characteristics.

A minority of women in some Muslim cultures understand modesty to require covering not only their whole body and head but also their faces – this is a voluntary practice not deemed mandatory. Therefore, when in public, they wear a burqa (a loose garment which covers the body and face) or niqab (a covering for the face that leaves the eyes exposed).

The Qur’an instructs both men and women to be modest, but how this is practiced varies greatly. One understanding of modest dress for men in some Muslim traditions requires them to cover from the navel to knee and to dress modestly in loose-fitting clothing. The traditional clothing worn by Muslim men in such places as South Asia, where they wear a loose shirt and pants, or in some Arab countries, where men wear what looks like a long dress (jalaba) and a headscarf (kuffiyah), differs little in the extent of covering from the traditional dress of Muslim women. Many Muslim men grow a beard and wear a head covering that resembles a skull cap, as do observant practitioners in some other religious traditions.