Some examples of Middle Eastern Veiling
copyright Julia May
(aka Samia al-Kaslaania)
Clothing in the Middle Eastern city of Cairo was often a display of conspicuous consumption during the 11th to 13th Centuries. One of the greatest sources for displaying wealth was the headwear. In Medieval Egypt fully half of the clothing an individual owned was headwear, whether the owner was Jewish, Christian or Muslim . While many of the head coverings found in period source can be defined through contemporary comparison or backwards-tracing etymology, several are still a mystery to modern researchers.
One of the core items for both men and women was the ma’raqa. This close fitting cap was the foundation for dressing the head. As the root word “sweat” indicates, it was used to protect the more expensive pieces from body soil*. Women would typically have two or three of them in their trousseau. The ma’raqa is the minimum that a man would appear in public wearing, and usually only if he were quite poor.
A basic and typical women’s head covering is the ‘isâba. This mini-turban is a cloth that is wound around the head to conceal the hair*. It is distinguished from the mi’jar, an elegant garment equivalent to the ‘imama (men’s turban) *. Gilded and/or brightly colored mi’jar appear to have been popular.
A popular shawl or scarf used to cover the head was a radda, which is often listed as matched to an ensemble. This veil might be adorned with borders, fringe, gilding, or embroidery*. The long and narrow cloth tied around the head to hold such veils in place is the taqnî’a*. The taqnî’a was often tied so that a loop poked out above the knot.
A mystery clothing item is the kuwâra. It means “beehive,” and the rare occurrences of this word in period documents only suggest that it is an item of headwear*. Another is the mukallaf. This expensive piece of women’s headgear came in a vast array of colors from “mandrake” to “pearl-colored”, which is distinguished from “white-grey,” to “apricot” and “pomegranate” *.
Only extreme circumstances, such as mourning the death of a loved one, would drive an urban woman out of her home with her hair exposed. Men would not be considered fully dressed until wearing a turban. Such modesty was a sign of respect for one’s faith and one’s family. It is difficult in our modern day to image placing such importance on clothing for the head, but it is an essential key to understanding the culture under study.
 All reference in this theme are to Stillman, Yedida K. Female Attire of Medieval Egypt: According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from the Cairo Geniza. PhD Dissertation. Unpublished: University of Chicago, 1972.