Hijab [he-jab] or Al Malfa'a [al maa-al-faah] are the names given to the scarf worn by about 80% of all Gulf women who have started to menstruate. It conceals the hair, but leaves the face open to view.
A woman who wears the hijab is called a Mutahajiba [mut-ta-hajj-ji-bah] and once she starts to wear a hijab she will only show her hair to females, close male relatives and her husband.
There seems to be an entire etiquette of how to wear the hijab, depending on your religious preferences. It can be tight around the face, covering all the hair and coming almost to the eyes, or it can be pushed back with most of the hair showing on the crown of the head.
Some women wear a skull cap under the hijab to keep it in place and Kuwait is thought to be 'the place' to buy these items. In the Gulf the usual colour of choice is black, although there are other colours seen occasionally. A recent trend is to wear hijabs at women only functions - in case the photos are seen by a non-male relative.
I think if I lived in the west I'd presume it was the men who expected women to wear the hijab or cover up. My experiences here tell me it's often the women who expect women to cover up; I've only ever been asked to cover up by other women ...
I was attending Arabic classes and sat next to another English woman who was completedly covered from head to foot in black; hijab and abiya (the all-covering black garments). The next morning I was recalling the story to an Arab woman friend (who dresses in exactly the same way) and her reaction was, “What on earth is she wearing that for?”
I remember once seeing a woman breast feeding her baby with her hijab on. I was shocked and the experience really did point out to me the differences between western and Arab attitudes; to her mammary glands were simply a means to feeding her child and it was her hair which should be covered. I felt it should have been the other way around and was embarrassed to see parts of her body I thought should be covered.
Another story I remember is the housemaid who, when she worked for a Bedouin family in Saudi Arabia, was instructed to wear her hijab whilst she sleeping in bed at night.