This claim (apparently) appeared on billboards in February 2018 on Interstate 55 and the Tri-State Tollway outside Chicago:

enter image description here

(Which, yes, does not literally and explicity make the claim "the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, wore a hijab" but it has been previously-established that implied claims are acceptable topics on Skeptics.SE.)

Is this an accurate claim about a person having the characteristics generally ascribed to the Virgin Mary and living in that milieu?

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    Is the question spefically "did the virgin mary exist and wear a hijab"? Or a more broad "did women in that area and time period wear a hijab"? As I don't think "the virgin mary" is a specific person that anything is known about, making questions hard to answer.
    – Erik
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 20:43
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    Thanks @Erik -- I've tried to express more clearly what I'm asking about.
    – Roger
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 20:47
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    I guess this question is better suited for History SE where there are people more able to answer if woman of that time and region weared it
    – jean
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 9:54
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    @jean I'd support an effort to migrate this to History.SE if others think it'd be a good idea.
    – Roger
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 15:03
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    Not quite on-topic, but I have visited Israel and several Arabic countries. It tends to be sandy and windy, and if you have long hair then wearing a scarf is the obvious way to keep the sand out of it. It wasn't a religious statement when I started wearing one.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 8:56

3 Answers 3


There cannot be any direct evidence, as far as we know. And the authors of the billboard know surely less than that.

But the circumstantial evidence reveals some interesting tidbits. These make the claim that a Judean or Galilean women around the year 1 wore a hijab or any kind of veil highly unlikely:

Judean women were clearly interested in the arts of adornment, as is evident from the cosmetic equipment, including combs and ring keys, found at Masada. Hair found at the same site indicates that women wore their hair long, perhaps in a single braid, but no doubt wealthier women were influenced by the fashions of the day, arranging their hair in more ornate ways (Edwards: 237). It is only later in the rabbinic writings that women are exhorted to cover their heads (Ketub. 72a) out of general concerns for modesty and to indicate a transition from girlhood to womanhood (Bronner: 466). The Talmud claims that a woman going out with her head uncovered is in violation of biblical law. This is because of Numbers 5:18, which describes a ritual stipulated for a suspected adulteress. The priest must either unbind or uncover her hair. The Talmudic authors argue that he was uncovering it, therefore presuming that married women normally went about with their head covered. However, other interpreters debated whether or not the specific word in question, parah, meant to loosen or to uncover. Regardless, hair covering for married women eventually became a widespread practice in various forms of Judaism. Midrash adds the attractiveness of Eve to the reasons why she ate the fruit and apparently seduced the man (Gen. Rab. 17:8; see Bronner: 470–71), which provides further justification for women to cover their heads so that they will not tempt men who cannot resist them.
Alicia J. Batten: "Clothing and Adornment", BiBlical Theology BulleTin Volume 40 Number 3 Pages 148-159. DOI: 10.1177/0146107910375547

So, we have first a much more fashionable uncovered head, albeit presumably just when not working the fields in rural settings.

Then we have a later development within the emerging Judaism that slowly went about to more or less enforce this habit.

And this is just for married women. As the story goes, when Mary became the mother of Jesus, she was not married.

(Depends a bit on translation, of the *very few passages we have from the bible for that Mary at all. Luke (OJB): "To a betulah (virgin) given in erusin (betrothal, engagement) to an ish from the Beis Dovid named Yosef [ben Dovid], and the shem of the almah was Miryam." But the original is Greek (SBLGNT): πρὸς παρθένον [a]ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυὶδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ. And neither means "married". As the two previous paragraphs should make clear, if a later development prescribed head coverings for married women, the scant evidence from the bible is apparently not much in favour of that Mary wearing a head cover.

As Mary would have lived 700 years before Islam was invented, we can safely conclude that on the one hand fashion styles varied, and the early hijab is not the one of today, nor the only form of headdress allowed or prescribed in Islam anyway. Did Mary wear a burqa? Afghan taliban billboards would claim that, for sure, at least for as long as billboards are allowed under their rule.

That a Mary would have followed this prescription, or honored it, is not unlikely. As it is the central theological argument for a hijab, in some interpretations, but does not talk about head or hair:

Sura 24,31] And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.

The actual history of the hijab is much more filled with circumstance than never changing doctrine:

The world of clothing in Islam is subjected to both normative and juristic restrictions, creating tension between juristic demands, local realities, and human wishes. Some of these main juristic instructions are the need to cover the pubis, to keep the laws of modesty, to keep the patriarchal structure, and not to act with arrogance but at the same time demonstrate God’s greatness through clothing. Muslim jurisprudence thus should be interpreted as an outcome of this dialog, while other texts such as adab literature and poetry, in addition to physical remains, present a rich world of personal appearance, sometimes in contradiction with juristic norms and restrictions.

Islam was created and developed in the Arabian Peninsula and was first aimed at its pagan Arab inhabitants who became the believers. Through Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) times, most of those Arabs were nomads, with the exception of some permanent settlements such as Mecca. The major variables that influenced the code of clothing were climate, life needs, social codes, religious demands, and socioeconomic manifestations. One of the most frequent motifs of Jahiliyya-Arabic poetry is the praise of personal appearance, especially of women. The first written and organized code of proper Muslim clothing is contained in the holy scripture of the Qurpan, which devotes several verses to clothing, adornment, and modesty. According to Qurpanic verses, clothing and adornment are God’s grace to his believers, aimed at covering their pubis and adorning themselves (16:81, 7:26). The other use of clothing in the Qurpan is for methodological and didactic purposes, as clothing is a part of the reward in heaven or alternatively a part of the punishment in hell (18:31, 35:33, 44:53, 76:21, 22:23).

The great conquests of Islam and the spreading out of the religion beyond the Arabian Peninsula brought under its rule different cultures and ethnic origins, with their own worlds of clothing. Hadith collections, Quranic exegesis, and fiqh compendiums were aimed at providing guidance to Muslim communities in the post-Quranic age, all reflecting extensions and changes of the Qurpanic verses based on time, place, and needs. This means that the Quranic Muslim code of clothing was extended and reinterpreted, thus reflecting the tension between adornment and self-expression, arrogance and modesty, norms and reality. The results of these intersections was a mixture of Arab clothing and Turkish and Iranian clothing, based on geography, ethnic origin, and mutual influences.
Hadas Hirsch: "Clothing and adornment" p 221, in: Richard C. Martin et al (Eds): "Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World", Gale: Farmington Hills, 2016.

For example, the hijab verse (33:59) is reportedly occasioned by the suggestion by Umar ibn al-Khattab, portrayed in hadith literature as a fierce advocate of female subjugation, that the wives of the Prophet be veiled and confined. Gender dynamics within the community as reflected in gender-relevant asbab al-nuzul (occasions of revelation) literature remains to be fully analyzed for its implications for feminist hermeneutics of the Quran.
(Ghazala Anwar: "Feminism" ibd, p373.)

Even stranger in relation to the billboard is the story brought down via Anas ibn Malik, a supposed companion of Mohammed, who reported that when the prophet married yet another wife called Zaynab bint Jahsh those suras came down to earth. Furthermore, the other so-called veil verse (Ayat al-Hidschab; see 33:53), which supposedly obliged the wives of the Prophet to wear the veil, is said to have been revealed on the wedding night with Zaynab. Conveniently just after Mohammed got jealous as the many guests laid eyes on the bride. Some traditions also connect 66:1 with the jealousy of the rest of the Prophet's wives toward Zaynab.
(C.E. Bosworth, “Zaynab bt. K̲h̲uzayma”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Consulted online on 23 November 2018 http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1573-3912_islam_SIM_8150)

Another story holds that Mohammeds wives were frequently approached at night by lusting strangers on the streets. After being caught they justfied their unruly behaviour with the fact that they mistook the prophet's wives for slaves, since they were unveiled.

Also confer to Claudia Knieps: "Geschichte der Verschleierung der Frau im Islam", Ergon: Würzburg, 21999. (Pages 162–175, 190–200.) and Susanne Enderwitz: Der Schleier im Islam. In: Feministische Studien. Vol 2, 1983, p. 96 (DOI).

Fatima Mernissi: "Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry", Blackwell: Oxford, 1991, p 85–101: "The hijab, the veil".

If we look again at the facts scattered throughout this chapter, it comes down to saying that the Prophet, during a troubled period at the beginning of Islam, pronounced a verse that was so exceptional and for the Muslim religion that it introduced a breach in space that can be understood to be a separation of the public from the private, or indeed the profane from the sacred, but which was to turn into a segregation of the sexes. The veil that descended from Heaven was going to cover up women. separate them from men, from the Prophet. and so from God. Having clarified this aspect of the subject - the linguistic, social, historical, and religious reality of the hijab - should we not ask ourselves how the Prophet, who felt such an absolute and radical need to protect his privacy, lived?

Meaning that previously not even the wives of Mohammed honoured the hijab?

The full treatment for this development o head dresses in Judea and surroundings is nicely condensed in:

Cynthia Baker: "Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity", Stanford University Press, 2002.

Read as written, the words convey only the following demands: that, when going out, a wife must cover her head (early modern Euro-American practice dictated similar protocols for men and boys, although without dire threats of legal repercussion), and she must take care that her body is covered by her clothing; that she must not go out to spin yarn in the shuk (the Mishnah adds that she must not engage in [intimate] conversations with other men); and that she must take care while at the common bathhouse to bathe and wash in such a way that she is not doing so in the presence of “everyone”— men and women alike. While it is not appropriate to read such rabbinic prescriptions either as simple descriptions of common practice or as benevolent concern over women’s “modesty,” neither is it appropriate to exaggerate them into a cultural ideal demanding the confinement of women or their banishment from public places — in fact, the prescriptions in these passages are incomprehensible unless both women and men are understood to occupy all of the spaces mentioned, together, and at the same times.

Although the actions and codes described in this passage might or might not reflect widespread social custom (we have few other forms of evidence by which to judge), it is likely that the images conveyed are at least consistent with rabbinic constructions of customary practice. To the extent that this is the case, we might hypothesize that the married woman’s distinguishing mark would likely be her headgear.89 In fact, “a hat for her head” is among the clothing items that a husband is enjoined, in the Mishnah, to provide for his wife,90and if he does not, the Tosefta asserts that others may buy goods from her (even if the profits rightfully belong to her husband) in an amount that would enable her to obtain one. Moreover, wives who “go out with head uncovered” are threatened with divorce and financial loss; their husbands, as we saw above, are reviled as “evil”; and heavy fines are decreed against anyone who would dare remove a woman’s headgear against her will.

Detailing that this is indeed just another incidence of one sect copying concepts of social control from another. Only in this case that concept as detailed developed too late for a Mary in question and the copyists are blissfully unaware of it.

The currently oldest depiction of Mary is thought to be from Dura-Europos, today in Syria:

enter image description here This image of a woman drawing water from a well once decorated the baptistry of an early Christian house-church in Dura-Europos. It could be the earliest known image of the Virgin Mary, according to a scholar from Fordham University. The image has been rendered in black and white on the right to better show the outline of the figure.
Yale Art Gallery painting might be oldest known image of the Virgin Mary, 2016

In that image at least, headdress seem to be absent. Other old images, either much younger or much farther away geographically, from the Sea of Galilee or Jerusalem indicate a general trend: that Mary was depicted with headdress only later, when the customs of the painters changed.

enter image description here XV14 - Roma, Museo civiltà romana - Adorazione dei Magi - sec III dC - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto

  • 3
    "Did Mary wear a burqa? Afghan billboards would claim that, for sure." I suggest changing "Afghan" into "taliban". Most Afghans only wore burqa under constraint, and Afghan women often went without any headdress until the 1970's. amnesty.org.uk/womens-rights-afghanistan-history
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 11:59
  • "And this is just for married women. As the story goes, when Mary became the mother of Jesus, she was not married."-She was betrothed which in Judaism is legally married but not yet cohabiting. Breaking a betrothal requires a get, a divorce decree, and violating the betrothal is adultery. IOW, if indeed "married" women at the time wore head coverings, she would have, too. Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 11:04
  • Depends a bit on translation, of the very few passages we have from the bible, Luke (OJB): "To a betulah (virgin) given in erusin (betrothal, engagement) to an ish from the Beis Dovid named Yosef [ben Dovid], and the shem of the almah was Miryam." But the original is Greek (SBLGNT): πρὸς παρθένον [a]ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυὶδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ. And neither means "married". My passage above says that it is a later development. Ergo: zero direct evidence in favour, plenty of indirect that says the opposite. Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 12:13
  • The wikipedia article on the Dura-Europos church also has images of veiled women, though arguably at an occasion that required more formal clothing: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dura-Europos_church
    – Jan
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 10:58

So, after a bit of poking around, the only consistent references appear to be biblical, which isn't necessarily disqualifying, but does lend a little less support to the evidence.

Garb for Israelite women (one of which Mary, had she existed, would have been) apparently included the mițpaḥațh, a neckcloth-style head covering, "was a neckcloth ... [reaching] from the forehead down across the back of the head to the hips or still lower...".

The passage in the linked article, reproduced in its entirety below, is replicated over virtually every other article on the subject, so I am not at all confident about its unimpeachability.

That said, based on that, an Israelite woman would probably have worn something that could be an ancestor of what eventually became the hijab.

  1. Women’s Attire. A woman's dress evidently differed from that of a man (Dent. xxii. 5), but consisted likewise of simla and kuttoneth. Presumably these garments had sleeves and were longer than those worn by men, were also of finer material, of brighter colors, and more richly ornamented. The sadin, the finer linen underdress, was also worn by women (Isa. iii. 23; Prov. xxii. 24). Further, mention is made of the mițpaḥațh, a kind of veil or shawl (Ruth iii. 15); and the ma'ațapha, a wrap of unknown form (Isa. iii. 22). A very important article of female attire was the veil. The use of the veil by the bride (Gen. xxiv. 65) and in other cases (Gen. xxxviii. 14; Ruth iii. 3) is traceable to the influence of the Ishtar myth. The veil was the symbol of Ishtar, who, on coming from the underworld, walked out veiled to meet Tammuz, her bridegroom. Otherwise it was not customary for women to go veiled (Gen. xii. 14, xxiv. 15 sqq.), contrary to present custom in the Orient due to the influence of Islam. The veil of the ordinary woman's wardrobe was a neckcloth. According to ancient statuary, it reached from the forehead down across the back of the head to the hips or still lower, and was not unlike the neckerchief of the peasant woman in modern Palestine. It is not known how the various kinds of veils mentioned in the Old Testament differed from one another (Gen. xxiv. 65; Cant. iv. 3; Isa. iii. 19 sqq., xlvii. 2). The increasing luxury of women in the matter of dress is shown by the enumeration of the articles of a woman's toilet in Isa. iii. 18-23.
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    So, it's kind of a definite maybe. Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 22:57
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    And Islam as a religion didn't happen for about another 500 years. Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 23:24
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    @DanielRHicks no, a definite no. The hijab is a muslim garment that originates afaik in Arabia, not Judea. While Mary may have worn something somewhat similar, it wouldn't be a hijab. That billboard effectively claims Mary was a muslim, which is valid in muslim thinking as they claim Christ as being one of their prophets (when He lived centuries before islam was even conceived and that a very long way from where He lived and died).
    – jwenting
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 7:28
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    I agree with @jwenting. A hajib is more than a head covering, it's a garment which is part of a religious code of conduct. So it's not just about appearance, the answer should also address the reason for wearing it. Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 9:21
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    @jdunlop We have far more proof of the existence of Jesus than of the existence of Homer - or even Socrates. It is clear, and generally accepted, that a jewish man named Joshua lived around 2,000 years ago in Palestine, and was acclaimed as the messiah by a group of followers. And, of course, since he existed he must have had a mother. The fact that God doesn't exist does not change this at all.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 11:38

Yes, women in the first-century Near East covered their heads.
We have this from St. Paul not too much later:

For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
I Coritnthians 11:16 LINK

Probably he was reiterating the customs of that time and place.

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    If you cite just one verse before that it becomes clear that Paul only speaks about divinatory practices and church service. Also Paul's attitude to that issue is somewhat complicated and he addresses are Corinthian pagans turned Christians. Cf Harry Steinhauer: "Holy Headgear" 1990 Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 14:15

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