The face veil pre-dates Islam, and had been used by certain Arabian pre-Islamic cultures. Culturally, it is "a custom imported from Najd, a region in Saudi Arabia and the power base of its Salafi fundamentalist form of Islam. Within Muslim countries it is very contested and considered fringe."
Today, the niqab remains traditionally associated, and most often worn, in its region of origin; the Arab countries of the Arabian Peninsula — Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. However, even in these countries, the niqab is neither a universal cultural custom nor is it culturally compulsory. In other parts of the Muslim world outside of the Arabian Peninsula, where the niqab has slowly spread to a much smaller extent, it is regarded warily by Sunni and non-Sunni Muslims alike "as a symbol of encroaching fundamentalism." Nevertheless, the niqab can now also be seen worn by a small minority of Muslims in not only Muslim-majority regions such as Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Palestinian territories, and Southern Iran, but also among a minority of Muslims in regions where Muslims are themselves a minority, like India and Europe.
Because of the wide variety of hijab worn in the Muslim world, it can be difficult to definitively distinguish between one type of face veil and another. The terms niqab and burqa are often incorrectly used interchangeably; a niqab covers the face (but not the eyes) while a burqa covers the whole body from the top of the head to the ground, with a cloth grille in the hood to allow the wearer to see in front of her.
Women who wear the niqab are often called niqābīah; this word is used both as a noun and as an adjective. However, the correct form منتقبة muntaqabah / muntaqibah (plural muntaqabāt / muntaqibāt) as niqābīah is used in a derogatory manner (much as with ḥijābīah versus محجبة muḥajjabah). Colloquially, women in niqab are called منقبة munaqqabah, with the plural منقبات munaqqabāt. The word niqabi is commonly used in English to refer to a woman who wears a niqab.
It is claimed that the face-veil was originally part of women's dress among certain classes in the Byzantine Empire and was adopted into Muslim culture during the Arab conquest of the Middle East.