Originally Posted by mamabadger
Would that be an accurate way to describe it, from a Muslim perspective? That a woman who wears a niqab is "more observant" than a woman who only wears a hijab, both are more observant than those who wear no head covering, and so forth?
Well, let's put it this way, it can be interpreted this way on the surface, yes. Regarding hijab, there is little debate among mainstream Muslims that it is considered a religious requirement. I know, every time you read about hijab now the media takes the "progressive" argument that "hijab is not in the Qur'an" but that is blatantly false (and a long discussion for another time perhaps). So the point here is that among mainstream traditional Muslims, not fringe groups, a hijabi is more "observant".
Now there is a greater debate regarding niqab. Some more conservative sects consider it to be required. Most mainstream schools of thought hold it to be not required but a good thing to do. Many people believe it is untenable in the West. But among most Muslims in the West, a niqabi will be interpreted outwardly as more strict, sometimes even as "too strict".
In many Muslim countries, niqab is part of the "costume" of the cultural group you want to associate with. In Syria for example, a woman has a choice as to how to dress, and that includes no hijab at all. Yet depending on how religious you or your family are, or how religious you want to seem, there are prevalent styles that inlude (in increasing order of "observantness"): hijab with pants, hijab with a skirt, a light colored or patterned hijab with a light-colored "trench coat", light or dark solid colored hijab with dark "trench coat", dark hijab and niqab (under the nose or over the nose) with dark "trench coat" and finally total over-the-whole-face niqab with dark "trench coat".
However, having lived in a Muslim country and having family there, I will tell you that underneath the surface
this is not necessarily the case. I know women who wear all black, niqab, sunglasses/eye covers, gloves, etc., who don't pray 5 times a day (one of the 5 pillars of Islam which all Muslims MUST do), who smoke, who drink alcohol, etc... so looks don't necessarily determine everything. What's in a person's heart can be very different from what is on the outside.