Background: Some think that Muslim women must cover their whole body, including face when in public. Women's dress code in Islam is one of the most focussed upon subjects not only in the Western media but also in Muslim countries, yet it remains one of the most distorted and misunderstood.
Firstly, according to The Quran, the most important rule of the dress code for both men and women is as follows:
O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as to adorn you. But the best garment is the garment of piety/righteousness. These are some of God's signs, so that they may be mindful. [7:26]
The garment of righteousness/piety could either refer to choosing a garment that reflects this quality or enveloping oneself in righteous/pious conduct is best, or both.
The following verses tells women to guard their private parts (i.e. genitalia) and cover their chests:
Tell the believing men to lower their
gaze and guard their private parts, for that is purer for
them. God is fully aware of what you do.
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts, and that they should not reveal their beauty except what is apparent of it, and let them draw with their covers over their chests. And let them not reveal their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or their women, or those committed to them by oath, or the male servants who are without need, or the child who has not yet understood the composition of women. And let them not strike with their feet that reveals what they are keeping hidden of their beauty. And repent to God, all of you believers, that you may succeed. [24:30-31]
From the above verse it can be deduced that for the purposes of women's dress code two types of beauty are described:
1) What is apparent (this can be revealed
2) What is hidden (this type must be covered in public, but could be revealed by a striking of feet or walk/stride which is revealing)
Such a striking of
feet or walk could only reveal a limited number of parts of the
body, e.g. the private parts, buttocks, thighs, breasts, hips,
thus any part not revealed by such an action should not be
considered part of hidden beauty and therefore part of apparent
beauty. Of course, this means such things as face, hair, hands,
feet etc would not clearly fall into the category of beauty that
is meant to be hidden. Furthermore, the verse clearly brackets
what beauty it is referring to by saying "...the child who has
not yet understood the composition of women" implying it is
relating to what is specific to a woman (i.e. what is different
between man and woman) nothing else.
This understanding would also fit with The Quran's instruction on the body parts that are to be cleansed during daily ablution (hands, arms, face, head and feet), see 5:6, 4:43.
A headscarf (commonly called
"hijab") is often worn by Muslim women, however this word is not
used like this in The Quran. In fact, the word "hijab" is not
even used to mean an item of clothing and simply means something
which intervenes between two things, e.g. barrier, screen,
seclusion. All verses where this word occurs are as follows: 7:46, 33:53, 38:32,
41:5, 42:51, 17:45, 19:17, 83:15. It should also be noted that
believing men and women are free to eat in each other's company,
whether family or friends [24:61], thus a veil covering the face
(commonly called "niqab", or the full veil "burqa") would
obviously be impractical. Again, such an item of clothing is
nowhere to be found in The Quran.
Another common mistake regarding dress code is when the following situation-specific verse is applied to all situations:
And those who harm the believing men and the
believing women, with no just reason, they have brought upon
themselves a slander and a gross sin.
O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen (or draw near) over themselves their outer-garments. That is more likely they be recognized so not harmed. God is Forgiver, Merciful.
If the hypocrites and those with disease in their hearts and those who spread lies in the city do not refrain*, then We will let you overpower them, then they will not be able to remain as your neighbours except for a short while. [33:58-60]
*proving harm is already occurring, and refers back to 33:58, which is before the modification in dress is mentioned.
The mistake is exposed when the practicalities of applying the above verses are considered. The verses deal with open enmity with significant repercussions for the perpetrators if this behaviour does not stop. The open enmity is direct to the person, hence the need for the women to modify their outer-garment in order to be recognised in public and not harmed. For the suggested solution in these verses to succeed four things must be in place:
1) The open
enmity or harm must be present in the community first and
direct to the women
2) The modification in outer-garment and the consequence for the perpetrator of not abiding by this identification code must either be made known to the community or this would have to be common knowledge amongst the community
3) The modification recommended would be enough to differentiate one group from another
4) The authority is in place to fight/expel those persisting in this behaviour
Clearly, this specific criteria has to be fulfilled for these verses to work, thus is not a universal rule. It is situation-specific, e.g. if a section of the community become hostile to believing women or women in general and the believers have some power in the land, then they can utilise this solution, effectively giving an ultimatum with no room for excuse for the perpetrators.
are commonly interpreted to mean that Muslim women must
lengthen (or draw near) their outer-garment whenever in public
even in times of peace. However, this is easily refuted by
considering that if this was the case and open enmity then
appeared, the modification suggested in these verses would
already exist, thus implementing the modification in these
verses could not be done, thus rendering the solution
described in these verses as void.
However, from these verses it can be deduced that wearing of an outer-garment by women when in public was the norm.
The following verse shows being clothed is the norm but makes it clear that flexibility is allowed in certain situations, as long as we are mindful of modesty. The context is etiquette within the household:
And the women who are past child bearing and
who do not seek to get married have no sin upon them if they
discard their garments*,
provided they do not show off with their beauty. If they
abstain, then it is better for them. God is Hearer, Knower.
*Arabic word is "thiyab" and refers to ordinary clothes/gowns.
It should be noted that all examples of dress in The Quran of the righteous or believing men and women involve wearing garments, e.g. 18:31, 22:23, 24:58, 24:60, 35:33, 74:4, 76:21. Also, to provide clothing for others is considered a charitable or righteous act [4:5, 2:233, 5:89].
As can be seen, The Quran gives us a set of simple basic rules with flexible guidance for the rest, which can be applied to different situations/society/function. This flexibility is a mercy but has unfortunately been abused by various schools of thought and religious leaders who have issued their own additional rulings and consequently there is disagreement amongst them on other than the basic rules.
notes for Arabic readers:
The word "khumur" is used in 24:31 and can be the plural of "khimaar" or "khimirr", and can mean any cover made of cloth or headcover, according to Classical Arabic dictionaries and Traditional Ahadith/Narrations (see Bukhari Volume 6, Book 60, Number 282). Please note the Arabic preposition "bi" meaning "with" in "bikhumurihinna", which means they are to cover their chests with their "khumur/covers/headcovers". The usage of preposition "bi" is different to the preposition "min" as used in 33:59 "min jalabeebihinna" which means to use a part of their "jilbab/outer-garment" in the modification suggested, i.e. not all of it has to be lowered or drawn near, just part of it. In 24:31 if God intended that part of it (e.g. headcover) stays on the head and part of it be used to cover the bosom, it would have been more appropriate to use "min khumurhinna". Furthermore, the word "yadribna" as used in 24:31 has no connotation of lengthening or lowering in any other occurrence, unlike "yudneena" in 33:59 which does, thus would have been more appropriate to use.
Even if "khumur" is taken to mean "headcovers" it should be noted that the order is to cover the chest, not the head - of course, one may cover their head if they wish.
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