Modesty: A humble, unpretentious manner or appearance. Hijāb: A term often used to mean scarf or outer garment that Muslim women wear, but in Arabic, it means a ‘cover’ or ‘screen’. Khimār: A scarf that covers the head, shoulders and chest of a woman. Jilbāb: A large outer garment, one-piece or two pieces, that covers the entire body except for the face and hands. Niqāb: A face veil. (Purdah: An Urdu language term used by Western media to mean covering every part of the woman’s body.)
يَا بَنِي آدَمَ قَدْ أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكُمْ لِبَاسًا يُوَارِي سَوْآتِكُمْ وَرِيشًا ۖ وَلِبَاسُ التَّقْوَىٰ ذَٰلِكَ خَيْرٌ ۚ
“O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal what should be concealed, and as a fine adornment — and the garment of righteousness, that is best.” (Al-A’rāf 7:26)
Allāh has mentioned here reasons for clothing: to cover the body and conceal what should not be revealed in public, and to beautify the body so the person looks better. Islamic clothing is known for its modesty. A Muslim is allowed to wear whichever clothes he wishes so long as they are modest, free from impurities, not made from forbidden materials and within textual guidelines. Textual guidelines mean that it must abide by the commandments of the Qur’ān and Prophetic Tradition.
Both men and women are expected to show modesty in the clothes they wear. Women are expected to dress in a way that shows they are believing women. The Qur’ān instructs the Prophet, يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ۚ.
“Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to wrap their outer garments (the jilbāb) around themselves. That is more suitable so that they will be known as pious women, and not be harassed.” (Al-Ahzāb 33:59)
Women are also told not to display their finery. This means that the dress is meant to protect the wearer from harassment and to prevent one from becoming obsessed with pride in one’s outward appearance.
It is also a way Muslims can develop a society that respects the boundaries between men and women. In this way each person is judged for their piety, honesty, hard work and values, not mere outward beauty and fashion consciousness. Many Muslim women completely conceal themselves in a ‘jilbāb’ (outer garment covering them from their head to their feet), along with gloves, and a face veil (niqāb) that allows only the eyes to be seen. All of this is from Islam. However, not all of it is obligatory. The gloves and face veil are not obligations but recommendations, and most women choose not to wear them.
So, the hijāb is the Islamic practice of preventing women from being seen by men except by their closest male relatives (referred to as mahrams). Men are not allowed to shake hands with women unless they are closely related to them, such as one’s wife, daughter, paternal aunt, maternal aunt, sister, etc.
Some Muslims wrongly believe that the hijāb is a cultural practice rather than a religious one. They are very much mistaken because Allāh has instructed the women,
وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا ۖ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ۖ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ
“and they are to draw their veils (khumur) over their heads and chests (juyūb) and not to reveal their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons…” (An-Nūr 24:31)
The crucial words in this verse are وَلْیَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِھِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُیُوبِھِنَّ
In Arabic: wal-yadribna clearly proves that this is a command (due to the lām of command) so it means: “and they are to draw their veils…” The word Allāh uses in this verse for the veil is Khimār (pl. khumur). The meaning of this word in the Arabic language is a scarf or veil. The jurist, linguist, scholar of the Arabic grammar and Quran, Shaikh Ibn Uthaimīn said, “It is a cloth with which a woman covers her head.” (Tafsīr Surah An-Nūr, p. 167). The Quranic Scholar, Al-Baghawī (died 516AH) stated, “The term juyūb (sing. jayb) in this verse refers to their chests, hair, necks and ears.” (3/289) Shaikh Ibn Uthaimīn also said, “The Quranic scholars have said it means that they are to cover their heads, necks, and chests with a scarf.” (p. 168)
Allah instructed the men,
قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَزْكَىٰ لَهُمْ
“To lower their gaze from looking at women with desire other than their wives, and to protect themselves from fornication. That is purer for them.” (An-Nūr 24:30).
Men are commanded to dress modestly in loose garments that do not reveal what is between their navel and knees. All lower garments such as trousers or long shirts (i.e. thawb) must be above the ankles just as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has commanded, “What is below the ankles of a lower garment will be in the Fire.” (Reported by Al-Bukhārī, no. 793) And he said, “The lower garment of the believer should come to the mid-calf, but there is no sin on him if it comes between that point and the ankle. But whatever is lower than the ankle is in the Fire.” And he said three times, “Allah will not look at the one who lets his lower garment drag on the floor out of vanity.” (Reported by Ibn Mājah, no. 3704)
Islamic etiquette also includes separating unrelated men and women in social and religious gatherings as much as possible. This is done, for example, by giving them separate entrances to the mosque and separate prayer rooms at airports and hospitals, and separate rooms at social gatherings. The Prophet stated, “Beware of entering upon womenfolk or upon the gatherings of women.”
The practice of seeking a marriage partner must be done without dating or courting. Families from both sides must be involved from the outset for a relationship to be safe from immoral conduct. In the case of women who have converted to Islam and have no Muslim relatives, then their guardianship for marriage becomes the responsibility of the head of a mosque or Islamic centre.
Traditional Islamic rules for modest dress from the Qur’ān and Sunnah:
For women when in public among unrelated (non-mahram) men:
Clothing must cover the entire body except for the face and hands when in the company of non-related males.
Clothing must be loose, so the shape of the body is not seen.
Thick enough so that it is not see-through.
Should not resemble the clothing of men.
Should not be ostentatious.
Should not be perfumed when around unrelated men (non-mahrams).
Clothing must conceal whatever is between the naval and knee.
Must be loose, and not see-through, so that the private areas remain concealed (by loose, not tight garments).
All garments must be above the ankle bone.
Should not resemble the clothing of women.
They should not resemble something that merely seeks to imitate un-Islamic practices/fashions (e.g. clothing of Buddhists, priests, rabbis, hip-hop artists, movie stars, etc.)
It cannot be made of silk or coloured/dyed with saffron.
Hijāb: A lot of people mistakenly think that hijāb means a headscarf only, but it means “a screen” or “cover”. The word khimār refers to a scarf which is worn over the head, shoulders and chest of a woman.
The jilbāb is an outer garment that is worn over the ‘house-clothes’ and over the khimār of a woman. The jilbāb covers her from the head to her feet. It can be one piece or two pieces – and she puts it on before leaving the home or when in the company of non-mahrams (unrelated men).
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “When a woman reaches the age of adolescence, it is not correct that she displays any part of her body except this and this — and he pointed to his face and hands.” (Abu Dawood 4104) This hadeeth is a clear proof that a woman is obligated to cover her whole body. The rules of modesty are legislated and ordained by Allah, not dictated by the whims of people.
Modern attitudes: There is a trend among some Muslims to avoid adhering to the Islamic dress-code because it is hard for them to do so in a Western liberal society that invites to immodesty and immorality.
These Muslims feel awkward and cannot tolerate the unfriendly comments and even abuse that they may encounter if they dressed according to Islam. So, they give in to societal pressures.
Practicing and steadfast Muslims hold the view that regardless of occasional Islamophobic attitudes, they will not allow the practice of their faith to be compromised — and their love of Allah, fear of Him and love of adherence to his laws outweighs any hardship they face from a minority of unfriendly and Islamophobic people in society.
There is yet another group of so-called ‘enlightened Muslims’ who believe that the hijāb and the Islamic dress code is outdated and not fit for our times regardless of the Quranic and Prophetic law obligating it.
They call upon Muslims to abandon these ‘outdated’ religious practices. Some even go as far as to call upon governments in the West to ban the hijāb! These are the most severe in their intolerance and the most harmful upon the Muslims and Islam.
Practicing Muslims find these intolerant attitudes scary and dangerous because it seeks to stop them from the practicing their religion freely, and it alienates them and their religion. Many second and third generation Muslims still remember their grandparents saying, “One day these societies will want you out so be prepared to return home!” What would cause Muslims to leave except if they and their offspring are made to feel unwelcome, unwanted, disrespected and marginalised just because they practice their faith!?
A Muslim may well ask: Would these same people call for a ban on nuns wearing their habits (modest garments) that resemble the hijāb of the Muslim women??
Evidence shows that most Muslim women choose to wear the hijāb and are not at all forced. Muslim women ask that society respects their decision to choose their own way of life.
Different attitudes to the Hijab
Various styles of “hijab” are worn all over the world and this is fine if the conditions of hijāb are met. Some Muslim women do not wear it at all — and the Qur’an and Sunnah regards that as an act of disobedience to the Lord of the creation (Allāh) because it opposes a direct command of His.
Many outsiders wrongly think that Muslim women are forced to wear hijāb by men. This is clearly not how most Muslim women see it. They are proud to wear the hijab as an outward sign of their faith and their modesty. Another reason woman gives for wearing the hijāb is that it makes men treat them as people with self-respect. They feel that women in countries like Britain are only valued by men for their looks, and that Western women must dress to please men if they are going to get on in society.
However, Muslim women want to be treated as individuals, not as mere objects on display for men to see in public.
The value of a woman:
“In Britain, women and girls are valued for their looks. Men want to be seen with a beautiful woman just to impress their friends. It is as if having a pretty woman at their side is proof that they are successful and important. I think women who like that kind of attention do not value themselves; they are only worried about their appearance, and whether men fancy them or not. Women should value themselves. We want to be respected for our character and intelligence, so we wear the hijab. Our outward physical appearance is private
and precious to us; we don’t want to share it with everyone. We want to be able to give the gift of seeing it to our chosen husbands. We want to be respected by society, and we want people to know that we are respectable when they see us. Many men value each other for their friendship, intelligence, kindness and good character. We should want people to value us in the same way.” (by A’ishah, a 17-year-old girl living in Britain)
As previously stated, some people do not think it is necessary for Muslim women to wear the hijāb. They give many reasons such as:
“We are living in a modern society where the hijāb may seem backward.”
“The best of clothing is piety, so I will just be pious and not wear the hijab.”
“The hijāb is about behavior, not about clothing.”
“People get scared off by the hijāb.”
“You can’t get a job if you wear the hijāb,” and so on.
These arguments contradict the clear verses of the Qur’an and the numerous commandments of the Prophet (peace be upon him). True, the hijāb can be a challenge for some Muslim women living in the West, but they are encouraged to put God first rather than their fears, personal feelings or the negative attitudes of society.