By S. K. Siddiqui and Tasneem Vali

In December, 2001, Nicholas Kristof reported in the New York Times that although Afghan women were no longer required to wear the Burqa, they did so anyway. In his view, only the subjugated and backward women would choose to cover themselves. Islamic law, however, assigns it moral, social and legal dimensions. It is of utmost importance to dress correctly, because your dress is a reflection of yourself.

It is human nature to make even the simplest instruction complicated; the same has happened with Allah (swt) commandment, especially regarding a Muslim woman’s dress. If we study the fundamentals of what Allah (swt) has commanded, there are very few rules to remember – they are clearly defined in the Quran.

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts. That is purer for them. Verily, Allah’s All-Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.) and not to reveal their adornment 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, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islam), or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And all of you beg Allah to forgive you all, O believers, that you may be successful.” (An-Nur, 24: 30-31)

  1. Extent of Covering

The dress of Muslim men must cover the area from the navel to the knee, while women should cover their entire body, except for the face and hands. The area that must not be uncovered in the presence of any person, except the spouse, is called Satar. Some additional instructions are as follows:

(a) A Muslim woman cannot exhibit her beauty and adornment, except for “that which must ordinarily appear thereof”. This prohibition could include:

  • natural beauty,
  • acquired adornment (jewellery, clothes, etc.).
  1. Looseness

The dress must not be tightly fitted.

  1. Thickness

The clothes should not be transparent, so that the colour of skin or the shape of the body is apparent.

  1. Overall Appearance

It should not attract undue attention.

In addition to the above clear requirements, there are some minor considerations:

  1. The dress should not be similar to what the opposite sex wears. Ibn Abbas (rta) narrated that the Prophet (sa) cursed the men who act like women, and the women who act like men. (Bukhari)
  2. The dress of a Muslim must not imitate/emulate that of another nation. Muslims have their distinct identity and must ‘wear the label’ so to say. Al-Qurtubi says: “Women in those days used to cover their heads with the Khimaar, throwing its ends on their backs. This left the neck and the upper part of the chest bare, along with the ears, in the manner of the Christians. Then Allah (swt) commanded them to cover those parts with the Khimaar.”
  3. It should not be a dress of fame, pride and vanity. “Whoever wears a dress of fame in this world; Allah will clothe him with a dress of humiliation in the day of resurrection, and then set it afire.” (Al-Albani). At the same time, it is imperative to wear clothes that are befitting your socio-economical status – in other words, it is not right to wear rags to appear more pious.
  4. The dress must be clean, reflecting one’s concern for Taharah.

The verses in Surah An-Nur inform us about special relations known as Mahrams. These are the people in front of whom a woman may appear with her head uncovered, but the rest of her still needs to be covered. The spouse is a special case, in front of whom the other party may appear uncovered to any degree.

The basic code to follow is practicing what you preach. Allah (swt) says: “Most hateful it is with Allah that you say that which you do not do.” (As-Saff 61:3)

The rule never to break is that of decency. In every culture, the norms of decency vary, for instance, in the west, exposing your legs is not considered indecent, and in India, where wearing a Saree is common, exposing the midriff is acceptable.

However, as Muslims, we must interpret everything in the light of the Quran and Sunnah; thus, our dress and actions must follow the aforementioned conventions.

Even though Muslims might be properly covered physically, their eyes must remain open to the world. They may come across things which are Haram for them to see – they should avoid looking at them. This might include lowering the gaze when seeing a person who does not follow the Islamic dress code, exercising caution when watching TV, avoiding looking at billboards and sticking to guidelines of modesty in social interaction with the opposite sex.

Those of us armed with western education ‘know’ that it is rude not to keep eye contact with people when addressing them. However, Islam teaches that believing men and women lower their gaze to protect themselves. We need to unlearn these alien theories.

In addition to this, we should be aware that even though most of these rules apply post puberty, we have a responsibility to create awareness in our children about their bodies as soon as they become conscious of their clothing or actions. Children should be made aware that wearing certain types of clothes or acting in a certain way in front of the opposite sex is unacceptable.

Allah (swt) has given us simple and clear guidelines. It is our responsibility to follow them as closely as we can. We should avoid the trap of such excuses as – “If I cover my face, the other person will not understand what I say.” Do you see a person’s lips move, when you talk on the phone? A nun, who covers herself, is dedicated to God, but a Muslim woman who chooses to do the same, is viewed as oppressed and down trodden.

Break the shackles of your education – think with your heart’s eye! Let Allah (swt) be your sole guide.