There are many suppositions about the dress of Muslim women and what their dress represents. It is not uncommon to hear someone saying Muslim women are oppressed or backward because of the clothes they wear. Further, it remains a matter of amazement that the dress of a group of women should provoke negativity, stereotyping and prejudice whereas other groups of women who differ from the ‘norm’ do not excite the same sentiments. Here I shall elucidate the rules of dress, and also stress that the reason Muslim women dress the way they do, is because Allah, God, has ordered that they do so. For Muslim women, there needs to be no further justification for this choice of dress- whatever they do, is to please Allah. This cannot be considered male oppression or backwardness, or the inability to dress in ‘modern’ ways. The following essay is an attempt to de-mystify and explain the Islamic dress requirements for women.

The basis for modest dress is found in the Quran:

O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves[part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be used. And ever is Allah forgiving and merciful. (The Holy Quran Chapter 33 Verse 59).

In Islam there are specific rules governing what is to be covered, which body parts need to be covered in front of whom, and how women are to conduct themselves in public. From the time of puberty, girls are supposed to cover themselves from head to feet leaving only the face and hands uncovered. The head scarf (hijab), cloak or long coat (abaya) and the face veil (niqab) are regarded as religious garments by Muslim women which protect their modesty by hiding their bodies from public view and especially from the “male gaze”. These garments are referred to collectively as ‘hijab’. Women’s bodies are considered to be ‘awra’. Awra can be understood as ‘nakedness’ or ‘vulnerable’. The rules of maintaining awra are summarized below, adapted from Philips (n.d., Islamic Online University).

Table 1:  Rules of Awra

Individual Extent of Awra
Man with men or with women not wives From navel to knee
Woman with non-mahrams or with non-Muslim women The whole body except for the face and hands
Muslim woman with mahrams or with other Muslim women The whole body, except for the head, neck, arms and shins

 

The ‘mahrams’ referred to in the table are men to whom a Muslim woman cannot be married, or  her husband. This means her father, brothers, nephews, maternal and paternal uncles and father-in-law. Apart from these related men, Muslim women are supposed to cover their full awra when in the company of other men. In addition, clothing or adornments should not draw attention to the wearer. Clothes for both men and women are not to be tight-fitting so that they cover the shape of the awra. Clothing and accessories are not supposed to be specific to the opposite sex. For example, men are not permitted to wear jewelry, silk or gold. Women are not permitted to wear their hair in a manly hairstyle or dress in clothes which may be construed as masculine according to local fashion. Apart from mahram men, a Muslim woman must not be in seclusion with a man. Public meetings between men and women are not prohibited and men and women may work and study together as long as the rules of awra are followed.  Local traditions and customs, however, do impact the dress of Muslim women. In the Indian sub-continent, it is usual for Muslim women to wear ‘sarees’ which are cloths draped over the torso leaving the back and midriff bare. In western societies, Muslim women commonly wear jeans and T-shirts, and yet others, in both societies, choose to wear the traditional ‘abaya’, the long cloak that covers the entire body and the hijab (head covering) or niqab (face covering).  Therefore, it would be fair to state that the rules of Islamic dress have remained unchanged since the revelation of the Quran, but the cultural and social adaptations and interpretations are dynamic, organic and ever-evolving.

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