On the subject of Islamic dress code in “Our Dialogue” section of Islamic Voice, October 2008 issue, the questioner and the scholar who has given the answer have taken opposite stand. Either a woman’s face can be seen or has to be covered completely. I wish to express my view, with all due respect to the scholars, that both views are advised, but under different situations.
1. Dress code as a part of modesty. In this case the dress code has to be such as not to unduly attract the attention of the opposite sex. This aspect does not demand a covering of face but only the bosom according to most interpretations of Quran in their explanation of verse 30 and 31, Ch 24. This is also supported by the following Hadith:
Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu’minin: May Allah have mercy on the early immigrant women. When the verse “That they should draw their veils over their bosoms” was revealed, they tore their thick outer garments and made veils from them. (Abu Dawood Book #32, Hadith #4091)
Complete covering including the face is neither desirable nor essential in real life situations like (a) a working woman who has to interact with the employer, colleagues clients etc. (b) A doctor attending to a patient of opposite sex (c) when travelling overseas when identity has to be verified by the immigration authorities. (d) While driving, say a car, for law enforcing agencies, to verify Driver’s license, etc. In respect of modesty, more important than the dress code is the conduct, a commandment directed to both men and women, to lower the gaze according to the aforesaid verses. Lowering the gaze obviously means that one can see the face and recognise the opposite sex, but yet not stare at them. Hence it is implicit that complete covering of the face is not required as far as modest appearance and conduct is concerned.
It may not be out of place to mention here that the famous business magazine “Fortune” of the Fortune500 fame, in the year 1991 reported a survey on what constitutes harassment of women at a work place. Substantial number of women who took part in the survey held that a suggestive look or a visual once-over amounts to immodest behavior and harassment. Though an eye contact is essential for effective verbal communication, women can quite easily differentiate between a simple eye contact and a lustful look. Fortune’s survey underlines the wisdom behind the Quranic commandments on modesty and the significance of lowering of gaze. It should be taken seriously by Muslims and non Muslims alike for dignified male-female interactions.
2. Dress code to hide identity: Omer bin Khattab (RA) was the proponent of this idea in respect of the wives of the Prophet (pbuh). When more and more people started visiting the Prophet, Omar (RA) felt that it is inappropriate for all these men to look at the Ummul Momineen and strongly recommended to the Prophet that his wives screen themselves from the visitors. Secondly, as was the practice during those days, the women folk used to go out in the open for nature’s call. During such movements too, Omer (RA) wanted the prophet’s wives not to be identified by any one. (Bukhari, Book#4, Hadith#148, Book#60 Hadith#313)
. It is important to recognize the standing Omer commanded among the Sahabas in respect of such recommendations to the Prophet. On a number of occasions he had advised the Prophet on matters on which there were no firm views and then came the revelations sustaining Omer’s counsel; sometimes at variance with the views of the Prophet himself.
According to a Hadith in Sahih Bukhari, narrated by Ayesha (RA), there was yet another instance when the women folk generally remained unidentified. It was on their way to and back from the mosque (Book #8, Hadith #368) Bukhari). Indeed even today, women who go to mosques regularly may prefer to go unrecognized in order that others do not keep track of their movements and identify the days in a month when they will be systematically absent, thus keeping the signature of their personal life confidential.
In the final analysis, it appears, that there are indeed options available for Muslim women to dress and cover suitably according to their requirements, for which the women themselves will be best judges. The requirement of complete covering, in the present day, may be limited to a small section of women that too in very limited spheres of their lives. In secular societies, individuals or family judgment appears adequate. In Islamic regimes, if the authorities take a very rigid stand and insist on the most rigorous dress code for women of complete wrap up except allowing one eye to see the way, as a Saudi cleric has recently demanded, obviously based on interpretation of V31,Ch 24 and V59 Ch 33; in the English translation of Quran by Mohsin Khan published from Saudi Arabia, then women will be incapacitated severely. They will not be able to perform simple functions like driving a car, let alone become doctors and serve the people of both the genders.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)