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Why are Muslim Women Required to Cover (Part 1)?

Adopted from the book "A New Perspective : Women in Islam" by : Sayyid Mustafa Qazwini and Fatma Saleh

Fatma: Why are Muslim women required to cover?

Sayyid: Scholars have established various explanations elucidating the subject of women covering. The two essential reasons as to why Muslim women must cover are to protect and defend women, as well as society.

Covering is a form of protection, maintenance of chastity, and aid in the avoidance of negative temptations in society for women and men alike. When women cover, they provide dimensions of moral character and dignity, not only for themselves, but also for society.

In general, men tend to be initially inclined and instinctively attracted to the physical beauty of women. Women are also attracted to men, but in general, the physical structure of women is more personable than that of men. This is one additional reason why Muslim women are required to cover.

Most importantly, however, it is to protect women from being victimized. It is well noted that throughout history women have been victims of physical, mental, and emotional abuse within societies. Many societies have exploited and dishonored women; therefore, Islam wanted (and wants) to shield her honor and dignity by protecting her physical nature.

Besides protecting the honor of women, religionswanted to inculcate upon men the importance of women in the sphere of life. Men are to regard women in a dignified manner and value them as equal human beings. The acknowledgment of a woman should not be based on her physical appearance or structure; respect and acknowledgment must be focused on her character, her intelligence, and her moral qualities.

The subject of covering is not as foreign as some people believe. Islam was not the only religion that required women to cover. Traditionally, female followers of the divine books had been covering for hundreds of years prior to Islam’s emergence. Many faithful women in the history of Judaism and Christianity were covered, and some women continue to do so today. Islam continued with the convention, yet it added another dimension, the philosophy which is to “lower their gaze: yaghzuzna min ‘absaarihin” (24:30). This can be interpreted as showing respect and modesty in all aspects of one’s mind and body.

Fatma: Some claim that the Qur’an does not explicitly mandate women to cover, or that the doctrines are obscure and open to individual discretion. What exactly does the Qur’an state regarding the dress code for Muslim women?

Sayyid: There are two verses in the Qur’an that explicitly order and specifically state the particulars of a woman’s dress. It may also be corroborated by examining from numerous traditions of the Prophet, descriptions of the particular attire for covering. The first verse introduced is as follows:

Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils [khumur] over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex, and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments (24:31).

The word “veil” has been translated from the Arabic term “khumur.” Khumur was a particular scarf used for covering during the Prophet’s time.

The second tradition:

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments [julbab] over their persons when abroad: that is most convenient, that they should be known as such and not molested (33:59).

“Outer garments,” in this verse is translated from the Arabic word “julbab.” Julbab was also another article used for covering during the Prophet’s time. The Qur’an also gives an account on the criteria for uncovering.

Know that women advanced in years, who no longer feel any sexual desire incur no sin if they discard their outer garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty: but it is best for them to be modest (24:60).

Fatma: Could you describe the specific garments of julbab and khumur?

Sayyid: Julbab was an article worn over the clothes during the time of the Prophet. The likeness of it today would be an overcoat or a loose, long dress. Khumur was a loose scarf used during the time of the Prophet, but women wore it inappropriately. Women then only used the khumur for covering their hair while leaving their bosoms exposed. When Allah requested believing women to “draw their veils [khumurihin] over their bosoms,” He wanted them to not only cover their hair, but also wrap the scarf around their bosoms.

Fatma: The term “hijab” is not used in reference to 24:31 and 33:59. Yet, Islamic scholars relate these verses in accordance with the attire of hijab. How is hijab defined and used in the Qur’an?

Sayyid: The word hijab in Arabic means to curtail, or detain the vision, or scene, or act as a barrier, like a curtain. It has been used several times in the Qur’an. 72

“When you ask his wives for anything you want, ask them from a screen: Wa ‘izaa sa-‘altumuuhun-na mataa-‘an fas-‘aluuhunna minw-waraaa-‘i hijab.” (33:53)

The word hijab has been applied toward Muslim women who adhere to the practice of hijab, that entails covering or curtailing the body by wearing an outer garment over the clothes that covers and prevents viewing the shape of their bodies and hair. The authentic attire for a Muslim woman is to wear a loose clothing article that covers the entire body from the face line to the wrist and falls below the ankles. She is not to wear any article that is form-fitting, reveals contours, is brightly colored, or transparent.

Fatma: Why do you suppose veiling has been significantly limited?

Sayyid: The Qur’an explains it with valuable reasons. “That they should be known as such and not molested” (33:59).

When a woman covers, her attire speaks on her behalf. Indirectly it implies that she does not want to be approached indecently. It also serves as an acknowledgment of her Islamic identity.

Fatma: Prior to the particular verse that required women to cover, the Qur’an makes a relevant point.

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them” (24:30).

Sayyid: Not only is it a relevant point, but also a pertinent declaration. Before the Qur’an advanced the required dress for Muslim women, Allah addressed the men first, in that they are the ones who should first lower their gaze and guard their modesty.

Fatma: “Lower their gaze.” Does this signify a metaphorical or literal directive for men?

Sayyid: It signifies both. The ideology behind this verse is that women are to be revered. Women are not to be regarded or intentionally looked upon in an ill manner. Men are to be respectful. This verse denotes that men should not deliberately think or look at women in a lustful manner.

Islam regards women as an integral part of life. The Qur’an continuously iterates that women were created from the same essence as men, which also serves as a reminder that women are not inferior. 73 According to Islam, women and men are equipollent in their creation; hence, they require the same respect and acknowledgement. 74

Nevertheless, some societies regard veiling as subordination or as a form of degradation for women. Objectively, if one questions the portraying of women in some societies, in particular Western societies, and how women are depicted in the media, establishments, and advertising industries, would one rightfully conclude that women are being liberated in a humanitarian way? Is this what we want to teach our daughters, sisters, or wives, that the only way for them to be recognized and worthy of is to be exploited? Unfortunately, emphasis is being placed on the physical features of a woman rather than her character and intelligence. I believe that this is truly a form of subordination, degradation, but most of all, it is insulting to women.

Islam does not consider women as mere entertainment. Islam values women. By covering the physical beauty of women, Islam has invited men to recognize their intelligence, character, and spirituality.

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