Women's dress code
The dress code for women is a constant debate in Muslim circles both because of the weight of baseless hadiths that contradict the Quran and because people sometimes fail to analyze the Quranic text closely and reconcile relevant verses.
This study will attempt to achieve a very precise analysis, without preconceived ideas of any kind. Whatever the outcome may be, the goal will be, God willing, to take a very honest look and simply get to the precise meaning of the Quran.
1. Key verses
يبنى ءادم قد انزلنا عليكم لباسا يورى سوءتكم وريشا ولباس التقوى ذلك خير ذلك من ءايت الله لعلهم يذكرون
(7:26) O children (lit. “sons”) of Adam, We have blessed you with clothing (لباس = libasaan) to conceal your nakedness as well as an adornment (ريشا = rishân), however, it is the clothing of piety (لباس التقوى = libâsu ttaqwâ) which is the best. These are some of God's signs, that they may take heed.
قل للمومنين يغضوا من ابصرهم ويحفظوا فروجهم ذلك ازكى لهم ان الله خبير بما يصنعون
(24:30) Enjoin (O Muhammad) believing men to lower their gaze and to preserve their chastity; It is what is most pure for you. In truth, God is fully aware of their acts.
وقل للمومنت يغضضن من ابصرهن ويحفظن فروجهن ولا يبدين زينتهن الا ما ظهر منها وليضربن بخمرهن على جيوبهن ولا يبدين زينتهن الا لبعولتهن او ءابائهن او ءاباء بعولتهن او ابنائهن او ابناء بعولتهن او اخونهن او بنى اخونهن او بنى اخوتهن او نسائهن او ما ملكت ايمنهن او التبعين غير اولى الاربة من الرجال او الطفل الذين لم يظهروا على عورت النساء ولا يضربن بارجلهن ليعلم ما يخفين من زينتهن وتوبوا الى الله جميعا ايه المومنون لعلكم تفلحون
(24:31) And enjoin believing women to lower their gaze and preserve their chastity (فروجهن = furujahunna), and not to reveal any of their attributes of beauty/adornments (زينتهن = zînatahunna) except that which is [manifestly] apparent, and to draw their [head]scarves (وليضربن بخمرهن = walyadribna bikhumurihinna) over their chests (على جيوبهن = ‘ala juyubihinna) and not to reveal any of their attributes of beauty/adornments (ولا يبدين زينتهن = wa lâ yubdîna zînatahunna) except to their husbands, their fathers, the fathers of their husbands, their sons (feminine = the women’s sons), the sons of their husbands (sons from a different marriage), or their brothers (feminine = the women’s brothers), or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, their women (for example their servants), or what their (feminine) right hands possess (slaves), male attendants who are not subject to any physical desires, or children who are not consci ous of [the private aspect of] women’s nakedness, and do not let them swing their feet [in a way] that what they conceal of their attributes of beauty (زينتهن = zînatihinna) would be revealed; and turn in repentance unto God, all of you, O believers, that you may succeed.
والقوعد من النساء التى لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناح ان يضعن ثيابهن غير متبرجت بزينة وان يستعففن خير لهن والله سميع عليم
(24:60) As for women who experience menopause (والقوعد من النساء = walqawa’idu minal nisai) and who have no desire for marriage, there is no blame on them if they set aside/put down/lighten their garments (ان يضعن ثيابهن = an yada’na thiyâbahunna) without displaying their attributes of beauty/adornment (غير متبرجت بزينة = ghayra mutabarrijâtin bizînatin), but it is better for them if they refrain [from doing this]; God is all-hearing, all-knowing.
والذين يوذون المومنين والمومنت بغير ما اكتسبوا فقد احتملوا بهتنا واثما مبينا
(33:58) And [as for] those who harm the believing men and the believing women for other than what they have deserved, they have then certainly brought upon themselves the guilt of slander and manifest sin.
يايها النبى قل لازوجك وبناتك ونساء المومنين يدنين عليهن من جلبيبهن ذلك ادنى ان يعرفن فلا يوذين وكان الله غفورا رحيما
(33:59) O prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters as well as the believer’s women to draw lower over themselves (or “lengthen”) some of their garments (يدنين عليهن من جلبيبهن = yudnina ‘alayhinna min jalâbîbihinna); this is more suitable in order for them to be known (ان يعرفن = an yu’rafna) [as pious believers] and avoid being bothered; God is oft forgiving, Merciful.
2. Key Definition:
From the Quran which is always extremely precise when it comes to the choice of words, two different words are used when it comes to the way Muslim women dress:
1. The Jilbâb (جلباب);
The plural “jalâbîb” (جلبيب) is the word used in 33:59 where we see that women are told to “lengthen their jalâbîb”.
There is no controversy about the word “Jilbâb” which means “over garment”, “loose outer covering”, woman’s gown.
2. The “Khimâr” (خمار);
The plural “Khumur” (خمر) is used in 24:31. Women are told “to draw their Khumur over their chests” and “not to reveal any of their attributes of beauty/adornments except that which is [manifestly] apparent” except to specific categories of people. The verb “daraba 'ala” is used to define the word “chests”, and means “to cover over” or “to draw”.
Definition of Khimâr:
In the Quranic context of 24:31, a “Khimâr” is a piece of cloth or a scarf with which a woman covers her head, and which is long enough to cover other parts of the body since we see that women use it to cover their chests. The Khimâr covers the chest on top of the jilbâb (woman’s gown) they already wear (33:59): As we already mentioned, two separate words are therefore used to describe women’s dress code: The jilbâb and the Khimâr.
Traditional Islam almost consistently uses the word “Hijâb” (حجاب) in place of the word “Khimâr” found in verse 24:31. It is a distortion. The word "Hijâb" appears 7 times in the Quran, five of them as "Hijab" and twice as "Hijaban," (7:46, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51, 17:45, 19:17). It can be translated as a veil, mantle, curtain, drapes, screen, partition, divider… but is never associated with the way women should dress. Hijâb implies the idea of establishing a separation, a barrier between people, which is not the case of a “khimâr.
Quranic dictionaries unanimously provide the definition that the “Khimâr” described in 24:31 is a piece of cloth or a scarf which covers the head. For instance: “Dictionnary of the Holy Quran” by Omar; Lane’s Lexicon, Taaj-el-uroos; Lisaan-al-Arab by Ibn-e-Manzoor; Lataif-ul-Lughat; Lughat-ul-Quran by Parvez; Hans Wehrs “Dictionary of Modern written Arabic”; “Dictionary and glossary of the Quran” by John Penrice; and more…
The root “Khamira”, from which “khimâr” derives, means “to cover over”, “to veil”, “to conceal”, “to hide”... The word “Khamar” is different from “Khimâr” and refers to anything that clouds or obscures the intellect such as fermented drinks, drugs…
Some “reformist” Muslims point out that a Khimâr does not always mean a “head covering” or “headscarf” and can also mean “anything that covers” like a curtain, a dress, a table cloth, a blanket etc…
The first piece of evidence that the plural of Khimâr (khumur) used in the context of the Quran does mean a “cloth” or a “scarf” that covers the head is that anyone who lives in a desert as brutally warm as the one in Arabia is obliged to wear some type of cloth or head protection of some kind on his or her head because of the extreme heat of the sun. There is not one civilization that has lived in a warm desert in ancient times which could have escaped that.
The “khimâr” in 24:31 does not stand for the “jilbâb” (woman’s gown/dress) - which is the main garment women are wearing in the Quran - because verse 33:59 specifically commands women to “lengthen their jalabîb” (women’s gowns); the Quran is divinely precise and “jalabîb” would have been used instead of khumur in 24:31 if it were what it meant. Furthermore, it is a nonsense to ask women to “draw” a gown already tailored to a specific size “over their chest” since it already covers their body.
The Khimâr referred to in 24:31 cannot be a “curtain”, “table cloth”, or just “anything that covers” because the Quran tells us that women were already wearing “their khumur” on a daily basis before verse 24:31 was revealed since God is telling women “to draw their [existing] Khimâr over their chests”.
Since it is a fact that the khimâr was not used to be “drawn over the chests” before 24:31 was revealed, what was it supposed to cover in women’s everyday lives?
Was it used to cover their shoulders or backs to make sure they feel even warmer in the extreme heat of the Arabian desert? A complete nonsense.
One could argue that it is possible that when women are told to “draw their Khumur over their chests” it could mean to put their khimâr (headscarf) over their chests instead of their heads. The problem is that it would be irresponsible to have asked women in Arabia at the time of the prophet to stop protecting their heads from the brutal heat of the sun.
In other words, let’s not be ashamed and in denial of the real meaning of the word “khimâr” in 24:31 - like some “reformist Muslims” are - simply because it refers to a dress code that is different from what people are used to in non Muslim countries: A khimâr in the Quranic context of verse 24:31 is no less than a piece of cloth used by women to cover their heads, and from there Muslim women draw it over their chests; it does not mean anything else.
So far we have simply provided definitions and clarified the precise meaning of khimâr in 24:31, and did not reconcile all relevant verses that deal with women’s dress code. This is the purpose of the next section.
3. Analysis and commentary of relevant verses
3.1 7:26, “The clothing of piety”: Spiritual and physical dimension
(7:26) O children of Adam, We have blessed you with clothing to conceal your nakedness as well as an adornment, however, it is the clothing of piety which is the best. These are some of God's signs, that they may take heed.
“The clothing of piety” carries a double meaning as it both refers to the decent garment men and women should wear, as well as the spiritual garment of righteousness and piety. In other words, our exterior modesty should reflect our inner purity, the latter being by far the most important quality.
3.2 24:30-31: Developing the theme of spiritual and physical clothing of piety
(24:30) Enjoin (O Muhammad) believing men to lower their gaze and to preserve their chastity; It is what is most pure for you. In truth, God is fully aware of their acts. (24:31) And enjoin believing women to lower their gaze and preserve their chastity, and not to reveal any of their attributes of beauty/adornments except that which is [manifestly] apparent, and to draw their [head]scarves over their chests and not to reveal any of their attributes of beauty/adornments except to their husbands, their fathers, the fathers of their husbands, their sons (feminine = the women’s sons), the sons of their husbands (sons from a different marriage), or their brothers (feminine = the women’s brothers), or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, their women (for example their servants), or what their (feminine) right hands possess (slaves), male attendants who are not subject to any physical desires, or children who are not conscious of [the private aspect of] women’s nakedness, and do not let them swing their feet [in a way] that what they conceal of their attributes of beauty would be revealed; and turn in repentance unto God, all of you, O believers, that you may succeed.
In 24:30-31, the spiritual “clothing of piety” and righteousness – the most important – is logically mentioned first both for men and women: We see that not only should we be chaste, our external behavior shall reflect our inner purity, chastity, and submission to God as we are commanded to lower our gaze in front of other men or women.
If 7:26 clearly shows that both men and women should wear a physical and spiritual “clothing of piety”, a very special attention is given to the way women should dress in 24:31: Women are commanded not to reveal “their attributes of beauty/adornments except that which is [manifestly] apparent”. It is purposely a very general statement, we will see later why. We are informed in the same verse that the notion of “attributes of beauty” which need to be covered is not limited to "drawing their headscarves over their chests" but to the entire body, except what is manifestly obvious, since the movement of their feet should not be a reason to suggest or reveal any attributes of beauty. In other words, they should not draw the attention in public because of the way they walk, for example because of the shoes they wear, the bracelets they may wear on their ankles, or by revealing some of their legs. Based on this observation, and the fact women are commanded to “lengthen their garment” in 33:59, we can safely conclude that it is better for women to lengthen their sleeves and cover their arms as well.
Categories of people in front of which women can be dressed in a more casual way:
- Women’s fathers,
- Husbands’ fathers,
- Women’s sons,
- Husbands’ sons (sons from a different marriage),
- Women’s brothers,
- Women’s nephews (whether sons of their sisters or brothers),
- Their women (for example their servants),
- At the time slavery was still in practice: slaves,
- Male attendants who are not subject to any physical desires,
- Children who are not conscious of [the private aspect of] women’s nakedness,
The above list clearly implies that women can relax their dress code in front of other women in general.
Let us mention in passing that behind the fact that 24:31 defines very precisely with which categories of people a woman can relax her dress code, we can feel the importance of the sanctity of a Muslim home. No one should ever enter in a home where he or she does not live without being invited inside first. This command is outlined right before 24:31:
(24:27) O you who believe, do not enter homes other than your homes, unless you have requested permission and have greeted its inhabitants. It is preferable for you, that you may reflect. (24:28) And if it appears to you that no one is inside, do not enter, until permission has been granted to you. And if you are told to leave, then leave. It is purer for you, and God is aware of everything you do.
3.2.1 Exposing Islamic extremism: Why the Quran proves that it is anti-Islamic for a woman to be fully veiled:
(24:31) And enjoin believing women to lower their gaze and preserve their chastity, and not to reveal any of their attributes of beauty/adornments except that which is [manifestly] apparent (الا ما ظهر منها = ilâ mâ zahara minhâ), and to draw their [head]scarves (وليضربن بخمرهن = walyadribna bikhumurihinna) over their chests…
Question to extremists who claim women should be fully veiled:
Since God Himself proclaims that there is a clear exception when it comes to women concealing their attributes of beauty since “what is [manifestly] apparent” is left uncovered, which part that is “apparent” is left uncovered when a woman is fully veiled, that is to say when she wears a niqab or a burka?
This is why claiming that women’s hands and faces should be veiled or covered is making up religious laws that are in plain contradiction with the Quran. Inventing such laws or prohibitions is an advanced state of polytheism (the most grievous sin in Islam) according to the Word of God (4:60-61, 42:21) because it is allowing religious idols (for example false religious prohibitions derived from hadiths and sunna) to take precedence over God’s law.
In addition not to reveal their attributes of beauty, women are also asked “to draw their [head]scarves (وليضربن بخمرهن = walyadribna bikhumurihinna) over their chests”. This means that God asked women at the time of the prophet to fold the existing piece of cloth that was covering their heads over their chests.
No mention is made to cover the face (otherwise women would have been blind);
It is obvious that the khimâr cannot be transparent (which would allow fully veiled women to see) otherwise it would completely defeat the purpose of covering the chest.
Women did not veil their faces before 24:31 was revealed because the verse shows that their chests or cleavage were left apparent. Why would a fully veiled woman make a point to reveal her cleavage? They were not asked afterwards to veil their faces, but only their chests, simply because veiling the face is not part of the divine command.
No mention is made that an opening should be made in the “khimâr” to leave space for the eyes like it is the case in the “niqab”. Again, the simple and unambiguous language of the Quran disqualifies religious abuse against women.
Above, an example of the way the “khimâr” is “drawn over the chest” and how women should dress modestly not “revealing any of their attributes of beauty/adornments except that which is [manifestly] apparent”. The women’s dress code in the Quran is about exterior modesty reflecting inner purity. It has nothing to do with the exaggerations of extremists.
3.2.2 There is no formal command that women shall wear a scarf over their heads, but is it implied ?
On the other hand, 24:31 does not literally say “you shall wear a scarf over your heads and draw them over your chests” but “not to reveal any of their attributes of beauty except that which is [manifestly] apparent, and to draw their [head]scarves over their chests”.
The clear command specifically outlined in 24:31 is that women shall cover their chests or cleavage; it does not say literally that they shall wear their khimâr over their heads.
We know for sure that some parts of women’s physical appearance that are “obvious” are left uncovered in public; it accounts at least for their faces and hands, because Islam is not a prison but a religion made easy for all Muslims:
(20:2) We did not reveal the Quran to you to cause you any hardship. (20:3) but as a reminder for those (men and women) who fear [God].
Now, since it is overwhelmingly clear that Muslim women are not commanded to cover their faces and hands, that women at the time of the prophet used to wear headscarves long enough to cover their chests, and since they are asked in a general way “not to reveal their attributes of beauty”, can’t we say that women’s hair is clearly part of their attributes of beauty?” It would be hard to answer no to this question. Women's hair was already covered in public by the khimâr when 24:31 was revealed, was it necessary to precise that such an attribute of beauty needed to be covered or simply to explain what additional steps were necessary to dress in a decent way?
There are two ways to understand 24:31 and 33:59:
1. 24:31 describes how women were dressed at the moment of the revelation, not necessarily that women should consistently dress the very same way because clothing also depends on local customs, and the Quran only clearly commands that women shall cover their chests (24:31) and wear long clothes (33:59).
2. The Quran is fully detailed, it is the perfect way, it is timeless, and the dress code described in the Quran (wearing a khimâr/headscarf covering her chest over her jilbâb/dress, making sure she “lengthens her garment”) is the best possible way for a woman not to go wrong following God’s commands. Wearing a headscarf and drawing it over the chest guarantees not only that the chest is covered, but also that even its shape is hidden, which is not achieved to the same level if a woman simply adds a layer over her dress with a simple scarf.
So what is the best way? In my opinion, and it is part of the greatness of the Quran, it depends. There is simply no clear answer because the Quran is timeless and designed to deal in a flexible manner with every possible situation in the present and in the future:
- I would say that in a Muslim society the best way is clearly for a woman to dress wearing a headscarf and drawing it over the chest both because it follows strictly was is described or implied in the Quran and reveals only the minimum of women’s attributes of beauty (the face, hands, possibly feet in a mosque, home, etc...) and because it does not reveal the chest in any way. It is the closest to modesty.
- On the other hand since it is not explicitly mandatory for women to wear a scarf over their heads according to the Quran, doesn’t it leave the door open for Muslim women to live normal lives in non Muslim friendly societies where they are more than likely to experience religious bigotry?
3.2.3 The general spirit of the Quran:
Islam is a religion that is easy to practice: Muslims are allowed to observe salât while walking in unusual situations or in case of danger (2:239). Muslims are allowed to eat pork if they are starving (5:3). They are allowed not to fast during Ramadan and feed poor people instead if they are absolutely unable to fast (2:184). What these examples teach us is that Islam is not rigid but extremely flexible, illustrating and confirming that God “did not reveal the Quran to cause us any hardship” (20:2).
This flexibility is, in my view, directly in line with the fact that God did not specifically command to women to cover their heads, but instead quite obviously implied it to leave room for flexibility in unusual situations, because He knew that countless millions of Muslim women would be living in non Muslim friendly environments in the future. There are many countries in the world where a woman has absolutely zero chance to find or keep a job if she wears a “khimâr” (headscarf). Shouldn’t women and Muslim households in general have the right to survive implementing the Quranic principle of flexibility instead of going through extreme hardship in unusual situations? There are countries like France where girls are forbidden by law to wear headscarves at school. Should they stop going to school and suffer extreme consequences for the rest of their lives, or doesn’t God, out of mercy, always provide an easy solution because He designed a perfect religion which is flexible? The easy solution in such a case is for girls to go to school still dressing modestly “not revealing anything except what is apparent” and make sure they can continue to study hard and build their future.
Therefore, if it is clearly a higher level of piety in a Muslim environment for a woman to cover her hair since it is an attribute of beauty, God opens the door for it to be considered as a part of the woman that can be considered as “obvious” and therefore revealed, which makes perfect sense in non Muslim friendly societies.
4. 33:59: At the time of the revelation, the way for women to be “known” or “recognized” as pious women was to lengthen their garments:
(33:59) O prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters as well as the believer’s women to draw lower over themselves (or “lengthen”) some of their garments; this is more suitable in order for them to be known [as pious believers] and avoid being bothered; God is oft forgiving, Merciful.
This suggests that what is considered a clothing of piety is a matter of context: In Arabia at the time of the prophet, all women (Muslim or not) used to wear a headscarf (Khimâr) because of the sun and because it was the local custom, but women were in the habit of revealing their attributes of beauty because of ignorance; therefore women were recognized as Muslims when they were wearing clothes covering their entire body (and covering their chest with their khimâr), and not specifically because they were wearing a headscarf. This is why, even if it is a higher degree of piety to cover their hair since it is an attribute of beauty, we see here that the most important aspect is for women to “lengthen their garments” in general.
Nowadays, a woman will be identified or “known” as Muslim primarily if she wears a headscarf because non Muslim women rarely wear headscarves. The context has changed, but more than ever the dress code is a way for them to distinguish themselves as pious and religious Muslim women.
When a woman “lengthens her garment” she sends a message and will be less likely to be bothered by ignorant men in comparison with a woman who would be dressed in a more revealing way.
Needless to say, even if a woman were to be dressed in a way that is not considered decent in Islam, there is no justification whatsoever for a believer to bother her, as Muslims are commanded to be chaste and lower their gaze. Only ignorant transgressors would do that and let’s remind that the consequences for a man or woman to lose his or her chastity in Islam is no less than catastrophic, as explained in the article “fornication/adultery on this website.
The women’s dress code (as well as the men’s) being a physical and spiritual “clothing of piety”, physical modesty reflecting the inner beauty of the soul far surpasses the artificial beauty of women who try to look “sexy”, show off and consistently compete with each other. Muslim women can still be elegant in a modest way while wearing an additional spiritual garment of piety; This is how real beauty reveals itself.
The woman dress code as outlined in the Quran makes women more equal as it puts the emphasis not on physical attractiveness but on inner purity, chastity and external modesty.
5. Verse 24:60: A deeper understanding of the importance of the women’s dress code
(24:60) As for women who experience menopause and who have no desire for marriage, there is no blame on them if they set aside/put down/lighten their garments without displaying their attributes of beauty/adornment, but it is better for them if they refrain [from doing this]; God is all-hearing, all-knowing.
24:60 is directly connected to the command in 24:31 where women are told to cover their chests with “their Khumur” (headscarves) and “not to reveal their attributes of beauty except that which is apparent”.
We know from 24:31 and 33:59 that women’s garments in the Quran are composed of a jilbâb (women’s dress) over which 24:31 made perfectly clear that women should add an additional layer - the Khimâr (headscarf) - which should be “drawn over their chests”. Neither the word “Khimar” (veil) nor “jilbâb” (woman’s dress) is used in 24:60, but the more general word “thiyâb” (garments), simply because women’s garments in the Quran are composed both of a “jilbâb” and a “khimâr”. If the word “thiyâb” were only to refer to the “jilbâb”, women would reveal at least part of their “attributes of beauty” once they “discard”/“set aside”/”put down” their garment. On the contrary 24:60 (and 24:31) insists that this should be done without displaying their attributes of beauty/adornment, and thus rules out such an option;
The only explanation that makes perfect sense is that women who experience menopause experience regular, very uncomfortable hot flashes: They are naturally tempted to “put down” the khimâr which covers their heads and chests, and may also want to “lighten” or lift slightly their jilbâb to avoid contact with their skin which is especially uncomfortable in such cases.
24:60 clarifies that only women who wish to remain unmarried who experience menopause may do so: This shows that the dress code in public is definitely a serious matter since even discomfort is not a valid justification in most cases.
The way women dress in the Quran is described as wearing a jilbâb (woman’s dress, 33:59) and a Khimâr (scarf, 24:31).
The prescribed dress code for women is to cover their chests with their “Khumur” (scarves) and to lengthen their garment (33:59), not revealing anything except what is [manifestly] apparent.
This implies wearing long sleeves and long dresses. The idea behind covering the chest with a khimâr is not limited to hiding it but also not to revealing its shape. This is best achieved by wearing a headscarf drawn over the chest.
There is no formal mandatory command for women to cover their heads with a khimâr; the context of the Quran simply implies it, since women’s hair is definitely part of their attributes of beauty, and since a khimâr is initially designed to cover women’s hair in the context of 24:31.
The fact that covering the hair is not clearly mandatory but simply implied leaves a window for women not to cover their hair in unusual situations, typically in non Muslim friendly societies, because wearing a headscarf is clearly the most recognizable sign of their faith in modern societies. This flexibility is very much in line with the spirit of the Quran, Islam being an easy to practice religion which provides alternatives in unusual or extreme cases.
24:60 shows us that unmarried women who experience menopause and therefore frequent hot flashes can relax their dress code if they wish to remain unmarried, but even then that it is not preferable. This shows that the women’s dress code is not to be taken lightly and an important aspect of the notion of respectability.
What the Quran describes simply reflects the way most observant Muslim women in the Muslim world dress. Women who are fully veiled are dressed in a way that contradicts the Quran: What is [manifestly] “apparent” is left uncovered according to 24:31. Islam is not a prison, the dress code is a way to protect them, not abuse them.
Our dress code (men and women) has to be in phase with our inner purity, the clothing of piety (7:26) being by far the most important.