Women: Muslim women going out

Q690 :Time and again readers have asked you how a Muslim woman should be dressed in public and your answer has always been that it is proper for her not to cover her face. My wife holds the opposite view. She has drawn my attention to a report by Lady Aisha, the Prophet's wife who says in her account of the story of falsehood, "I veiled my face with my head-cover at once..." May I ask why did she cover her face? Was it in obedience to a divine order, or because of her modesty or fright, or because that covering was a local tradition? You stated that a Muslim woman may appear in public without covering her face. Could you, then, please explain the meaning of Verse 59 in Surah 33. Please explain the difference between Sater and Hijab.

A690 : This question crops up so regularly that I feel that I have no choice but to discuss it every now and then. I am taking it up anew this time to reply to several readers who have raised it, giving only the two above examples, hoping that those of my readers who have no quarrels with me about it will understand that the nature of the question makes it imperative that I give it a full treatment every now and then. The report of Lady Aisha speaks of her covering her face with her head cover. The term used in the Arabic text, "Jibab", means: "Shirt, a piece of clothing which a woman uses to cover her head and chest, a wide dress of a woman, or head-cover." It is indeed the same word which is used in the verse quoted in the second letter. That verse may be translated as follows: "Prophet, enjoin your wives, your daughters and women believers to draw their clothes around them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognized and not be molested." The point is that a Muslim woman will be recognized by the fact that she is totally dressed and people realize that they have to respect her and dare not molest her. The verse does not suggest in any way that her head-cover or shirt or clothing or whatever meaning we give to the word "Jibab", should be used to cover her face. As for the Lady Aisha and the way she used her garment to cover her face, we must not forget that Lady Aisha was one of the Prophet's wives for whom certain exceptional rules apply. These rules do not apply to any other woman. For example, the Prophet's wives were not allowed to marry any person after the Prophet, not because they are described in the Qur'an as "Mothers of the Believers", but because they were married to the most noble of Allah's servants. They were indeed mothers of the believers, but that position did not allow them to appear in front of people in the same way as a mother appears before her sons. Another special rule is that their reward for their good deeds is doubled, and the punishment of any cardinal sin committed by any one of them -- Allah forbid that any of them should commit such a sin -- is also doubled. Another rule which applies to them alone is that they speak to people from behind a screen. That is the reason why Lady Aisha covered her face when the Prophet's companion, Safwan Ibn Al-Muattal, approached. We cannot conclude from this particular incident any rule which applies to all Muslim women. My first questioner says that his wife subscribes to the view which is different from mine, requiring Muslim women to cover their faces. I realize that this is the view advocated by a number of scholars. I should explain that I have not invented this view. The majority of Muslim scholars, ever since the time of the Prophet, including leading authorities in the four major schools of thought, have recorded this view. Many of them comment on Verse 31 in Surah 24, which is incidentally the verse stating the nature of dress of Muslim women in public, and they explain that a Muslim woman may reveal her face and the lower part of her hands, up to the wrists. In translation this verse may read: "Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; to cover their adornment (except such as is normally displayed); to draw their head-covering over their bosoms, etc." It is the meaning of the term "adornment" that needs explanation. Al Jassas, a leading authority in the Hanafi school of thought, says: 'Our scholars say that this denotes the woman's face and lower hands'. Al-Qurtobi, a leading Maliki scholar, says: "Since the normal case is that a woman's face and lower part of her hands are revealed by the force of habit and for worship, as this is the case in prayer and pilgrimage, then it is appropriate to say that the exemption here applies to them." Al Kharzin, a Shafie commentator on the Qur'an quotes early authorities as saying that the exemption applies to a woman's face and hands. Ibn Qudamah, a most prominent Hanbali authority says: The whole body of a woman must be covered except her face. With respect to her hands too, there are two views." Furthermore, Imam Ibn Hazm says: "The part of woman's body which must be covered is the whole of it except her face and the lower part of her hands." Having quoted all these authorities from the four major schools of thought, as well as Imam Ibn Hazm, I have little to add except to say that this is not a personal view of mine. Far be it from me to advocate anything other than what I believe to be supported by the weightier evidence. I do respect scholars who maintain a different view because I believe that they also assert what they believe to be true. However, I feel that their argument is weaker and their evidence suspect. There are numerous Hadiths and reports from the time of the Prophet which confirm that women at that time did not cover their faces in normal situations. Before I quote any of these, however, let me refer to Verse 30 in Surah 24 which requires Muslim men to "lower their gaze", or to give it a clearer translation, to "turn away from temptation". Let me ask my first reader and his wife: If all Muslim women at the time of the Prophet covered all their bodies, including their faces, why should Muslim men be required to turn their faces away, or to lower their gaze? What would they be looking at if there was nothing to look at any way? Now consider this report: "A woman came to the Prophet and said: 'Messenger of Allah, I have come to make of myself a gift to you'. The Prophet looked at her and sized her up then looked down, (i.e. he did not answer her). When she realized that he did not wish to say anything, she sat down." Another version of this report says that one of the Prophet's companions proposed to her but he had nothing to give her as dower, or mahr. The Prophet told him to give her anything, even an iron ring. He then married her". The point here is that Prophet looked at her and sized her up. If she was totally covered, why would he look at her in this way. Jabir Ibn Abdullah quotes the Prophet as saying: "If any of you sees a woman and likes her, let him go to his wife, because that is enough to satisfy him. If he is unmarried let him remember what Allah says: "Let those who cannot afford to marry live in continence until Allah shall enrich them with his bounty." Again let me ask: Why did the Prophet give such instruction without warning Muslim men against looking at women in this way? A young companion of the Prophet, Al Fadhl Ibn Abbas was riding behind him when a woman stopped the Prophet to put some questions to him. Al Fadhl looked at her and she looked at him. The Prophet turned Al Fadhl's face the other way..." Here we have a man looking at a woman and Prophet does not even tell him not to look at her. The fact that he turned his face away with his hand does not mean more than the gesture itself. It cannot be interpreted as requiring the woman to cover her face. The term "Sater" is a very general one, meaning "cover". "Hijab" has come to mean, over the years, the veil. However, in many books on Islam and in a number of Muslim countries, the word means no more than the Islamic dress of women which is supposed to cover all their bodies with the exception of their faces and their hands up to the wrists.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )