Islam requires that all people pay attention to their appearance, dress decently, maintain dignity, and enjoy what Allah has provided for clothing and adornment. In Islam, the human body is a sacred trust that should be maintained, protected, and nourished.
From the Islamic point of view, clothing serves the purposes of protecting, covering, and beautifying our appearance. The Qur'an encourages us to dress in beautiful clothing: “Oh children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel” (Qur'an 7:31). However, the Qur'an also warns against neglect in appearance and public nudity. “Oh children of Adam! Do not let Satan seduce you, in the same manner as he got your parents out of the Garden, stripping them of their raiment” (Qur'an 7:27).
Muslim men and women observe a standard of modesty that may be considered conservative, but they feel that these guidelines, established by Allah, are for the benefit of both individuals and the society in general.
Islam teaches men and women to coexist in cooperation, without exceeding the limits defined for them in Islam. When Muslim men and women are in the presence of each other, they must observe guidelines that help them retain an air of respect, politeness, and honor. Islam forbids any situation that may lead to improper, unlawful, or suspicious circumstances.
In the Qur'an, both men and women are commanded to be modest and “lower their eyes.” This means that they should be humble and not gaze at each other in an immodest way. This does not mean Muslims have to walk around looking at the ground, but rather that they should restrain their glances and not look each other over in a longing way. Lowering the gaze is also a sign of respect in many cultures, especially toward elders. In many societies, making eye contact is an act of hostility and challenge.
All cultures have a notion that certain parts of the human body are considered private. In some cultures, these guidelines may change over time. In Western cultures, Victorian women would never be seen in bathing suits, and even a few decades ago it was considered inappropriate for women to wear skirts above the knees. In Islam, the standards of decency have been fixed and standardized, and they are not subject to human whims or the fashion industry.
Dress Code for Women
Islam prohibits all forms of public nudity and exploitation of the female body. Muslim women are advised in the Qur'an not to make a display of their beauty in public. They are further advised to “draw their head coverings over their chests” (Qur'an 24:33), and to “cast their outer garments over them when outdoors” (Qur'an 33:59).
In ancient times, it was customary for women to wear a head covering, but they often pulled the ends back behind the neck to expose dresses with plunging necklines. The Qur'an makes reference to this, asking women to use those same head coverings, but to pull the ends forward so that the chest is covered. This head covering is often called a hijab or khimar.
What does hijab mean?
Hijab is a general term that literally means “screen” or “cover.” Variations of the word can also mean “to obscure from view,” “hide,” or “vanish.” It is a general term that describes Muslim women's clothing, but it commonly refers specifically to a headscarf or veil.
Women are advised to wear garments over their house clothes when they leave the house. This outer garment is often called a jilbab, abaya, or chador, depending on the area of the world.
These are the minimum requirements laid out in the Qur'an. The Qur'an makes no reference to color or style, so one will find many local variations that meet these basic standards.
On the Arabian Peninsula, it is customary for women to wear black. In western Africa, women wear colorful dresses and turbans. In Southeast Asia, women often wear shalwar kameez, tunics and pants of bright colors and designs. Again, Islam allows for local variations as an expression of the diversity of the Muslim community, as long as minimum standards are observed.
One may also find women who believe that it is even more modest for them to be completely covered, including the face. Face veiling is not predominant in the Muslim world, but it may be customary in certain places or practiced by choice by some individuals. Most Muslims believe this practice goes beyond the minimum standards, but it is respected as the choice or cultural norm of some people.
In the predominantly Muslim country of Turkey, the secular government has forbidden women from wearing a headscarf in government buildings and universities. In 1999, a democratically elected Parliament member was removed from office because she refused to remove her headscarf at the swearing-in ceremony.
In the privacy of the home, or in the presence only of family members and close female friends, Muslim women are free to remove their head coverings and outer garments and adorn themselves with makeup and jewelry.
In the vast majority of Muslim nations, women are free to choose their style of dress and whether they would like to “cover” or not. It is a personal choice based on piety and modesty and is not considered a sign of women's inferiority by those who practice it.
Dress Code for Men
Islam also prohibits all forms of nudity and exploitation of the male figure. Men are advised to cover their bodies modestly, particularly from the navel to the knee. Indeed, in the traditional dress of many Muslim countries, men wear long flowing robes and sometimes a head covering as well. Like women, Muslim men may not wear clothing that is tight, transparent, or extravagant.
Why Modesty in Dress?
Islam prescribes modesty in dress and action to preserve dignity and respect between men and women in society. Muslims believe that a person's beauty is not for public display and that one should look best for family and close friends, not strangers on the street.
Both Muslim men and women are forbidden from dressing like or imitating the opposite sex. For this reason, Muslim men are forbidden from wearing gold, silk, or “feminine” jewelry such as earrings.
For women, distinctive dress offers protection from unwanted advances and makes it clear to others that she is a modest and religious woman. The differences between male and female minimum dress requirements have simply to do with the biological differences between men and women. Even in American culture, it is considered appropriate for a man to be seen in public without a shirt on, but women never go out topless.
With dignity in manners and dress, both men and women are free to go about their daily lives as contributing members of society, without issues of sexuality interfering or becoming a distraction. Many Muslim women are of the opinion that modest dress allows them to be recognized for their intelligence and contributions to society, not judged by their perceived beauty or lack thereof. In the end, most feel we should all be appreciated for our minds and hearts, not judged by what we look like on the outside.