The hijab, or headscarf, is one of the most noticeable and misunderstood badges of Muslim women. But there’s much more to the Islamic dress code for women than the hijab. It’s a total package that deals with clothing, behavior, and demeanor. For some hijab means pairing a headscarf with Western-style clothes. For others it means wearing loose robes as well. Still others add a niqab, or face veil, to their ensembles.
What do Islam and the Qur’an exactly say about modest clothing for women? What does Islamic dress exactly entail? Why do some Muslim women cover up while others don’t? Are there any dress requirements for Muslim men? Check out our Muslim clothing FAQs for the answers to your burning questions.
What is hijab?
The word "hijab" comes from the Arabic "hajaba," which means to conceal or hide from view. In general terms, it refers to Islamic modest dressing for women. But it has come to signify the headscarf, which is the covering many Muslim women use to hide their hair, neck, and often bosom.
What does Islamic dress for women exactly entail?
Islam has no fixed uniform of dress for Muslim women. But there are two requirements, which come from the Qur’an and hadith (verified sayings of the Prophet Muhammad): First, a woman’s body should be covered such that only her face, hands, and feet are revealed. Secondly, the clothing must be loose enough so that the shape of a woman’s body is not visible.
Other parameters (as stated in hadiths) are that women shouldn’t dress so as to look like men, women shouldn’t dress in a way similar to those who don’t believe in God, and the clothing should be modest, neither ragged nor overly fancy.
It is important to remember that Islam teaches Muslims that the concept of modest dress doesn’t just mean covering the body, but it also has to do with behaviors, manners, speech, and public appearance. Modesty is a total package, with dress being one part of it.
Why is covering the head important?
Strictly speaking, covering the hair is just one part of a Muslim woman’s dress. Covering all other parts of the body (except for the face, hands, and feet) is also important. But as women around the world adapt Islamic dressing to the fashions of their country, more and more it is the hijab, or headscarf, that is constant and marks a woman as a Muslim.
Is covering up mandated by the Qur’an?
Hijab and modest dressing is mandated in the Qur’an, though some Muslims argue that it is not a strict requirement but merely a strong suggestion (that is open to individual interpretation. A few passages in the Qur’an refer to an Islamic dress code:
"Say to the believing man that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils 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 ..." (Qur'an 24:30-31)
This verse highlights three points: That a woman shouldn’t show her beauty except when faced with uncontrolled factors, like the wind blowing her clothes; that the headscarf should cover the hair, neck, and the bosom; and that women need not cover up in front of certain men (husbands, fathers, sons, etc.).
Further hadiths give other details. One of the most quoted is the following:
“Ayesha reported that Asmaa, the daughter of Abu Bakr came to the Messenger of Allah (SWT) while wearing thin clothing. He approached her and said, ‘O Asmaa! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not proper that anything should remain exposed except this and this.’ He pointed to the face and hands.” (Abu Dawood)
This is an intensely personal decision. Of course not all Muslim women follow these rules of modest dressing. Some adapt these rules to modern times (like wearing a headscarf over Western-style clothing that still covers the body). Some women argue that modesty is a state of mind and has nothing to do with clothing. Still others say that what is written in the Qur’an and in hadiths cannot be denied--that Muslim women must cover up.
Those who choose to follow Islamic dress codes do so for myriad reasons: They feel compelled to honor what the Qur’an asks of them. Or they feel covering up will identify them to the world as a Muslim woman. Or they feel that covering up will give them safety and the liberty to move about freely. Still others say that covering up and downplaying their physical beauty allows them to be appreciated for their mind, not their body. And for some women, it’s not a choice. Some Muslim countries (like Saudi Arabia) require Muslim women to cover up. And many families around the world insist that their women follow the code of Islamic dress.
Why do some Muslim women cover completely and others just cover their hair?
Muslim women make choices when it comes to Islamic dress. Some girls, perhaps in copying their mothers, cover from a very young age (though a girl is required to cover up when they hit puberty). Other women begin covering later in life. Some don’t ever cover their hair. Many Muslim women in North America adapt Western fashions to Islamic dress by wearing a headscarf over long-sleeve tops and pants or jeans. Other women, keeping in mind the requirement that Islamic dress should be loose, choose to wear robes over their clothes that hide the shape of their body. At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal choice.
Why do some Muslim women not cover at all?
Again, the decision to cover or not is a personal one. Some who don’t cover their hair or expose other parts of their body (or wear tight clothing) argue that modesty is an inner quality that has nothing to do with clothes. Other women argue that the requirements of Islamic dress as stated in the Qur’an and hadith must be adapted for modern times. They say that now, especially in Western countries where so many women don’t cover, practicing Islamic dress draws attention to a woman instead of deflecting attention away.
What is the penalty for not adhering to Muslim dress?
There is no Qur’anic penalty for not adhering to Muslim dress. But some hadiths describe the Prophet Muhammad as saying that if a woman doesn’t follow the rules of Islamic dress, her place in paradise, along with her husband’s, father’s' and sons’ places in paradise, will be jeopardized. And when it comes to the Qur’an, strict Muslims believe that if it’s written in the holy book, it must be followed.
Does it get hot, covering everything up?
Speaking as someone who wears the hijab (though I don’t wear robes over my clothes), it does get hot sometimes, especially on a very hot, humid day. I usually feel the heat the most on my neck under my scarf. But a person can get used to anything. And I’m so used to wearing long sleeves, long pants, or skirts and a headscarf that I don’t feel the heat as much as when I first starting wearing hijab three years ago. In fact my headscarf and full-coverage clothing often protect me from the sun and make me feel cooler than when I’m at home, wearing whatever I want, and exposed to the heat of summer. And I must say, wearing the headscarf has saved me from many a bad hair day (though that’s not why I wear it!)
Are there Islamic modesty requirements for men?
In Islam, men and women are required to control their desires. They must avoid being alone with members of the opposite sex outside of marriage (or close family). Men are allowed to expose more of their body but are encouraged by Muslim scripture to cover up and avoid tight clothing. During prayer, they must be covered from the naval to their knees.
Once they put it on, do women ever take off the hijab?
Yes, some women do take off the hijab for a variety of reasons. Just because a woman decide to adhere to the Islamic dress code for modesty doesn’t mean a she maintains that clothing for the rest her life. This decision to de-jab ( slang for taking off the hijab) often coincides with a a major life change, like moving to a new city. Read this essay from one woman who took off her hijab to learn more.