The ongoing global debate on segregation and the hijab in Islam is both fierce and divisive. It is not possible to discuss all aspects of this subject in a short article. However, the Quranic injunction to “lower your gaze” which is commonly understood as applying only to women and what may be considered ‘decent’ attire for Muslim women is briefly discussed below.
In the context of proper attire and conduct, the Holy Quran states: “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (avoiding its concentration on a person’s body, or a certain part of it) and to be mindful of their chastity; in this they will be more considerate for their own well-being and purity, and surely God is fully aware of all that they do” (24: 30-31).
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (avoiding its concentration on a person’s body, or a certain part of it) and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display the charms of their bodies (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms. And let them not display (more of) their charms to any but their husbands, or their father or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess, or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire, or children that are as yet unaware of (the physical attractions of) women’s nakedness; and let them not swing their legs (or other actions in their walking) that may aim to draw attention to their hidden charms”(translation by Dr Fathi Osman).
An examination of the above text makes it clear that the Quranic injunction enjoining the believers to lower their gaze and behave modestly applies to both Muslim men and women and not to Muslim women alone. Here it is to be noted that there are no statements in the Quran which justify the extremely rigid restrictions regarding segregation and hijab imposed on Muslim women by some societies or groups (eg the Taliban in Afghanistan). If the Quran intended for women to be completely secluded and covered from head to foot, why would it command the men to “lower their gaze”?
Dr Fathi Osman has pointed out that “modesty is required in the outdoor dress of both Muslim women and men” though “the dominant view may be that only women are required to observe a dress code.” In his view, “All the points of special attraction in the male body have to be covered, and displaying the muscles or most of the body merely for attraction is against a man’s mindfulness of chastity and decency and extends the temptation for evil-doing.”
In Mohammad Asad’s view, what the Quran requires of women is that they should be dressed “decently”. Elaborating on this point, he states: “My interpolation of the word “decently” reflects the interpretation of the phrase ‘illa ma zahara minha’ by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi), as “that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom (al-‘adah al-jariyah).”’ Although the traditional exponents of Islamic Law have for centuries been inclined to restrict the definition of “what may (decently) be apparent” to a woman’s face, hands and feet — and sometimes even less than that — we may safely assume that the meaning of “illa ma zahara minha” is much wider, and that the deliberate vagueness of this phrase is meant to allow for all the time-bound changes that are necessary for man’s moral and social growth. The pivotal clause in the above injunction is the demand addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to “lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity,” and this determines the extent of what, at any given time, may legitimately — ie in consonance with the Quranic principle of social morality — be considered “decent” or “indecent” in a person’s outward appearance.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2010.