Two aspects of Islam that are often stereotypes and misunderstood are gender relations and the related issue of modest dress.
The Quran describes the relationship between men and women with the word ‘wali’ or ‘protecting friend.’ The term is used to describe someone who has a very close relationship with God:
‘The believing men and believing women are protectors of each other; they order the right and forbid the wrong, and practice prayer and give charity, and obey God and God’s Messenger. They are the ones on whom God will have mercy. For God is Almighty, Most Wise.’
The verse emphasizes the identical duties of both genders to promote good in society, pray, give charity, and obey God, actions for which they are promised God’s mercy. The prophetic saying that describes women as the ‘twin halves of men,’ implies that both are reflections of each other and responsible for each other’s well-being.
The relationship between genders is that of protecting friends or brothers and sisters. In other words, their relationship is free from sexual overtones. That is why Muslims generally refer to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’
Islam’s teachings about sexuality are balanced, neither viewing it as inherently evil to be avoided not celebrating celibacy. At the same time, Islam does not, like many societies of today, allow unrestricted sexual freedom. Islam takes a middle approach acknowledging it to be part of human nature that can be detrimental if left without limits. Therefore, the only possible outlet for sexuality in Islam is within a marriage between a man and a woman who are dedicated to each other in a long-term relationship.
To ensure that limits are observed and that both genders remain chaste before marriage and faithful to their spouses after marriage, both men and women are asked to lower their gaze, dress modestly, and avoid touching or being alone with the other gender.
Hijab: Modest Dress
Modest dress is not unique to Islam but was common in most human societies and religions that came before Islam. Look at the dress of the Virgin Mary, held in esteem by both Christians and Muslims. In all representations, she is wearing a long, loose robe and a head covering. As a matter of fact, covering the head in mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11: 5-6:
“But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.”
Today, many Roman Catholic nuns dress in their traditional dress which is very similar to a Muslim woman’s dress. Orthodox Jewish women are dress modestly with sleeves reaching to the elbows, dresses with high necklines, and skirts long enough to cover knees when seated. Married Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair with a scarf or wig in front of men.
Modest dress for women is mentioned in two verses of the Quran and in many different sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. After instructing men and women to lower their gaze and protect their chastity, the verse states,
‘And tell the believing woman to lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and not to show their ornaments except what is obvious, and to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to show their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their women, or those in bondage to them, or male attendants who do not have the urge, or very young children who do not yet know the nakedness of women. And they should not strike their feet to make known the ornaments they conceal. And turn to God together, believers, so that you may be happy.’
The second verse that addresses women’s dress says:
‘O Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the believing women to put on their outer garments; that is most convenient so that they will be recognized and not molested. God is very Forgiving, Most Merciful.’
Muslim women who wear modest clothing generally cover everything except the face and hands in loose, non-revealing clothing. Some women cover their faces with veils as well. They observe the veil when they are outside the house or in the presence of non-related men. Like many Islamic teachings, this is strictly applicable to girls after puberty, although girls often begin earlier in imitation of their mothers or to simply practice wearing the modest dress.
The purpose of the modest dress that includes the head scarf is to elevate a woman above her physical attributes and to take away the emphasis from her appearance. For most women, wearing the modest Islamic dress, hijab, is a way of showing their dedication to God. Many Muslim women believe that hijab can be liberating as it frees a person from being preoccupied with latest fashion trends and their physical appearance.