There is a difference of opinion among scholars concerning what a woman may show
of her body in the presence of other women. Some scholars are of the opinion that
she only needs to cover what is between her navel and her knees and they support
their viewpoint with evidence. Others disagree, maintaining that a woman may only
show what was customary for Muslim women at the time of the Companions to show
when they were at home and engaged in household chores.
Whenever there is disagreement on a matter concerning Islamic Law, it is obligatory
for us to refer it back to the Qur’ân and Sunnah. Allah says: “O
you who believe, obey Allah and obey His Messenger and those in authority among
you. If you disagree about anything, refer it back to Allah and His Messenger
if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. This is best, and most suitable for
a final determination.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 59]
Therefore, we will be presenting the evidence for both opinions to determine which
opinion is the strongest. We will start by presenting the evidence given to support
the opinion of those who believe that a woman may show only what the women among
our pious predecessors were accustomed to show.
Evidence of those who claim that a woman must cover what women customarily
covered at the time the Qur’ân was revealed
1. Allah says: “Say to the believing women that they
should lower their gazes and guard their chastity and not show of their beauty
except what must appear thereof, and 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,
their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, and those
whom their right hands possess or male servants free of physical needs, or small
children who have no shame of sex. Tell them that they should not strike their
feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O you who believe,
turn to Allah in repentance that perhaps you might be successful. ” [Sûrah
They argue that this verse gives women a command to lower their gazes from what
is not lawful to look at and to guard their chastity. It also prohibits women
from displaying their charms, and even prohibits them from drawing attention to
their hidden jewelry, except in front of their husbands and the others mentioned
in the verse. This verse indicates that it is only allowed for women to show of
their beauty and decorations that which was customary for women to display at
the time the Qur’ân was revealed. Only the husband is allowed to see
more, since there are other evidences indicating that he may see everything of
his wife. This was the way many of the Companions and pious predecessors understood
2. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The woman must be covered. If
she goes outside, Satan makes her noticeable.” [Authentically related in
Sunan al-Tirmidhî (117), Sunan Ibn Khuzaymah (1685) and
Ibn Hibbân (5598-5599)]
This hadîth makes it clear that the woman must be covered, meaning that
nothing of her form may be revealed to anyone, except to those whom are specifically
mentioned by textual evidence.
3. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Two groups of people from the
denizens of Hell I have not seen. One comprises those who carry whips like the
tales of cows with which they beat the people and women who are clothed yet undressed,
enticing and enticed, their hair done up like the humps of camels.”
[Sahîh Muslim] Women who are dressed yet undressed are those who
wear tight and revealing clothing that show off the forms of their bodies. This
hadîth shows that wearing such clothing is prohibited and makes no distinction
between being at home with her family and being out in public.
4. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “A woman should not
embrace another woman then go to her husband and describe that woman to him so
that it is as if he could see her himself.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]
Such behavior violates the very meaning of modest dress and is a revelation
of what is customarily covered.
Evidence of those who claim that a woman needs to cover in front of other women
to the same extent that a man must cover in front of other men
This is the opinion of the majority of scholars and jurists. Their evidence is
1. “What must be covered is what is above the knees and below the navel.”
[Sunan al-Daraqutnî (879) and Sunan al-Bayhaqî (3237)] They argue
that this hadîth makes it quite clear what must be covered in front of members
of the same sex. It is worded generally; therefore it is applicable to both men
2. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Teach your children how to pray.
When they are ten years of age, discipline them about it and separate their sleeping
quarters. If one of you marries off his slave girl to his male slave or servant,
then he should refrain from looking at what must be covered on her, and that is
the area between the navel and the knee.” Sunan al-Bayhaqî (3236)
3. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “You will open up the
lands of the non-Arabs and you will find therein places called bath houses. Men
should not enter these without wearing a waist cloth and women should not enter
these unless they are ill or experiencing postnatal bleeding.” [Sunan
Abî Dâwûd (4007) and Sunan Ibn Mâjah (3854)]
4. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “Be wary of bath houses.”
His Companions asked: “O messenger of Allah ! Such places are good for treating
the sick.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Those who enter
such places should cover themselves.”
These two hadîth show that entering bath houses is permissible under the
condition that the one who does so covers himself. These hadîth do not differentiate
between men and women with respect to this obligation. Therefore, when women enter
bath houses with other women, they only have to cover with a waistcloth what is
between the navel and the knee.
5. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “A man should not look
at what must be concealed of another man nor a woman at what must be concealed
of another woman.” [Sahîh Muslim] The argument here is that
what is being said about women is the same as what is being said about men. We
can therefore assume that what a woman must conceal in front of another woman
is the same as what a man must cover in front of another man.
6. It is a matter of consensus that a woman may wash the body of a deceased woman
in the same way that a man may wash the body of a deceased man. Since a man may
see what is above the navel and below the knees of the body of the deceased, then
it is likewise permitted to do the same when she is washing a woman’s body.
Discussion of the evidence
Those who argue that a woman may only show to other women what she should customarily
wear inside her home do not accept the evidence of those who disagree, arguing
that such evidence is of two kinds. The first is evidence that is clear-cut but
unauthentic. The second is evidence that is authentic but not clear in indicating
that women only have to cover between the navel and the knee.
The hadîth that reads “What must be covered is what is above the knees
and below the navel.” [Sunan al-Daraqutnî (879) and Sunan
al-Bayhaqî (3237)] is inauthentic. It contains two narrators who are unacceptable:
Sa`îd b. Râshid and and `Ubbâd b. Kathîr.
The hadîth that reads “…If one of you marries off his slave
girl to his male slave or servant, then he should refrain from looking at what
must be covered on her, and that is the area between the navel and the knee.”
is also inauthentic, since its chain of transmission contains the weak narrators
al-Khalîl b. Murrah and Layth b. Abî Sulaym. Moreover, there are other
narrations of this hadîth. In some of these narrations, the body that is
being discussed is that of the master and not that of the slave girl, meaning
that she may not look at his private area which is between the navel and the knee.
This inconsistency in the hadîth makes it completely unsuitable as evidence.
Another argument against using this hadîth as evidence is that even if it
were authentic and without any inconsistency, it would merely be showing what
a married slave girl must cover in front of her master and not necessarily what
a free woman must wear.
Regarding the hadîth about bathhouses that begins “You will open up
the lands of the non-Arabs…”, it is inauthentic as well, since it
contains in its chain of transmission the weak narrator al-Ifrîqî.
Moreover, al-Ifrîqî relates this hadîth from `Abd al-Rahmân
b. Râfi` who is unknown. Moreover, even if this hadîth were authentic,
it does not touch upon the topic of how the women who enter the bathhouses must
dress and only grants a concession to women who have a medical need to enter the
bathhouses. Because of this, no general ruling about women’s dress can be
derived from it.
The other hadîth about bathhouses can be found with a number of incomplete
chains of transmission, without any mention the person who should have heard the
hadîth from the Prophet (peace be upon him). The only narration that mentions
a Companion is related by Ya`lâ b. `Ubayd from al-Thawrî, who mentions
the Companion Ibn `Abbâs. It is well known that Ya`lâ b. `Ubayd, though
generally a good narrator, is unreliable in his narrations from al-Thawrî.
Since all the other and much stronger narrations ofthis hadîth do not mention
Ibn `Abbâs, we can safely assume that Ya`lâ was mistaken.
As for the Prophet’s statement “A man should not look at what must
be concealed of another man, nor a woman at what must be concealed of another
woman”, it is undoubtedly authentic. However, it does not at all support
their claim that what a woman must conceal in front of other women is exactly
the same as what a man must conceal in front of other men. There is no reason
for us to assume from this text that they are the same, nor can we reason that
they are by way of analogy. Allah says elsewhere in the Qur’ân:
“Men are not like women.”
The claim that since women can wash the bodies of other women, they can see as
much of their bodies as men can see of the bodies of other men is a very weak
argument. First of all, washing is supposed to be performed while the body is
covered with a sheet. Secondly, even if their argument stood for washing a body,
it would be understood as merely a concession to facilitate washing. It could
not be applied to a living woman who has no reason to expose what is above her
navel and below her knees.
The strongest of the two opinions is that a woman may only reveal to other women
that which was customary for women to display at the time the Qur’ân
was revealed. It is not sufficient for her to conceal only what is between her
navel and her knees. This was clearly the practice at the time of the Prophet
(peace be upon him) and the practice of the earliest generations of Muslims.
We know that some of the male Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) reported
having seen the Prophet’s shins, his underarms, and even his upper stomach
and lower thighs.
By contrast, the female Companions, in their dealings with one another and their
close family members, report seeing merely body parts like the head, hair, and
ears of other women. It is authentically related, for instance, that female Companions
combed one another’s hair, necessitating that they looked at each other’s
hair. It has never been related even once that any of these women ever appeared
before other women concealing nothing but what was below their navels and above