Modest Dress in Contemporary Judaism and Islam

A cultural and religious analysis.

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Understanding the Hijab

More generally, hijab refers to modest clothing that a Muslim woman wears in public--covering all of her body except her face and hands. Unlike the prevalent Jewish practice of linking head covering to marriage, Muslim practice dictates that a woman begins to cover at puberty; in certain circles, Muslim girls begin wearing a hijab even younger.
Jewish women wearing head coverings at the Western Wall.
The Qur'an does not explicitly mandate head covering, leaving room for some modern scholars to argue that it is not compulsory. Rather, the Qur'an commands both female and male believers to behave modestly toward the other sex by lowering their gazes and covering their private parts. In addition, women should "not show their adornments beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should let their cloaks cover their bosoms and not reveal their adornments except to their husbands, their fathers…[and other male members of the household]" [24:31].

The Development of the Law of the Hijab

In another verse, the Qur'an calls upon Muslim women to drape their outer garments over their bodies in a distinctive way when they go outside: "Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized and not insulted" [33:59].

Whereas the first verse mandates covering one's "adornments" as part of an Islamic code of modesty, the second verse dictates extra caution with regard to one's dress to protect Muslim women from unwanted male advances. According to the Hadith literature, which includes reports of Muhammad's sayings and behavior and serves as the second source of guidance for Muslims, early Muslim women wrapped their bodies (and, by some accounts, their heads) in garments when they went outside.

There are also numerous reports that Muhammad enjoined girls reaching puberty to cover their heads and chests when praying. Classical jurists of Islamic law unanimously interpreted the Qur'an and Hadith sources as evidence that all women between puberty and old age are obligated to cover their heads and bodies.

The majority of jurists permitted a woman to expose her face and hands, whereas a minority held that a woman must cover all parts of her body in public. Moreover, some early jurists conflated the requirements of modest dress with Quranic restrictions on mobility imposed exclusively on Muhammad's wives [33:33; 33:53], following the general legal trend to regard Muhammad's wives as the model for all Muslim women.

Linking Mobility & Modesty

The tendency to sequester women also reflected shifts in cultural norms; by the ninth century, Muslim rulers emulated the Persian aristocratic custom of purdah--keeping women in the home as a sign of one's wealth. In this context, we can understand Maimonides' relatively "moderate" ruling that a woman should not be a prisoner in her own home, but that her husband can prevent her from going outside more than once or twice a month.

Cultural norms remained fairly stable until the early 20th century, when the conflation between clothing restrictions and seclusion ended for all but an extremist minority of Muslims. Likewise, feminist movements during that period, supported by men intent on modernizing their societies, led many upper and middle class women to remove their headscarves.

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Raquel Ukeles

Raquel Ukeles is a Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University, specializing in Islamic law and ritual. She completed her PhD in Islamic and Jewish Studies at Harvard University in 2006.