Islam does not ask Muslims to judge women by their dress

Moin Qazi



Rage over the gown of cricketer Mohammed Shami’s wife in a picture posted on Facebook is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

Women’s dress is a favourite subject of religious bigots of all hues with their own notions of morality. Everyone wants to talk about the “moral values” attached to women’s dress or the “purity” of their attire that “go against the parameters” laid down by the moral police. Nobody is interested in discussing the more critical issue — the morality or purity of one’s conscience. Today a woman’s character is defined by her clothes. The real markers like piety and moral fiber are being glossed over in our debased intellectual and moral horizon.

The rage over the dress of cricketer Mohammed Shami’s wife in a picture posted on Facebook is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

Modesty is a virtue for both men and women. A connection between spiritual life and modesty exists because that virtue is not just about outward appearances. Rather, it is tolerance first and foremost about the inward state of having modesty before God – an awareness of divine presence everywhere and at all times that leads to propriety (within oneself and in one’s most private moments). Outward modesty means behaving in a way that maintains one’s own self-respect and the respect of others, whether in dress, speech or behaviour. Inward modesty means shying away from any character or quality that is offensive to God.

When it comes to the clothes of women, everybody seems to be obsessed with it. More than a means to cover one’s body, women’s clothes have become a symbol of oppression for some and a mark of liberation for some others. But, more peculiarly, garments are often used as a benchmark by conservative Muslims to judge the morality of a Muslim woman and her “Muslimness”. There is still no such benchmark for Muslim men who owe a duty of modesty to the Quran whose injunction are as strong for men as they are for women. Indeed, judging by the discourse, one would assume that the primary religious duty of Muslim women is to observe “the dress code”.

Quran enjoins modesty on men too and only when the men have attained that level of modesty should they feel justified in talking about the modesty of others. (Credit: Reuters file)

In the context of proper attire and conduct, the Quran enjoins modesty on men too and only when the men have attained that level of modesty should they feel justified in talking about the modesty of others. “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 (Q24: 30-31).”

From certain imams insisting that earthquakes are caused by women not wearing proper dresses to muftis excommunicating Muslim women, the intellectual level of discourse that surrounds Muslim women is excruciating, and is more or less concerned only with notions of modesty. By reducing Muslim women to their bodies and pretending that modesty is their primary religious duty, we strip them off their personhood.

In the view of the great liberal Islamic scholar Mohammad Asad, 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, one of Islam’s greatest high priests), as ‘that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom (al-‘adah al-jariyah)’.”

Today’s world is in a state of great upheaval. With gnawing problems such as superstition, sectarianism, bigotry, sectarianism, and patriarchy in Muslim-majority states, we simply cannot afford to divert all our attention to pedantic details of how to worship God “correctly”. If we are at all serious about preventing the so-called fitna (spiritual affliction) we must start addressing the real issue that has long been glaring at us — attitude towards women.

The shift in focus of religion from an ethical guide to policing of appearances (dress codes, rituals) is a curious phenomenon — a virus that seems to have seeped its way into mainstream Muslim consciousness. Our religious priorities seem to have shifted from spiritual transformation to very quotidian concerns about rituals and dress codes. This fixation reflects the very cursory manner in which we approach religion.

Education, as always, is the key here. Let’s start getting offended by expressions like “men will be men”, because men are not monolithic sexual beasts who have no autonomy over their desires. Let’s not tie down a woman’s morality to her dress. And let’s stop objectifying women and seeing them primarily as avenues for sex.

What Mohammed Shami’s wife wears is nobody’s business, not even his

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