Modest female attire

Surah 33 (Al-Ahzab/The Parties): 59

O Prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters, and women of the believers that they should draw their outer garments over their person (when in public).

This is easy and proper, so that they may be recognized and not bothered.

Allah is Absolver of imperfections, Merciful.

[‘The Qur’an As It Explains Itself’, Shabbir Ahmed, 2003 (Pakistani-US)]


{33.59} is one of two Qur’an verses addressing the permissible attire of women in general, the other being {24.31} that specifies that women should:

{24.31} … lower their eyes and guard their private parts, and not display their adornment, except that which is visible thereof.

And let them draw their kerchief over their breasts, and not display their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers or their husband’s fathers or their sons or their husbands’ sons or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or their sisters’ sons or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or male attendants free of desire, or children who are innocent of the private areas of women.

Nor let them stamp their feet such that the ornaments that they conceal become known.

And repent unto God altogether, O believers, that haply you may prosper.


A third passage, {33.33}, is addressed specifically to the wives of the prophet, who are instructed: ‘Abide in your homes and flaunt not your charms as they did flaunt them in the prior Age of Ignorance〈79.〉


Contrary to popular belief, none of these verses explicitly requires a woman to conceal their face or even their hair, in the manner that has become iconic for Muslim women’s and girls’ attire. Whether the word ‘jilbab’ in {33.59} (rendered above as ‘outer garments‘) implies a head covering, hinges upon a question of seventh-century Arabian sartorial terminology that is now unanswerable. {24.31}, on the other hand, must be read as implicitly permitting uncovered heads. The possibility that the Qur’an’s author directed women to ’draw their kerchief (‘khimār’: a cloth garment) over their breasts‘, whilst assuming that their heads must already be covered can surely be dismissed as fanciful. There is an obvious circularity in {24.31} prohibiting the showing of something ‘except that which is visible thereof’. Several Qur’an translations endeavour to make sense of the verse by qualifying ‘visible’ (or whatever similar term is used) by inserting a condition of compliance with social norms, such as:

‘… beyond what is (acceptably) visible‘ (per Ali Qarai),

‘… except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof’ (Yusuf Ali) and

… except what is permitted by the law’ (Sarwar).

However, even if such a qualification is read into the text, the verse would still beg the question of what the verse was instructing, by having the Qur’an only prohibiting that which is deemed – by contemporary social standards – not to be permitted.


The linkage of the ‘covering up’ instruction in {24.31} with the instructions to lower one’s eyes and ‘guard (one’s) private parts’ (a euphemism for chastity), the prohibition on jangling one’s anklets, and the exception, permitting a woman to appear lightly clad in front of some judged to be ‘free of desire’ and ‘innocent of the private areas of women’, all make it quite clear that {24.31} is concerned that women adopt concealing attire for reasons of modesty. {33.59}, on the other hand, offers a different reason for instructing women to draw their outer garments over their person. This is so that ‘it is likelier that they will be known and not disturbed’. ‘Known’ here must be read as meaning ‘identifiable as believers’ rather than that they should be recognised individually (which of course  becomes harder the less of the woman is on display). Consequently, the rationale being put forward, is that women who would be recognisable as believers, would be spared being ‘disturbed’ (or in other translations ‘harassed’, ‘molested’ (per Yusuf Ali), ‘insulted’ (Haleem) or ‘hurt’ (Arberry), the implication being that this might well be the fate of non-believers who do not observe the Quranic dress code. The verse does not spell out how being readily identifiable as a believer would protect a woman from being harassed but it is suggested that the only plausible explanation is that the Qur’an author has in mind harassment by believing men, whom, it is anticipated, would not disturb a member of their own community.


{24.60} permits ‘elderly women who no longer anticipate marriage’ to ‘doff their garments without displaying any ornaments’, although even for such women ‘it is better for them to be modest.’