The First Requirement: The Extent of Covering
The dress worn in public must cover the entire body except what has been specifically excluded, based upon the following proofs:
Allah Ta'ala says: "And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts from sin and not show of their adornment except only that which is apparent, and draw their headcovers over their necks and bosoms and not reveal their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women (i.e., their sisters in Islam), or their female slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants free of physical desires, or small children who have no sense of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah altogether, O you Believers, in order that you may attain success.[An-Nur, 24:31]
The word zeenah in the aayah above, literally means "adornment", and includes both (a) that which Allah has adorned, i.e., the woman's natural and/or physical beauty, and (b) that with which they adorn themselves, i.e., jewelry, eye shadow, attractive clothing, hand dye, etc. Soorat An-Nur spells out specifically the commands concerning the fact that a woman's natural beauty and her adornments are to be concealed from strangers except by (1) What may show due to accidental or uncontrollable factors such as the blowing of the wind, etc., and (2) What has been exempted (see explanation at end of this section). Allah also says:
O Prophet, Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments about themselves (when they go out). That is better so that they may be recognised and not molested. And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. [Al-Ahzaab, 33:59]
Abu Dawood narrates that `Aishah (RAA) said: "Asmaa' the daughter of Abu Bakr (RAA) came to see the Messenger of Allah (SAAWS) wearing a thin dress; so Allah's Messenger (SAAWS) turned away from her and said: O Asmaa', once a woman reaches the age of menstruation, no part of her body should be seen but this-and he pointed to his face and hands.
The word khumur (pl. of khimar) refers to a cloth which covers the head (including the ears), hair, neck and bosom. The esteemed mufaasir (Quranic interpreter) Al-Qurtubi explains: "Women in the past used to cover their heads with the khimar, throwing its ends over their backs. This left the neck and the upper part of the chest bare, in the manner of the Christians. Then Allah commanded them to cover those parts with the khimar."
Allah states further in this aayah:
...And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornments The women in the time of the Prophet (SAAWS) wore anklets which could be employed to attract attention by stamping their feet, thereby making the anklets tinkle. This practice is not only forbidden by Allah, but moreover, shows that the legs and ankles are to be covered as well. Some of the modern day Hanafi scholars are of the mistaken view that a woman can display her feet, a portion of her forearms and her ears; yet there is NO authentic proof from the practice of the Prophet (SAAWS) or his Sahabah to uphold such a view.
Amongst the authentic hadeeths which clarify this point is the following: Ibn `Umar (RAA) reported that the Messenger of Allah (SAAWS) said: On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will not look at the man who trails his garment along out of pride. Umm Salamah then asked: What should women do with (the hems of) their garments? He replied: Let them lower them a handspan. She said: Their feet would be exposed! He then said: Let them lower them a forearm's length but no more. [Reported by At-Tabarani-Sahih]
The aayah of Soorat An-Nur also lists in detail those with whom a woman is permitted to be more at ease. Furthermore, the ayah from Soorat Al-Ahzab orders Muslim women to draw their outer garments about themselves when they go out. Abu Dawood related that `Aishah (RAA) said: "After this Aayah was revealed the women of the Ansar appeared like crows." (because of the color and shape of the cloaks they wore).
Hence, an outer garment or cloak must be worn by a Muslim woman whenever she goes out in public or if she is in the presence of strangers within her own home or the home of a close relative. Slight differences have arisen amongst the scholars concerning the precise meaning of ...except only that which is apparent... from Soorah An-Nur which according to Ibn `Abaas (RAA), includes "the face, the two hands, and rings. This view is shared by Ibn `Umar, `Ata'a, and others from the Tabi'een." [Tafseer Ibn Kathir]
Also, Imam Ash-Showkani states concerning this same ayaat, that it includes: "The dress, the face, and the two hands"; Ibn `Abaas and Qatadah have stated: "The adornments include eye shadow (i.e., Kuhul), bracelets, hand dye, and rings, and it is permissable for women to (uncover) them." [Fateh Al-Qadeer]
The major point of difference among the scholars concerns the hadeeth of Asmaa' (RAA) i.e., that the face and hands need not be covered; a number of the scholars have maintained that the face and hands must also be covered, because it was the practice of the wives of the Prophet (SAAWS) and the wives of the Sahabah to cover themselves completely according to authentic hadeeths. The above point has been a topic of debate amongst the scholars both past and present and will be dealt with, Insha' Allah at the end of this essay.