The topic of the ‘awrah of a woman is one of great discussion, both amongst the scholars and the laymen. In sha Allah, here is an attempt to specify what exactly is the ‘awrah of a woman in light of the evidences from the Quran and sunnah, as explained by the scholars.
A few definitions:
‘Awrah – the parts of the body that are not supposed to be exposed to anyone, except your spouses. Even in private, it is a sign of hayaa (modesty) to have your ‘awrah covered.
Mahram – A woman’s mahram is a man whom she may never marry due to the closeness of the relationship between her and him. The ‘awrah of a woman in front of her mahrams is discussed at the end.
The scholars are unanimous that the body of a woman (including her neck down to her ankles, her forearms, and her hair) is part of the ‘awrah of the woman. There is a difference of opinion whether the face (forehead to the chin, and ears), hands (inner and outer palms) and feet (below the ankles) are part of the ‘awrah or not.
- The face: According to Shaikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz (may Allah have mercy on him), the Sunnah is to uncover the face during prayer, so long as no non-mahram men are present.
- The hands: According to Shaikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz (may Allah have mercy on him), there is more leeway here: there is nothing wrong with either covering them or uncovering them, although some scholars think that it is better to cover them.
- The feet: According to the majority of scholars, the feet must be covered; some scholars allow uncovering the feet but the majority say the opposite. Abu Dawud reported from Umm Salamah (may Allaah be pleased with her) that she was asked about a woman who prayed in a khimaar and qamees (dress or gown). She said, “There is nothing wrong with it if the dir’ (chemise) covers her feet.” In any case, it is better to cover the feet, to be on the safe side.
The face and the hands: There is a difference of opinion here whether the face and the hands outside the prayer are required to be covered.
According to Shaikh Abdul Wahhab al-Turayri (may Allah preserve him), a verse (known as the verse of hijab) was reveled in the fifth year after the emigration to Madinah. Umm Salamah said: “May Allah bless the women of the Ansaar. As soon as the verse was revealed saying: ‘O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when out of doors): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Ghafuwr and Raheem’ [Surah Ahzab: 59], they immediately covered their heads so you see nothing but a black view.” [Sunan Abu Dawud]
So, we know that is the Sunnah of the Mothers of the Believers and the female companions of the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) to cover their faces. We also know (unlike what the orientalists claim) that the hijab was not part of Arab tradition, in fact, it was something that started after the verse of hijab mentioned above. Thus, many scholars (including Imam Ahmad and recently bin Baz and bin Uthaymeen) have said that it is obligatory to cover the face and the hands outside the prayer (in front of non-mahrams), with only a small opening for one eye or both eyes.
However, majority of the scholars (including Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi’i) are of the opinion that a woman can show her face and hands outside the prayer. The proof that they use is the hadith of Asmaa bint Abi Bakr (may Allah be pleased with her): Asmaa came in, Aisha and Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) was there, Asmaa had clothing considered thin, so he (صلي الله عليه وسلم) turned aside and said: “If a woman reaches puberty, not permissible for her to show anything except this and this” (pointing to hands and face). [Sunan Abu Dawud, most scholars say hassan, some say weaknesses].
The feet: Unlike the men (who are required to have their garments above their ankles), the women have no such requirement. In fact, many scholars say that a woman’s garment should be below her ankles and covering her feet.
The mahrams of a women are her husband, father, husband’s father, sons, husband’s sons, brothers, brothers’ sons, sisters’ sons, and Muslim women. This can be found in the verse below:
Translation: and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (the parts which are to be covered, discussed above) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their (Muslim) women” [Surah Noor 24:31].
Allaah has permitted a woman to show her adornment in front of her husband and mahrams. According to Shaikh Salih Munajjid (may Allah preserve him), what is meant by adornment is the places where adornments are worn: the place for a ring is the hand, for a bracelet is the forearm, for an earring is the ear, for a necklace is the neck and chest, and for an anklet is the leg.
So, in front of her mahrams (like dad, brothers, etc.) she can show what usually appears, i.e. face, neck, hair, forearms, feet. In front of her husband, she can show whatever she wants.
It goes without saying that all Muslims, male or female, need to maintain a sense of hayaa (modesty) at all times, as hayaa is part of Iman. Usually (a personal observation!) a person’s clothing is one of the indicators of their hayaa (modesty).
And Allah (the Exalted, the Wise) Knows Best.