It is often difficult to explain our Muslim practices to other people, just as we may not understand the way someone of another faith practices their faith. As members of the same communities, it is important to ask them about their practices as well.
Many of your Christian friends have seen Catholic priests and nuns who practice the modest dress. Theworld famous Mother Teresa practiced the modest dress as she worked tirelessly among the poor in India. Orthodox Jewish women also practice the modest dress and believing Jewish men wear the skull cap at all times. Anyone who travels in Spain or Italy sees that many of the village women still dress modestly. You can point out to them that the Western world often objects to the modest dress because it is practical and reduces consumerism. Ask your friends how much they spend on clothes and make-up? Some women who work outside the home spend their entire salary getting to and from work, on lunch hour and buying clothes to impress people in their office. If women could save money on clothes and give that money to save a child or help a poor person have food, they would develop an inner sense of peace because they would be helping others instead of thinking only of themselves. They would develop virtues like modesty and temperance which can only make them better people in both God’s eyes and the eyes of others.
It also helps environmental issues of over consumption. Is this not an issue that your friends discuss? Here is a place to begin, with one’s ego and desires to attract the attention of others for material gain and not spiritual and moral concerns.
Your friends may think that you are always in the modest dress, but you should explain to them that you wear it only when outside the home or when you meet men that you are not related to either through blood or marriage. You can tell them that at home, you wear clothes just like theirs and that you have seen Western women who at home look their worst, and when they go out they get all dressed up. This is the reverse of what you do because you are not trying to impress others with your looks but with your mind and your moral courage. And it does take moral courage particularly living in a secular society like America where there is such peer pressure to look like everyone else, to wear your shield when you leave your home and to, therefore, be known for your mind and not your body.
What does it mean in Islam to practice the modest dress? First of all, to be a believer means to follow the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and the mercy of God be upon him. A believing Muslim’s decision to practice the modest dress (hijab) should be a decision which is the Muslim’s own, and it is a decision that both believing Muslim men and women can resolve to practice.
The Qur’an tells us, “Say to the believing men that they cast down their glance and guard their private parts; that is purer for them. God is aware of the things they do” (24:30).
And, “Say to the believing women that they cast down their glance and guard their private parts and reveal not their adornment except such as is outward and let them cast their veils over their bosoms and reveal not their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons or their women or what their right hands own, or such men as attend to them, not having sexual desire or children who have not yet attained knowledge of women’s private parts; or children who have not yet attained knowledge of women’s private parts; nor let them stamp their feet so that their hidden ornament may be known. And turn all together to God, O you believers, so you will prosper” (24:31).
It means for believers of the opposite sex not to stare at each other when their eyes meet. This is true of men and women. It is to guard “their private parts,” men and women, from what? From corruption and from the view of others. It is obligatory in Islam for a believer to cover their private parts except between a husband and wife. To practice the modest dress, then, is commanded to both men and women in the Qur’an so to do so is to follow God’s command.
There is another verse of the Qur’an which says, “O Prophet! Say to your wives and daughters and the believing women that they draw their outer garments close to them; so it is more proper that they may be made known and not hurt. God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. Now, if the hypocrites do not give over and those in whose hearts there is a sickness and they make commotion in the city, “We shall assuredly set you against them and then they will be your neighbors there only for a little while” (33:59-60).
Commentators agree that at that time in Madinah there was a group of hypocrites who bothered the people and in particular women captured in war (slave women). When they were asked why they did this, they said, “O we thought they were slave women.” This verse was revealed for women to protect themselves from being considered slave women.
The modest dress, then, is a way that a Muslim woman like the Virgin Mary, seeks refuge in God..