On account of the basic psychological differences between men and women, Islam has assigned a specific type of veiling for each gender. Women are to refrain from showing off their physical beauty:
They disclose not their beauty except that which is apparent thereof.(Surah an-Nur, 24:32)
Men are to refrain from showing off their wealth and status; the Messenger of Allahsas said:
Wearing silk and gold has been made unlawful for the males of my community and lawful for its females.(Sunan at-Tirmadhi, vol. 3, Book 22, Hadith 1,720)
Islam teaches a specific type of veiling that is exclusively for men, and this difference has to do with the difference in the ways men and women look at one another. An experiment was conducted in which models of varying attractiveness were presented in different “costumes,” outfits that conveyed a particular social status. One outfit was the uniform of a local fast food chain, another was an outfit generally associated with the middle class, and the third outfit was a blazer with a Rolex, which communicated wealth and status. Participants were shown pictures of models of the opposite gender and asked whom they would be more willing to date. A stark difference appeared in the way men and women gauged one another’s attractiveness.
Men said they were very willing to have coffee and conversation with the prettiest model, and they were completely indifferent to how she was dressed. Women, however, were affected by how the men were dressed: they were more willing to have coffee and conversation with men who wore the blazer and Rolex. In rating models’ acceptability as dates, the greatest difference between men and women was in the effects of the high-status costume. For women, the high-status costume made the homely model acceptable as a date, but he was not acceptable when he wore the fast-food uniform. Men were not willing to date the homelier model in either costume. In fact, for women, the blazer and Rolex made the homely model more acceptable than the best-looking model in the fast-food uniform for all types of relationships. This was not true for men. We also asked men and women in the study to rate the models’ attractiveness on a scale of one to five. Costumes did not affect men’s ratings, but they did affect women’s ratings (What Women Want-What Men Want, Townsend, p. 63)
Men and women have fundamentally different standards that dictate who they find attractive, and it affects their way of approaching courtship as well. This does not mean that all men are only interested in physical beauty and that all women are only interested in wealth and status, but it does mean that generally each gender is inclined to approach courtship in this way. The placing of greater importance on wealth and status by women is a phenomenon that is universally found in all cultures.
Ironically, this phenomenon is also found to be thriving particularly among highly educated and professional women who consider themselves liberated from gender-specific behavior. Women who are in high-paid or high-status positions are rarely willing to date and marry a man who makes less than they do, no matter how handsome or nice a person he may be. This is not the case with men. A male doctor will have little problem marrying a nurse, but a female doctor is less often able to bring herself to marry a male nurse. Female lawyers marry male secretaries less often, whereas for male lawyers have little problem dating and marrying female secretaries if they are physically attractive.
Thus, Islam has commanded that men be modest in showing their wealth and status. These teachings of Islam are not only in outward action but are to be followed in principle as well. For example, although makeup is not specifically mentioned as a part of veiling for women, however, since the purpose of veiling is not to show off physical beauty, abstaining from wearing makeup when going out is a part of the spirit of veiling. Similarly, there are many things men do to show off their wealth as a way of attracting women. Some men buy expensive cars, tailored suits, and costly watches with the intention of attracting women thereby. The teaching of veiling for men is to abstain from ostentation, from showing off their socioeconomic status. To abstain from showing off their wealth is a part of the spirit of male veiling in Islam.
Thus, the instruction of veiling in physical beauty in women and material wealth in men is an instruction that applies in principle to both genders; however, they apply to a greater degree for each gender according to their natural psychological differences. For women, modesty in dress is emphasized in physical beauty, but in men, modesty in dress is emphasized in extravagance.
Verily, the extravagant are brothers of satans, and Satan is ungrateful to his Lord.(Surah Bani Isra’il, 17:28)
Another way of understanding Islam’s teaching on veiling is by relating it to concepts we are already familiar with in society. Some people object to the hijab, saying that it is oppressive to impose a dress code. However, western society itself imposes a dress code on the basis of morality: nudity is not permitted. If a person is seen in public in the nude, he will be arrested by the police. Now, if nudists were to object to the dress code that western society imposes on them as being oppressive, what response could those who object to the hijab give that does not contradict their own objection to the hijab? In principle, both western society and Islam encourage a dress code for maintaining a basic standard of modesty. There is only a difference in degree, in that Islam promotes a higher degree of modesty.
Some people object to the hijab saying that it is oppressive to impose a specific dress code on women. However, western society also imposes a specific dress code on women in that they are required to cover parts of their body that men are not. Men are permitted to expose the top half of their body at beaches and many other places, but women are not permitted to expose the same parts of their body. In some of the tribes of Africa and South America, it is considered normal to be topless. If a woman from such a society were to object to the dress code that western society imposes exclusively on women as being sexist and oppressive, what response could those who object to the hijab give that does not contradict their own objection to the hijab? In principle, both western society and Islam encourage a different standard of modesty in dress for women as opposed to men. There is only a difference in degree, in that Islam promotes a higher degree of modesty.
Some people object to the hijab saying that it must be really hot wearing those things. What answer would they give if a nudist objected to them as to why they wear clothes in the summer at all; they would feel much cooler if they wore nothing. Obviously they would answer that feeling a little bit cooler is not reason enough to be shameless. In the same way that an ordinary westerner feels shame in leaving the house (un)dressed as a nudist, a Muslim also feels shame in leaving the house (un)dressed as an ordinary westerner. In principle, both western society and Islam encourage modesty as being more important than comfort; Islam simply encourages a higher degree of modesty.
Relating Islam’s restrictions on morality to concepts we are already familiar with in society is a necessary step in gaining a more open- minded understanding of what Islam actually teaches. These examples demonstrate that we agree in principle with our fellow non-Muslim westerners, and that is a very important place to start. When we allow misunderstandings on the common principles we agree on to continue, there is little hope in being accepting of our differences. However, when we can come together on common ground in principles, it becomes significantly easier to understand and appreciate the branches on which we differ.