Islam does not prohibit women from going out to fulfil their needs, but it lays down a proper code of behaviour, which is primarily intended to safeguard the modesty, dignity and honour of men and women. Allah, the Creator of humans, knows our nature better than ourselves, and thus He has prescribed appropriate rules of behaviour and appearance to be observed when men and women interact with one another in a social milieu. These rules of interaction also include a prescription for modesty in dress, talk and walk, etc.
In his well-known book, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, states: The correct Islamic behaviour required of Muslim women which keeps them from wantonly displaying their attractions is characterized by the following:
1- Lowering the gaze: Indeed, the most precious ornament of a woman is modesty, and the best expression of modesty is in the lowering of the gaze, as Almighty Allah says, […And tell the believing women that they should lower their gazes…] (An-Nur 24: 31)
2- Not intermingling with men in such a way that their bodies come in contact or that men touch women, as happens so often today in the movies, theaters, university classrooms, auditoriums, buses, streetcars, and the like. Ma`qal ibn Yasar narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “It is better for one of you to be pricked in the head with an iron pick than to touch a woman whom it is unlawful to touch.” (Reported by at-Tabarani and al-Bayhaqi)
Her clothing must conform to the standards laid down by the Islamic Shari`ah, which are as follows:
a) Her dress must cover her entire body with the exception of [that which is apparent] (An-Nur 24: 31) which, according to the most preferable interpretation, refers to the face and hands.
b) It must not be transparent, revealing what is underneath it. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has informed us that, “Among the dwellers of hell are such women as are clothed yet naked, seducing and being seduced. These shall not enter the Garden, nor shall (even) its fragrance reach them.” Here, the meaning of “clothed yet naked” is that their light, thin, transparent garments do not conceal what is underneath. Once some women of Bani Tamim, who were clad in transparent clothes, came to see `A’ishah, and she remarked, “If you are Believers, these are not the clothes which befit believing women.” On another occasion, when a bride wearing a sheer and transparent head-covering was brought into her presence, she commented, “A woman who dresses like this does not believe in surat an-Nur.” (This is surah 24, which together with surah 33 (al-Ahzab) c
ontains many injunctions concerning purity and propriety, man-woman relations, and dress.)
c) Her dress must not be too tight so as to define the parts of her body, especially its curves, even though it may not be transparent. This describes many of the styles of clothing current in the sensuous, materialistic civilization of the Western world, whose fashion designers compete with one another in devising clothing for women which tantalizingly emphasizes the bustline, waist, and hips, etc., in order to elicit the lustful admiration of men. Women who wear such clothes likewise fall under the definition of “clothed yet naked”, since such a dress is often more provocative than one which is transparent.
d) She must not wear clothes which are specifically for men, such as trousers in our time. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) cursed women who try to resemble men and men who resemble women, and prohibited women from wearing men’s clothing and vice-versa.
e) In her choice of clothing she should not imitate non-Muslims, whether they are Jews, Christians, or pagans, for Islam disapproves of conformity to non-Islamic modes and desires its followers to develop their own distinctive characteristics in appearance, as well as in beliefs and attitudes. This is why Muslims have been asked to be different from non-Muslims in many aspects, and why the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has said, “Whoever imitates a people is one of them.”
4- The Muslim woman walks and talks in a dignified and business-like manner, avoiding flirtatiousness in her facial expressions and movements. Flirting and seductive behavior are characteristics of wrong-minded women, not of Muslims. Allah Almighty says: [Then do not be too pleasant of speech, lest one in whose heart there is a disease should feel desire (for you)…] (Al-Ahzab 33: 32)
5- She does not draw men’s attention to her concealed adornment by the use of perfume or by jingling or toying with her ornaments or other such things. Allah says: [They should not strike their feet in order to make known what they hide of their adornment…] (An-Nur 24: 31)
the women of the time of jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic period) used to stamp their feet when they passed by men so that the jingling of their ankle-bracelets might be heard. The Qur’an forbade this, both because it might tempt a lecherous man to pursue her and also because it demonstrates the evil intention of the woman in attempting to draw the attention of men to herself. Similar is the Islamic ruling concerning the use of fragrant perfumes, since here again the intention is to attract men by exciting their desire. A hadith states, “The woman who perfumes herself and passes through a gathering is an adulteress.” (Reported by Abu Dawud and at-Tirmidhi) This hadith has also been reported by an-Nasa’i, Ibn Khuzaymah, and Ibn Hibban in the following words: “Any woman who perfumes herself and passes by a group of people so that her scent reaches them is an adulteress.” Al-Hakim also reported this hadith and said that it has sound transmitters.
From all this we know that Islam does not require, as some people claim, that a woman should remain confined to her house until death takes her out to her grave. On the contrary, she may go out for prayer, for her studies, and for her other lawful needs, both religious and secular, as was customary among the women of the families of the Companions and the women of later generations. Moreover, this early period of Islam is considered by all Muslims to be the best and most exemplary period in the history of Islam. Among the women of this time were those who took part in battles in the company of the Prophet himself (peace and blessings be upon him), and after that under the caliphs and their commanders. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) told his wife Sawdah, “Allah has permitted you to go out for your needs.” (Reported by al-Bukhari) He also said, “If someone’s wife asks his permission to go to the mosque, he should not deny it to her.” (Reported by al-Bukhari) On another occasion he said, “Do not prevent the bond-maids of Allah from (going to) Allah’s mosques.” (Reported by Muslim.)
Some very strict scholars are of the opinion that a woman is not allowed to see any part of a man who is not her mahram (unmarriageable relative). They base their ruling on a hadith reported by at-Tirmidhi on the authority of Nabhan, the slave of Umm Salmah, that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told Umm Salmah and Maymunah, his wives, to veil themselves when Ibn Umm Maktum entered. “But he is blind,” they said. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, “Are you blind, too? Do you not see him?”
However, researchers say that the manner in which this hadith has been transmitted renders it unsound. While the narrator here is Umm Salmah, the transmitter is her slave Nabhan, who had no concern with the incident nor any need to report it. Even if the hadith is sound, it simply shows that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was very strict in respect to his wives because their exceptional status required greater modesty on their part; Abu Dawud and other great scholars have commented on this exceptional position of the wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). In any case, the significance of the following well-established and sound hadith remains uncontested: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) instructed Fatimah bint Qays to spend the required period of confinement (`iddah or waiting period) following the death of her husband at the house of Umm Sharik. But he later changed his mind, saying, “My Companions gather in her house. Go and stay with Ibn Umm Maktum, since he is a blind man. If you uncover yourself he will not see you.” (Tafsir al-Qurtabi, vol. 11, p. 228.)