Question: To what extent are Muslim women required to cover themselves while dealing with men? What should be their behavior with male relatives not strictly in the category of `mahrams'?
Answer: The Holy Quran has given guidance on how women should behave while in the presence of men in two different surahs. While in Surah Noor the desired behaviour within the confines of a home is discussed, Surah Ahzaab lays down the conditions to be met if a lady is to step out of her home for some purpose.
According to Surah Noor, women ought to differentiate between two categories of adult men inside the homes: those who are `mahrams' and those who are not. `Mahrams' is a commonly used term for those very close male relatives whose list has been provided in detail by the Almighty Himself. It comprises of such very closely related men as husbands, fathers, grandfathers, fathers-in-law, sons, grandsons, sons-in-law, uncles, and nephews who, apart from husbands of course cannot be married to the ladies they are so closely related to. Women have been spared from being extra careful about the dress while in their presence. The Quran leaves the obvious forms of decency in this case, as in many others, unmentioned, assuming that all reasonable individuals are already adequately equipped with inner conciousness about them. An absence of mention, therefore, doesn't imply an absence of desirability to be within reasonable limits, even before these relatives.
In case non-mahram relatives or non-relative confidants of the family visit the family, the Quran lays down certain restrictions on both men and women on such occasions. Such men have been asked to enter a house where women are also residing only if permitted. They should, moreover, be decently dressed and should guard their gaze from taking unreasonable liberties. Women, apart from the restriction to lower their gazes like men, have been asked to cover their entire body except face, hands, and feet in the presence of such men. They have been furthermore, asked to cover their chests with an additional piece of cloth. Elsewhere, the tendency of being informal with non-mahrams and meeting them alone has also be discouraged. All these cares are to be taken, mind you, in case of men by no means strangers.
It must also be pointed out, however, that the same surah ensures that the restrictions should not be stretched beyond the desirable limits to erect unnecessary barriers against the exchanges of social visits by relatives and friends. In verse 61 of the surah the Almighty has clearly permitted the believers to visit each other and to have food whether `separately' or `together'. Obviously in case some believers choose to take food `together', the restrictions mentioned above have got to be strictly followed.
If a Muslim lady steps out of her home, she has been further required in Surah Ahzab, verse 59 to draw a part of her wrap on her face so as to protect herself from the evil of the ill-intentioned. Since outside the home there can be no restrictions imposed on the behaviour of the strangers, greater care in dressing up is a natural requirement.
Scholars are, however, divided on the question of whether the requirement to cover the face while stepping out of the home is binding on ladies or not. Although the verse is explicit in expressing a clear desire, even if it is not considered binding, it should definitely be considered as strongly recommended. Moreover, in any case the restrictions mentioned in Surah Noor are by no means less than binding. Believing women must,therefore,always follow those instructions in the presence of non-mahrams, whether inside or outside the home.