Mahrams and hijab

October 12, 2009 at 12:00 am (gender issues, Islam, religious practices, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I was reading Sura 24 when I came across a list of mahrams – categories of men which are forbidden for a woman to marry (or vice versa) and in front of whom she may remove her outer garment. Of course this includes the usual close blood relatives, but I was surprised to notice it also includes father-in-law and step-son.

Such men are only forbidden to marry the woman by virtue of her current marriage, i.e. once she has got married, she cannot marry her father-in-law even if she becomes single again. If she had never married her current husband, that father-in-law would never have been mahram to her.

And obviously, therefore, it is possible for the father-in-law to be attracted to her. Unlike her blood mahrams who would not be attracted to her. So I was surprised that she is allowed to discard her outer garment in front of him. What does this tell us?



  1. Stacy said,

    This is a difficult one. You can’t assume that the father-in-law in necessarily an old man either. Plus, other aged men aren’t considered mahrams either…
    i don’t have a good answer other than the fact that a father-in-law should know better than to allow himself to have feelings for a woman who has ever been married to his son. This would be a good one to ask a scholar.

  2. Ellen said,

    I agree with Stacy, it would definitely be good to ask someone about that. All I know is that for me, it’s a good thing – because when we stayed with M’s family, his father became my father figure for that time and he also treated me like a daughter.
    So I think that with good men then it is a good thing but then I guess it is quite strange that other men that age are not mahrams.

  3. Fruitful Fusion said,

    I don’t think it has anything to do with age. When they get married, his father becomes a father to the woman and this remains the case even after the marriage ends. I think that the relationship between father and son is respected this way too. I’d be interested to know how a scholar responds to this.

  4. susanne430 said,

    You always have such good questions! What do YOU think this teaches? I guess FILs should never have feelings for or be attracted to their DILs. Puts a lot of trust on FILs being able to see their DILs as daughters perhaps. No father should be attracted to his own child. At least we hope that.

  5. LK said,

    I wonder if it has anything to do with the tradition of the wife moving into the husbands home and the husband usually having his parents live with him? Be weird to have to wear hijab in your own house.

    It makes sense though. You become his daughter in marriage and one would hope a father-in-law could have respect for his daughter-in-law.

  6. Sarah said,

    What’s interesting is that fathers-in-law, step-fathers, son-in-law, and step-sons are a woman’s mahrams, but brothers-in-law and step-brothers are not. She has to cover in front of them and she may marry them. The same is true the other way round… but a man may not marry two sisters at the same time.

    I suppose it would lead to some messed-up family relationships if a woman could marry a man (and have kids) and then later marry his father or son (and have kids). Those kids would be brothers/sisters but also aunts/uncles to each other or something like that. Marrying her husband’s brother is less complicated. In fact it’s a tradition in a lot of cultures that a man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow. In doing this she stays within the family and within the same generational level. She remains like a daughter to the parents-in-law. She may even call them “mum” and “dad” (this is a common practice in a lot of cultures) and likewise her step-son or son-in-law may call her “mum”.

    On the question of covering, I think what it says is that men can be trusted not to look at their daughter-in-law or mother-in-law (etc) “that” way. Maybe because there was a strong understanding in that culture that a daughter-in-law was like a daughter, etc.

    What is being asked to be concealed in front of non-mahrams in sura 24 is “beauty and ornaments” or “adornments” or “ornaments”. I don’t know what that meant in practice. And I don’t know if it meant the same as putting on the outer garment as mentioned in sura 33. The context of putting on the outer garment in the latter verse seems to be avoiding harassment from random strangers while out and about. Doesn’t seem to be the same situation as sitting at home with brother-in-laws present.

    We can assume in general neither the father-in-law nor the brother-in-law would harass the woman or behave inappropriately to her. So there is no need for a woman to protect herself from either. Maybe the difference between the two is simply that the father-in-law would be inclined to view her as a daughter, whereas the brother-in-law wouldn’t necessarily see her as a sister, knowing that he could marry her one day if (say) his brother died. (Which was probably quite a common thing to happen.)

    Anyone know how I would go about asking a scholar?

  7. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    Good question! I would also be really interested in knowing what a scholar says.
    I guess it’s more about a father-in-law knowing and respecting the fact that he can’t and shouldn’t be attracted to his daughter-in-law. In the end it’s a socializing process. When we’re born we don’t necessary *know* we shouldn’t be attracted to our close relatives, but we are soon socialized to think that. So maybe the same logic applies to father in laws.

    • Sarah said,

      Interesting comment Sara… I saw a TV programme about incestuous relationships between siblings who’d met later in life for the first time :S Apparently it’s quite common to have an intense mutual attraction if you didn’t grow up together! So it must be socialisation, but not necessarily instantaneous or effortless in some cases.

      Actually, I don’t think “covering your adornments” prevents an attraction anyway. It’s still possible for a man to fancy (British word for “have crush on”) a woman who wears hijab. I think the point of covering your adornments in this case might be that it reminds the man and the woman to act appropriately with each other. Maybe with a father-in-law there would be no need for this reminder, because of the socialisation.

  8. Candice said,

    I think it has to do with a father in law – daughter in law relationship being close, like a parent-child relationship. It’s all to do with socialization and this is another one that we are supposed to see as non-sexual like siblings, parents, etc. I think it’s convenient too, for living with the in-laws, which can happen. When the “children” are of age and maturity to get married, they are sometimes not quite there financially, so getting help from the in-laws and living with them for a bit as husband and wife can be an option (rather than staying engaged for 5 years and risking pre-marital sex and all that). And when the parents get older and the children start taking care of their parents, they can sometimes move in altogether. It would not be good to live with your in-laws and children and have to wear your hijab around the house all the time. Cooking, playing with kids, cleaning, etc. in hijab! Yakh!
    Islam makes it easier!

  9. LK said,

    I have a few things to ask of a scholar myself. If i find one I will let you know.

    And I agree with you on the adornments part. You wear hijab not necessarily in the sense that it will keep all men from being attracted to you. But if they are attracted to you it is in a more positive fashion; they are probably attracted to you for your personality not the size of your chest you know? And hijab does remind both parties to respect each other. And it gets you more personal space on the train LOL jk

  10. Sarah said,

    Candice – it is convenient, although if there brothers-in-law living in the same household, which is quite likely if the couple are young and living with in-laws, then the woman would have to cover more. I wonder though if “covering the adornments” in this case is not the same as the full hijab described in sura 33. The context is completely different. It seems to me that it could just mean dressing decently and not walking around the house in your pyjamas. It’s actually breasts that are explicitly being commanded to be covered here (24:30-31)!

    LK – do let me know if you find a scholar to ask! I totally agree, the way you dress influences the kind of man you will attract.

  11. NeverEver said,

    I think the socialization thing has to do a lot with the father in law issue. Islam is not meant to be hard on us, and living in family groups with in-laws has, from my understanding, always been very common in the middle east and continues to be common today.

    The step-sons I think is more obvious, because if you have children with your husband, these are your son/daugher’s half-brothers. This is like… borderline incestuous in my mind, lol. Then you get the brother/uncle relationships. This relationship also happens with milk-brothers and is still common today, when a mother will nurse her daughter’s son who then also becomes her son. I had a friend who is a brother/uncle to one of his sister’s sons.

    Also… I’ve heard that if you nursed a boy, that he becomes your son and is viewed as a mahram for you. Is this Islamic or just cultural? Anyone know?

    • Sarah said,

      NeverEver – I’m sure I read that that is the case in Islam, about nursing. That is another odd one! Probably relatively uncommon these days though.

      • NeverEver said,

        I think in some place it is actually pretty common… I know that it happens quite a bit in Saudi. I know several people with milk-brothers/sisters that they can’t marry and such because they were nursed from the same woman. I think it is because breastfeeding is much more common there and also in the previous generation women started reproducing very young, so it is pretty common to have a daughter being pregnant at the same time as her mom.

        This definitely seems like a very foreign concept in the west. Women quit having wet nurses once formula was developed. If we can’t be there to breastfeed our baby, we just pop a bottle in their mouth, where this is not doable in other parts of the world.

        • Sarah said,

          That’s interesting. I know it was common in Arabia at the time of Muhammad, so I suppose it’s something that has continued. It’s another case where you’d need to be socialised to see that person as like your mother/brother/sister/etc.
          I suppose it makes some sense that it changes the relationship, after all breastfeeding is a very personal thing, in our culture it would almost never be done by anyone but the child’s mother… a bit of a taboo almost.

          • Aynur said,

            I agree, for me breastfeeding is very very personal. I would never want another woman breastfeeding my kids. I would rather give them formula. I think maybe it’s a cultural thing?

            • Sarah said,

              Yeah, I saw a TV programme about people breastfeeding each other’s kids, it was really weird. The more I think about it, the more I understand why it is considered to create a mahram relationship.

              I seem to mention TV a lot… you all probably think I do nothing but watch TV! 😳

              • Sarah said,

                Interesting article that mentions the role of breastfeeding in our perception of who are our siblings.

                “So if you’re an older sibling, watching a younger individual nurse from your mother is a very reliable cue to being siblings with that individual…”

  12. Ms M said,

    I asked my fiancé one day about how I would need to dress when his parents came to stay i.e. would I need to wear hijab all day? He said no, just modest clothing, but it wasn’t necessary to cover the hair. When I asked him I had read the list of mahrams but I certainly didn’t remember that the father inlaw was on the list.

    • Sarah said,

      Well now you know 😉
      It’s quite convenient then I guess.

      • Ms M said,

        Precisely!!! Lol.

  13. SS said,

    Do you think about anything excexpt which man is finding your attractive? Do you think about anything else at all!
    Clothes, clothes, clothes. ANd then you wonder why the world thinks you are weird and wants to ban these weirdities

  14. Achelois said,

    Whoa! Forget the post, I’m truly interested in knowing why SS made this comment 😀 Thankfully I always comment after I have had my morning coffee!

  15. Achelois said,

    My BIL’s wife wears niqaab in front of my husband and my husband’s grandfather but takes it off in front of my FIL. It is all really weird!

  16. efatou said,

    Sisters, I am very confused by this, and I could use your help, ideally, if you are sure of your answers. Speculation won’t help me feel that I am doing the right thing. I am a convert. I am working on wearing my hijab. The more knowledge we have, the stronger our humility – this is so true – these days, I worry about what I will find out next because I know it will (El Hammdilallah!) present another beautiful challenge that tests my Iman.

    Here is my scenario. My husband was born into a Muslim family. In his household, some women wear hijab, others do not. Of course, those who never wear hijab know that this is haram, but my husband told me that women are permitted to go without hijab in their homes around their brothers-in-law. Now I am discovering, I believe, that this is not true. I chose to live with him and his brother because I want a family feeling in the household, not the separation customary of the U.S. To complicate the issue, there are two “brothers,” whom I consider like true brothers, but are not blood relatives to either of us, who regularly show up out of the blue and also stay the night. Up until now, I have always gone without hijab in the house because I did not know.

    Yesterday, it was 96 degrees in the house. I have a problem with heat that is not diagnosed, but can, at times, be quite serious – delerium, headaches. vomitting at times, but at best, severe exhaustion. To some extent, I can adapt, but especially after a day at work, it is quite daunting. Yesterday, when it was 98 degrees outside and 96 inside, I came home and one brother in Islam was in the house. I was not feeling well, and actually had to use ice for more than two hours to keep cool. This brother saw my struggle, but proceeded to comment that I should be wearing hijab because he was there. I felt badly because I am trying very hard to strengthen my Iman in a difficult environment (my husband has committed many serious errors that hurt). This brother is usually very inspiring. He knows I am trying to wear hijab. and I believe he could infer that at home, it would help to be able to recharge. I did my research and found that he is correct. The trouble is that he arrives whenever he wants to come, as does the other brother, without any notice at all, and often stays for several days, even though he lives a few miles a way because he enjoys the brotherhood with my husband and my husband’s brother. So, now it appears that, to be correct, I will not be able to cool down a bit, unless I stay in the bedroom. If this is the ruling, I have to follow, but I was wondering if anyone knew for sure. I would also like to know if there is exception for episodic heat-related illness. I feel sad because I felt I was making progress, and now I have guilt at home. So, since I was not feeling well, I asked my husband if I could stay with my female friend for a while. I don’t know what else to do. He has said that our brothers can come whenever they want and stay for as long as they want, and they do not need to let anyone know. I like their company, but being the only female in the house is tough as a convert trying to learn, especially since there are distractions.

    The same young man told me that it is okay for him to watch MTV music videos with half-naked women in compromising situations as much as he likes because he is able to resist sinful thoughts. He did not know, however, that he cannot date a woman unaccompanied by one of her family members. He is a convert, too, and trying to be better, but I think that he is wrong about this. According to my research, he is permitted one look at a woman who is not properly dressed, but not a second, unless the television program is informative or useful. I think it would be odd for the two of us to sit together (myself in my hijab) in the living room watching music videos. In any event, I am first responsible for doing the right thing. Unfortunately, the way the household is run makes it quite challenging.

    I feel discouraged because my husband does not even do his five prayers most of the time, and I feel that if he did, the sad events between us in the past would never have happened, and we could cultivate a much more condusive environment to strengthen both our Imans.

    I really need sister pen pals for so many reasons – very much isolated with the men, though I see my Muslim sisters at Halaquah on Wednesdays , El Hamm diliAllah! So, I welcome any advice and definitely encouragement. May Allah bless you for you generous ears (eyes 🙂 )!

    • Sarah said,

      I am sorry you are in such a stressful situation. These men are being quite unfair to you. You are entitled to feel comfortable in your own home and they should not be making you bend over backwards to allow them to be comfortable at such expense to your own comfort and well-being. I think you need to be a little assertive about this!

      My only other comment to you would be, just be careful how far you trust religious rulings. Do you really think the men who formulated Islamic fiqh can speak for God with 100% reliability? Isn’t it more likely God gave us all a bit of common sense and good rational faculties to work out for ourselves what is appropriate in a situation? Why trust another person’s authority to speak for God? I am concerned that if you overburden yourself as a convert with rulings that don’t make sense to you, you may one day get fed up of it and regret it. Better to follow what you truly understand to be right and not let someone else dictate that to you. Submitting one’s own rational faculties to external authority is what cults demand of their followers. Healthy religiosity should not be like that IMHO.

      All the best!

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