Is There an Opinion that a Woman Can Reveal Her Forearms?
According to the Hanafi school, a woman in the presence of unrelated men must cover her entire body — with the exception of her face, hands and feet — in loose, appropriate clothing. This is the dominant position of the school.
However, there is a narration according to which Abu Yusuf did not consider the forearms to be from a woman’s nakedness (`awra), since the forearms are normally exposed when doing certain tasks with the hands. This narration can be used only in situations of genuine need, namely, tasks that pose undue hardship if undertaken with the forearms covered. Examples include domestic help when doing certain household chores, or medical staff if regulations do not allow covering the forearms.
Yet even in such cases of need, one should strive to follow the dominant opinion. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The woman’s entire body must be covered” [Sunan Tirmidhi] — that is to say, except for the exceptions, which according to the Hanafi school are her face, hands and feet.
The Basis and Wisdom of Covering
Before addressing the legal limits of covering, it is important to keep in mind that as a general principle, the basis of issues related to covering is caution. Indeed, modesty (haya’) is not only a part of the religion, but according to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), it is a branch of faith itself. [Bukhari, Muslim]
He (peace and blessings be upon him) also said, “Every religion has a quintessential trait, and that the quintessential trait of Islam is modesty.” [Muwatta’]
And once when asked if modesty was in fact a part of the religion, he replied, “Nay, rather it is the entire religion — all of it.” [Bayhaqi, Shu’ab al-Iman]
This is truly profound, as it teaches us that the foundation of our entire religious practice is modesty, which at its essence refers to modesty before the Divine Himself. Our true shame is to disobey the All-seeing and All-hearing — we obey Him out of modesty before His majesty, and we seek to cover ourselves and dress appropriately so as not to be ashamed before His sight.
The Prophetic Way of Promoting the Good
It is also important to preface the legal discussion of covering with a reminder that the way of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) in promoting any good is predicated upon gentleness and wisdom.
As Allah Himself declares in the Qur’an, “It is only by a vast mercy from Allah that you were gentle with them: had you been harsh and hardhearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you.” (3:159)
Even when dealing with Pharoah — the worst of tyrants — the prophets Musa and Haroon (peace and blessings be upon them) were commanded by Allah to speak to him gently. (20:44) Surely our brothers and sisters in faith deserve the utmost respect and gentleness when being addressed, even if they are doing something wrong.
The Obligation of Covering
With respect to legal limits, the relied-upon position in the Hanafi school is that the woman’s entire body — aside from her face, hands and feet — is from her `awra and hence must be covered in front of unrelated men. There is some difference of opinion within the school regarding feet, as some jurists considered them as from the `awra. Although this is not the dominant position of the school, it is not a weak position either, and so the way of caution and greater taqwa is to cover the feet as well. [Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar]
The basis of this ruling is Allah’s statement, “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to not display of their adornment except that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands…” (24:31) The verse continues to list other people to whom she may reveal her adornment.
Imam Kasani explains that what is meant by “adornment” is the places of adornment on a woman’s body, and the places that have “apparent adornment” were understood by Abu Hanifa to be the face and hands. This is also reported to be the interpretation of certain Companions, including Ibn Abbas and Ibn Umar (Allah be well-pleased with them). There is also a rational basis for this exception, in that a woman often needs to reveal her face and hands in public, such as when in the market, so as to buy and sell, and to give and take items or money. [Kasani, Bada’i al-Sana’i; Zayla`i, Tabyin al-Haqa’iq]
The Narration of Abu Yusuf
There is a narration in which Abu Yusuf did not consider the forearms to be from the woman’s `awra, since the forearms are often exposed when doing certain chores. This opinion was given preference by certain Hanafi jurists, such as Imam Mawsili in the Ikhtiyar. [Ibn Nujaym, Bahr al-Ra’iq; Zayla`i, Tabyin al-Haqa’iq; Ibn Humam, Fath al-Qadir]
Some later scholars mention this opinion as an exemption for women whose work customarily entails exposing the forearms. For example, the 20th century Hanafi jurist of Damascus, Imam Khalil Nahlawi, states after mentioning the dominant opinion (explained above), “It is said that a man may also look at a woman’s feet, forearms and elbows if she is hired to bake bread or for similar tasks like cooking or washing clothes, since those limbs are normally exposed when doing such work.” [Durar Mubaha fil Hazr wal Ibaha]
These texts are understood to mean that for situations in which the forearms are normally exposed due to the undue hardship of performing those tasks while keeping the forearms covered, the woman may uncover her forearms so as to perform those tasks. That is, this ruling can only be used for cases of genuine need, and once the need is fulfilled, she must recover her forearms.
Moreover, regardless of the woman’s work, she must cover her forearms during the prayer, as failing to do so would invalidate the prayer.
Finally, the permissibility for an unrelated man to look at a woman’s face, hands or feet — or forearms (in situations of genuine need) — is limited to his doing so without desire, since he may not look at her at all if coupled with desire.
As for the neck, I did not come across a narration of Abu Yusuf regarding it. It is part of a woman’s `awra in all situations.
And Allah knows best, and He alone gives success.
Answered By: Shaykh Faraz Rabbani