Head covering and the freedom of religion
1/2/2004 - Religious Social - Article Ref: IC0301-2178
A number of European countries are instigating laws to ban or restrict the
wearing of the Muslim headscarf. Such legislation questions the foundations
of tolerance and equality in societies that champion pluralism and freedom of religion.
France is currently considering an outright ban on the wearing of veils in schools,
while in Germany,two states have proposed legislation which would also bar the scarf
from educational institutions.
This article address the issue of Hijab, the modesty of covering the head by Muslim
Women, and also the Judaeo-Christian tradition of veil and head covering.
The Hijab and Veil?
Some in the west consider the modesty of head covering practiced by Muslim women as
the greatest symbol of women's oppression and servitude. Is it true that there is
no similar custom in the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Let us set the record straight.
According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical Literature at
Yeshiva University) in his book, The Jewish woman in Rabbinic literature, it was the
custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which, sometimes, even
covered the whole face leaving one eye free. 76 He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis
saying," It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered" and
"Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen...a woman who exposes her
hair for self-adornment brings poverty." Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of
blessings or prayers in the presence of a bareheaded married woman since uncovering
the woman's hair is considered "nudity". 77 Dr. Brayer also mentions that "During the
Tannaitic period the Jewish woman's failure to cover her head was considered
an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred
zuzim for this offense." Dr. Brayer also explains that veil of the Jewish woman was not
always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the veil symbolized a state of
distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The veil personified the dignity and
superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman's inaccessibility as a
sanctified possession of her husband. 78
The veil signified a woman's self-respect and social status. Women of lower classes
would often wear the veil to give the impression of a higher standing. The fact
that the veil was the sign of nobility was the reason why prostitutes were not
permitted to cover their hair in the old Jewish society.
However, prostitutes often wore a special headscarf in order to look respectable.
79 Jewish women in Europe continued to wear veils until the nineteenth century when
their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular culture.
The external pressures of the European life in the nineteenth century forced many of
them to go out bare-headed. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their
traditional veil with a wig as another form of hair covering. Today,most pious Jewish
women do not cover their hair except in the synagogue. 80 Some of them, such as the
Hasidic sects, still use the wig. 81
What about the Christian tradition? It is well known that Catholic Nuns have been
covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that is not all. St. Paul in the
New Testament made some very interesting statements about the veil:
"Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of
the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies
with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies
with her head uncovered dishonors her head - it is just as though her head were shaved.
If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off;and if it is a
disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head.
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman
is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was
man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels,
the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head" (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
St. Paul's rationale for veiling women is that the veil represents a sign of the
authority of the man,who is the image and glory of God, over the woman who was
created from and for man.
St. Tertullian in his famous treatise 'On The Veiling Of Virgins' wrote, "Young women,
you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you wear
them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers...
" Among the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a law that
requires women to cover their heads in church. 82 Some Christian denominations, such as
the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their women veiled to the present day.
The reason for the veil, as offered by their Church leaders, is that "The head covering
is a symbol of woman's subjection to the man and to God", which is the same logic
introduced by St. Paul in the New Testament. 83
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam did not invent the head cover.
However,Islam did endorse it. The Quran urges the believing men and women to lower
their gaze and guard their modesty and then urges the believing women to extend their
head covers to cover the neck and the bosom:
"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty..
.And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their
modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily
appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms..." (Quran 24:30,31).
The Quran is quite clear that the veil is essential for modesty, but why is modesty
important? The Quran is still clear:
"O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast
their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not
molested" (Quran 33:59).
This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation or simply,
modesty is protection. Thus, the only purpose of the hijab in Islam is protection.
The hijab, unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man's authority
over woman nor is it a sign of woman's subjection to man. The hijab, unlike the veil in
the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married women.
In Islam the hijab is a sign of modesty which safeguards the personal integrity of women.
The Quran strongly emphasizes the protection of women's reputation and condemns men to be
severely punished if they falsely accuse a woman of unchastity:
"And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses
(to support their allegations)- Flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence
ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors" (Quran 24:4)
Some people, especially in the West, would tend to ridicule the whole argument of modesty
for protection. Their argument is that the best protection is the spread of education,
civilized behavior,and self restraint. We would say: fine but not enough.
If 'civilization'is enough protection,then why is it that women in North America dare
not walk alone in a dark street - or even across an empty parking lot ?
If education is the solution, then why is it that our universities have
a 'walk home service' mainly for female students on campus? If self restraint
is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace
reported on the news media every day? A sample of those accused of sexual
harassment,in the last few years, includes: Navy officers, Managers,
University professors, Senators,Supreme Court Justices, and
the President of the United States!
Following are some statistics, published in a pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women's
office at Queen's University Canada:
In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes,
1 in 3 women in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some time in their lives,
1 in 4 women are at the risk of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime,
1 in 8 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college or university, and
A study found 60% of Canadian university-aged males said they would commit sexual
assault if they were certain they wouldn't get caught.
To combat the violation of women a radical change in the society's life style and
culture is absolutely necessary. A culture of modesty is desperately needed, modesty
in dress, in speech, and in manners of both men and women, otherwise, the grim
statistics are likely to increase and unfortunately, women alone will be paying the price.
Actually, we all suffer but as K. Gibran has said, "...for the person who receives
the blows is not like the one who counts them." 84
A society like France which expels young women from schools because of their modest
dress is,in the end, simply harming itself.
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf
revered as a sign of 'holiness' when worn by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of
'oppression' when worn for the purpose of modesty and protection by Muslim women.
The above article is adapted from "Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian
Tradition - The Myth and The Reality" by Dr. Sherif Abdel Azim of Queens University,
Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
76. Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A Psychosocial
Perspective (Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House, 1986) p. 239.
77. Ibid., pp. 316-317. Also see Swidler, op. cit., pp. 121-123.
78. Ibid., p. 139.
79. Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) p. 237.
80. Ibid., pp. 238-239.
81. Alexandra Wright, "Judaism", in Holm and Bowker, ed., op. cit., pp. 128-129
82. Clara M. Henning, "Cannon Law and the Battle of the Sexes" in Rosemary R. Ruether,
ed.,Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) p. 272
83. Donald B. Kraybill, The riddle of the Amish Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1989) p. 56.
84. Khalil Gibran, Thoughts and Meditations (New York: Bantam Books, 1960) p. 28.
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