This 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.
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 19th century when their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of the European life in the 19th 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 dis-honors 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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.
- Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A Psychosocial Perspective (Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House, 1986) p. 239.
- Ibid., pp. 316-317. Also see Swidler, op. cit., pp. 121-123.
- Ibid., p. 139.
- Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) p. 237.
- Ibid., pp. 238-239.