Reflections: The ‘Hijab’ and the ‘Muslim Woman’

hijab

Introduction:

Josefina’s Story

Josefina was a devout Christian and an ordained minister within the Christian Church. At her ordination ceremony, Josefina made a conscious decision to wear the clerical collar as a symbol of her Christian faith and identity but to her surprise many did not support her decision to express her faith in this particular manner for they posited that such an action would offend those who did not belong to her faith. Josefina’s entire problem started when Josefina began wearing her clerical collar to work after her ordination service. As Josefina wore her clerical collar to work every day she began to notice how many people – even her friends – began to look at her in unpleasant ways. These unpleasant stares often accompanied with negative chitter chatter (gossip) concerning her collar lasted for months. Josefina never thought that the gossip would end in her workplace. As she entered her workplace and traveled through the dark and judgmental hallways, it seemed as if Josefina was walking the walk of shame with all eyes on her because she decided to wear the clerical collar to work.

As Josefina traveled through the dreadful hallways at her work it seemed as if the walls negatively whispered of the white band that she put around her neck every morning as a demonstration of her Christian devotion and identity. After these reasonably long months in her workplace, the whispers finally got so loud that the boss of her company finally approached her and said, “Josefina, you are a wonderful woman of great faith but for the sake of your colleagues I must ask that you remove your clerical collar when you come to work!” Perplexed at such a request, Josefina asked her boss, “Why should I take off my clerical collar?” in response to her question her boss responded, “Josefina, wearing the clerical collar is actually disrespectful to those in the workplace who do not share your faith. Also, wearing your clerical collar might make many uncomfortable. Josefina, in this workplace we do not want to mix your private affairs concerning your religious with the workplace.”

After hearing her bosses’ response, Josefina thought herself and responded, “I am sorry but my religious decisions (as you say) is not simply a private matter. You see my faith is a very formative part my identity, that is, to know me is to know that I am first and foremost a Christian – my faith simply cannot be a private matter because it forms part of who I am. Secondly, what makes my decision to wear the clerical collar any different than that Muslim woman who chooses to wear the headscarf in the cubicle across from me? Shouldn’t she take off her headscarf as well?” After listening to Josefina’s question the boss thought to herself…

  Posing the Question

As our world grows smaller and smaller due to globalization – however one may define it – it is crucial for different people from different context to learn the life language of their religious language. This is particularly an important task for the entire world because learning the life language of those who are different (in all aspects of their person) can contribute greatly to a more peaceful world that is inclusive of all persons despite their differences. Like Josefina, many Muslims raise the same question when it comes to wearing the veil in public – especially in non-Muslim countries. Thus, in writing this brief reflection, I plan to address the topic of Muslim headdress from a Christian perspective.

The questions that I will seek to answer by the end of this reflection are these questions: How should Christians respond to laws that set out to ban the Muslim veil in public? Should Christians support such laws that ban Muslim women from wearing the veil in public? Should Christians take a mediating position concerning the use of the veil in public? Or Should Christians support the right of Muslim women to wear the veil in public?

In this reflection, I will seek to positively answer these questions in the affirmative. I will postulate that Christians have a moral responsibility to support Muslim women by rejecting laws that prevent them from wearing the veil in public. In light of all that has been said above, the first portion of this reflection will seek to briefly highlight what the veil means in Islamic thought while the last portion of this reflection I will seek to give a Christian response to the issue.

The Veil and Islam

”Imran bin Husain said: The Prophet said, “Haya’ (pious shyness from committing religious indiscretions) does not bring anything except good.” Thereupon Bashir bin Ka`b said, ‘It is written in the wisdom paper: Haya’ leads to solemnity; Haya’ leads to tranquility (peace of mind).” `Imran said to him, “I am narrating to you the saying of Allah’s Messenger and you are speaking about your paper (wisdom book)?’”[1]

The Veil in the Context of Muslim Modesty  

In order to answer this question concerning the Islamic practice of veiling, we must first set out to place our discussion of the veil within a larger framework that concerns itself with correct dress (or modesty). As Evelyne Reisacher puts it: “The virtue of modesty informs the way Muslims dress, but also how they view life more generally, especially between men and women.”[2] In dialoguing with Muslims about the veil we are indirectly engaging the larger theme of modesty within the Islamic faith, namely, a theme that concerns itself with a modest lifestyle for Muslim men and women.

The profound importance placed on modesty in the Islamic faith can be seen in the many Hadith traditions. For example, in the Hadith collection concerning ‘belief’ the traditionist Bukhari records that the Prophets comments on modesty. Bukhari records, “The Prophet said, ‘Faith (Belief) consists of more than sixty branches (i.e. parts). And Haya (This term “Haya” covers a large number of concepts which are to be taken together; amongst them are self-respect, modesty, bashfulness, and scruple, etc.) is a part of faith.’”[3] Another comment recorded by the traditionalist concerning modesty and can be seen in the chapter on manners (Al-Adab) it is commented that: “The Prophet passed by a man who was admonishing his brother regarding Haya’ (pious shyness from committing religious indiscretions) and was saying, “you are very shy, and I am afraid that might harm you.’ On that, Allah’s Messenger said, “Leave him, for Haya’ is (a part) of Faith.’”[4]

From these Hadith collections, as wells as, the Qur’anic text (Surah 28:23-28; 24:31; 33:39) one learns that modesty plays a huge role in the Islamic faith. As shown in the paragraph above, modesty is an ingredient to the Muslim’s understanding of faith. As one hadith comments: Ibn ‘Umar said, “Modesty and belief are together. If one of them is removed, the other is removed.”[5] Consequently, dialoguing with Muslims about the veil belongs to a greater discussion of the term modesty as understood within the Islamic framework. Concerning the veil, there are two texts in the Qur’an that Muslims reference with respects to the veil. However, there is no consensus concerning how these texts should be interpreted within the religious community. The Qur’anic texts are Surah 24:31 and Surah 33:59. Surah 24:31 reads:

“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 (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! Turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.” [6]

Also, in Surah 33:59 we find these words:

“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [7]

While modesty is the general idea driving the texts that have to do with the veiling of women (Surah 24:31 and Surah 33:59), there is no consensus among Muslims about the application of these verses in the present. Strict readings of the Qur’anic verses above take the verses above quite literally. These strict interpretations of the texts above argue that the veil is something  required for all Muslim women. From this perspective (and more stricter interpretation along these lines), when the Qur’an advises women “that they (women) should draw veils over their bosoms and not display the beauty except to their husbands, their fathers…” the Qur’an is speaking to every culture throughout time. More simply, these interpretation of the texts would suggest that the Qur’anic verses above are universal commands given to women of all generations.[8] On the other hand, other Muslim interpreters argue that the passages presented in the Qur’an are culturally bound. These interpreters argue that the texts above need to be presented in light of the larger cultural framework.

By doing so, many Qur’anic interpreters instruct us that the veil was not something invented by Islam, rather veiling of women was already as custom that was being practiced within many regions of the world. From ancient times (before the coming of Islam) many Christians in the first century veiled for the Eastern the practice of veiling was a symbol of respectable dress for Eastern women.[9] Nevertheless while veiling was practiced by many Christians and Jews, “first century Arabian women did not practice wearing the veil until the wives of Prophet Muhammad’s began wearing the veil.”[10] While in some contexts the veil was associated with upper-class privilege and honor, for example “under Assyrian law, low class women, slaves and prostitutes were forbidden to veil as ‘honorable women’ women, and were severely beaten if caught outdoors in a veil.”[11]

In many other contexts like those of the Jewish and Christian contexts, the practice of veiling had everything to do with modesty. According to these interpreters of the Qur’anic texts the above verses concerning veiling (Surah 24:31; 33:59) appear to emerge in a context where women let their head dress flow behind their shoulders leaving their breast on display. “Thus, the overall atmosphere of the Qur’anic verses seek to provide rule for ethics and social conduct.”[12] Commenting on the veil, Muslim commentators of this perspective understand the text to be expounding the general principle of modesty. As Amina Wadud comments, “The principle of modesty is important – not the veiling and seclusion which where manifestations particular to the context. These were culturally and economically determined demonstrations of modesty.”[13]

In summary of the paragraphs above, I conclude that the veil has generally been assumed to be a sign of modesty. In contrast to what some may think concerning the Islamic veil – generally some see the veil as a sign of oppression – the Muslim community understands the veil generally in terms of modesty. While, in daily Muslims affairs these two camps of interpretation have differing implications for the Muslim woman – the stricter interpretation of the veil requires that the Muslim women wear the veil while the more cultural interpretation of the veil does not – the  overarching principle is modest dress. Thus, the practice of   “covering is a form of protection, maintenance of chastity, and aid in the avoidance of negative temptations in society for women and men alike. When women cover, they provide dimensions of moral character and dignity, not only for themselves, but also for society.”[14]

The Veil in Non-Muslim Societies

Europe’s Restricting of the Veil

Recently, the Muslim veil has been a source of great contention particularly between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe. The contention over the Muslim veil has given rise to intense debate due to the many laws that have been passed in Europe that ban Muslim women from wearing the veil in public. Currently, countries, such as, France, Belgium, Spain, Britain, Holland, Turkey, Italy, Denmark, Germany, Russia, and Switzerland prevent Muslim women from wearing the veil in some way or form – some countries are less stricter in their veiling policies than other countries. For example, France a European country that is home to what is thought to be about five million Muslims has banned both the full-face veil and the headscarf (with the exception of French universities).[15] The penalty for violating these bans results in a 150 euro fine as well as instruction classes on citizenship.[16] Even more, “anyone found forcing a woman to cover her face risks a 30,000 euro fine.”[17]

On the other hand, unlike France the country of Spain has no national law banning the use of the veil, however, in some places like Barcelona the full-face veil is banned in some public places.[18] These European countries posit that the banning of the veil is based upon security concerns – they argue that the veil obscures the identity persons. Even more, some opponents of wearing the veil in public argue that it is a symbol of retardation and of women’s backwardness and subjugation.[19]

The Veil: An Assertion of Muslim Identity

In response to the ban (or restrictions) placed on Muslims in these European countries the veil in the context of Islam has taken on a deeper message that stretches beyond its basic meaning within the Muslim matrix of modesty. In more recent times, the practice of veiling has become for many a revolutionary symbol for Muslims who seek to protest against ideologies that run up against Muslims values and the Muslim way of life. This practice of veiling in Muslim communities – along with modesty – is representative of the Muslim assertion of their identities in a society where they feel that Muslim values are being challenged. Many of these restrictive policies have ‘outraged’ the Muslim communities because many Muslim individuals contend that the ‘banning’ laws – laws that seek to unveil Muslim women – are profoundly discriminatory; laws that ban the veil are in direct violation to the religious liberties of Muslim persons. Such policies – as it is argued by Muslims – is a fundamental blow to Muslim identity – despite the lack of consensus concerning the requirements of the veil.

In defense of the veil’s usage, Muslim communities argue that wearing the veil does not represent subjugation or backwardness, rather the Islamic veil “represents the victory of Islamic ideas and the regression of other ideologies. It signifies, among other things, that first, Muslim women should not imitate non-Muslim women, second, that Muslim glory was concomitant with the veiling of women and that therefore Muslim women should be veiled, and finally, that the hijab (the veil) prevents women from mixing with men, thus protecting the sanctity of the family by prohibiting promiscuity.”[20] More simply, the veil (as noted above) for the Muslim woman acts as an identity marker that distinguishes her from the entire non-Muslim world. For example, in a conversation with one of my Muslims friends she commented me:

“Why do I choose to wear a headscarf? I get that question a lot and there are many reasons but the one reason that encompasses all of the reasons I choose to veil myself is simply because I have the desire to please God. This is my way of getting close to God, it gives me strength, it is a part of my identity, it guards me, and last but not least it helps me fulfill one of my duties as a Muslim woman. Like Nuns that choose to dress in a certain way, like pastors that choose to dress in a certain way, like the Rabbis that choose to dress in a certain way, like the Hindus choose to dress in a certain way, and like Buddhist monks that choose to dress in a certain way; this is my way of following my religion and I believe that it is a human right to choose to follow which ever religion that one has deep rooted convictions in. I respect everyone previously mentioned and everyone in general, my hope is that just like I have unrelenting respect and unrelenting tolerance to people of all religions and of all backgrounds that choose to wear certain items of clothing that symbolize the religion that they follow; I expect to be treated in the same way.” [21]

Thus, “to understand the obsession with the hijab (veil) issue one must view dress (in Islam) as a coded message that reflects political and ideological choices.”[22]

Should Christians Support Laws That Ban Veil’s in Public

Josefina’s Conundrum and the Christian Response: A Missional Hermeneutic

Obviously, Josefina’s issue is reflective of the many Muslims who raise these questions concerning the veil in non-Muslim countries. Nevertheless, Josefina’s conundrum illustrates that the question of the veil in many non-Muslim countries is not fundamentally a question veiling, rather it is a question that extends deeper into the heart one’s religious liberty – a freedom that allows for a person to be a religious person. As BBC article reports, “The veil issue is part of a wider debate about multiculturalism in Europe, as many politicians argue that there needs to be a greater effort to integrate ethnic and religious minorities” without destroying their particularity.[23]

How then should Christians respond to laws that ban the use of the veil in public? I posit that Christians should reject laws that ban the veil in public because these laws are essentially discriminatory laws that are driven by tremendous amounts of fear and ignorance towards the Muslim community. Such laws prohibiting the use of the veil in public are mostly based upon the prejudiced assumption that all Muslims are terrorists – something which is so far from the truth. Even more, our prejudices against Muslims are fueled often by western portrayals of Islam that demonizes Muslims and the Muslim faith – portrayals of Islam that are inherently xenophobic. Often supporters of such laws suggest that these laws exist for security purposes – they ask, “How do we protect our citizens from persons who we cannot identify (in response to the Muslim headdress)” – however, other gendered respectable options can be explored (options that maintain the respect of Muslim persons).  Even more, supporters of the ban argue that laws put in place are to protect citizens, but are not Muslims in these countries citizens as well (do they not need protection under the law)? In a Christian news article one writer comments: “The laws passed across Europe that forbid women from covering their faces in public are said to be based on security concerns. Many Westerners’ reactions to Muslims are heavily influenced by the September 11 attacks and other horrific acts of terrorism. Thus, any symbols relating to Islam arouse our deep fears. But the face veil is neither a symbol of violence nor of terror.”[24]

Christians must seek to defend the religious liberty of Muslims, for defending these liberties of Muslims is deeply interconnected to our own religious liberties as Christian persons. Christian liberty is also rooted in the passage which is commonly known as the golden rule. “Christian commitment to religious liberty is rooted in Jesus’ teaching, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Luke 6:31).”  If we (Christians) desire for our liberties to be respected by the Muslim community then we must seek to respect their religious liberties as well.

Nevertheless, even if there is no reciprocation on the part of the Muslim community “Christians must remember the words that come immediately after the golden rule where it says, ‘Do good… expecting nothing in return (6:35). We must defend liberty for others – in this case the Muslims – whether or not they reciprocate. Christians should set a moral example for the world, not wait for others to lead.’”[25] In supporting Muslim, Christians open the door to greater dialogue, trustworthiness and cooperation between Muslim and Christians persons. Supporting Muslims women, bears testimony to Muslims and to the world that amidst our clear differences there can still emerge an environment of peace, love, equality and justice – things that Christians believe to be essential to our understanding of the Scriptures.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I posit that Christians have a moral responsibility to support Muslim women by rejecting laws that prevent them from wearing the veil in public. Supporting laws that prohibit Muslim religious liberty is profoundly discriminatory and it runs contrary to our Christian belief. As one Christian article comments:

“Jesus showcased love – even love of enemy – as the central virtue of his kingdom, and therefore consistently defended society’s most despised: women, lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Shouldn’t we who claim to follow him do our utmost to build bridges of love and trust with fellow citizens who feel beleaguered today? It seems to me that this call would mean opposing the burqa-ban law. Other solutions may be found to resolve legitimate security issues.”[26]

As followers of Jesus, may we hold fast to the words of Jesus and may his life form the foundation of our Christian ethics in this present society.

[1] Bukhari, book 8, chapter 73, section 138

[2] Albani, book 56, Section 1313

[3] Bukhari, book 2, chapter 2, section 9

[4] Bukhari, book 8, chapter 73, section 139

[5] Bukhari, book 8, chapter 73, section 138

[6] Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Qurʼan Translation. Elmhurst, N.Y.: Tahrike Tarsile Qurʼan, 2001. <http://www.credoreference.com/book/quran&gt;. Surah 24:31

[7] Ibid. Surah 33:59.

[8] http://www.al-islam.org/a-new-perspective-women-islam-fatma-saleh-moustafa-al-qazwini/chapter-4-hijab-veiling

[9] Mallouhi, Christine A. Miniskirts, Mothers & Muslims: A Christian Woman in a Muslim Land. Oxford: Monarch, 2004. 63-64

[10] Ibid. 63-64

[11] Ibid. 63-64

[12] Kruschwitz, Robert B. Christianity and Islam. Waco, TX: Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2005.

[13] Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 10.

[14] http://www.al-islam.org/a-new-perspective-women-islam-fatma-saleh-moustafa-al-qazwini/chapter-4-hijab-veiling

[15] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13038095: The Islamic Veil Across Europe

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sherif, Mostafa Hashem. What Is Ḥijāb? Hartford, Conn: Hartford Seminary, 1987. 151

[20] Ibid. 151-152

[21] Mardini, Najwa.  (I had the opportunity to speak with an American Muslim  about the issue)

[22] Sherif. 153-154

[23] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13038095: The Islamic Veil Across Europe

[24] Henry, Carl F. H. Christianity Today. Carol Stream, Ill. [etc.]: Christianity Today International, 1956. November 2010: Should Christians support laws that ban Muslim women from wearing the face veil in public?

[25] Ibid. November 2010

[26] Ibid. November 2010

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