I was listening to Michael Savage on talk radio a few weeks ago, and he was talking about the veil as regards Muslim women. Of course, he condemned it, and called the people who have that custom, “Islamo-fascists.”
I don’t believe it’s really our place as Americans to be always telling people in other lands what is or is not an appropriate custom. Keep in mind that the veil, or hijab, comes in many different forms, in some cases covering only the hair, in others covering all but the eyes. Not all forms of the hijab, or veil, are equally offensive even to Americans. It may be that the veiling of women in a country like Afghanistan may be part of a larger problem of the repression of women. We don’t have to go along on that. But to condemn all forms of the hijab, or headdress, seems to me to be going a little too far.
What it really comes down to is not that the hijab is evil but that the repression of women is evil. The compulsion in a violent society to wear a headdress, forcing anonymity, under threat of death, is an evil. No one should fear for their lives just because they wear a conservative garment or not.
However, in some countries the opposite tendency is seen, not the condemnation of anyone who does not wear the hijab, but the prohibiting of wearing it in public places like schools. In Turkey the custom is to wear a scarf-like garment over the hair. What’s wrong with that? (A scarf over the hair in some Muslim nations is also called a “hijab.”) But the government there is a “lee-tle” afraid of expressions of religious commitment, so it bans the wearing of the hijab in schools and other public places. But what of the woman who wants to wear a scarf? In that case, the hijab is just the free-will expression of a woman’s religious heritage. It tells the world she is pure and a believer. Again, what’s wrong with that?
The veil is mentioned in the Bible in Genesis, chapter 24, verse 65. In the story, Isaac sent back to his relatives in Haran (a town) for a wife. He sent a servant who made the journey and found Rebekah and brought her home to Isaac to marry. The passage (Gen. 24:62-67) reads as follows:
“Now Isaac had come from going to Beer-lahai-roi, for he was living in the Negev. Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening, and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, camels were coming. Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from the camel. She said to the servant, ‘Who is that man walking in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said, ‘He is my master.’ Then she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her; thus Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
Judging, from this passage at least, it may be that at one time the veil was just a form of modesty and sexual etiquette. If not that, at least we know that it was a very early Hebrew custom.
But it was a Christian custom at one time, too. In Clement of Alexandria’s [A.D. 153-217?] “The Paedagogus,” or “The Instructor,” Clement writes his book for the new Christian. In it he speaks of dress and says the following:
“As, then, in the fashioning of our clothes, we must keep clear of all strangeness, so in the use of them we must beware of extravagance. For neither is it seemly for the clothes to be above the knee, as they say was the case with the Lacedaemonian virgins; nor is it becoming for any part of a woman to be exposed. Though you may with great propriety use the language addressed to him who said, ‘Your arm is beautiful; yes, but it is not for the public gaze. Your thighs are beautiful; but, was the reply, for my husband alone. And your face is comely. Yes, but only for him who has married me.’ But I do not wish chaste women to afford cause for such praises to those who, by praises, hunt after grounds for censure; and not only because it is prohibited to expose the ankle, but because it has also been
enjoined that the head should be veiled and the face covered; for it is a wicked thing for beauty to be a snare to men.” (1)
Maybe not always such a wicked thing. Even so, some might legitimately argue that nothing is even contemplated here about shielding the women.
In any case, at least now we know that the veil was worn by early Christians in Egypt, where Clement of Alexandria lived.
Why do I mention all of this? Because I think it would be good for us Americans to see the veil or the hijab as more of a custom, albeit a custom preserved in a specific religious culture. To generalize, and say that all women who wear the hijab are victims of extremism is just not true. And we should learn more how to appreciate it when we see it, than automatically associate it with terrorism. If the ancient Hebrews did it, and also ancient Christians did it, then maybe it’s not such a manifest evil after all. It’s something we can accept (at times), condemn (at others) or even learn from.
(1) “The Instructor” by Clement of Alexandria, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers set from Hendrickson, vol. 2, p. 266. Found in chapter XI – “On Clothes” towards the end of the chapter.