Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | June 3, 2007

What’s Wrong with the Hijab?

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.

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Responses

  1. Of course, the hijab is a custom, rather than a religious imperative. In ancient times, women wore veils for the same reasons men wore yarmulkas and brimmed hats. In most cases, the veil was not worn to hide a woman’s ‘enticements to sin’. Today, the hijab requirement is just another way for Muslim men in many Islamic states to avoid taking responsibility for their own choices. If a woman shows her face or hair and is raped, it is not the rapist’s fault, but hers. Similarly, if a woman is unchaperoned by her father or brother and is raped, it is not the rapist’s fault again. The hijab is an essential ingredient in the mechanism of repression because it denies a woman the right to be seen as an individual, just as the army shaves men’s heads and puts them in identical uniforms to take away their sense of individuality. It is much easier to mistreat and deny basic rights to faceless people because they’re not perceived as individuals. The Nazis practiced the same tactic in the camps when they stripped and shaved the heads of all the women before gassing them. There is no justification, religiously or culturally, to force women to cover themselves under threat of severe punishment. It is archaic, mysogynistic behavior.

    • But if a woman wishes to wear a scarf or headdress that does not totally destroy her own individuality, what can be said about that? Should we try to stop her?

      There is a difference between opposing the oppression of women and opposing Islam.

      Of course, I can hardly think of an instance where I would approve of the wearing of the full burkha. It seems to me that those who wear the burkha effectively (for the rest of us) cease to be a human being.

      And, I agree, that’s exactly what the Taliban wants. They oppose the freedom of women. They’re blowing up girls’ schools in Pakistan right this minute. They oppose the right of women to take part in determining their own futures.

      Still, I would not say that I am against the hijab in all cases. And I would resist the temptation to see all women who wear the hijab as some kind of dupes of the terrorists.

  2. Unfortunately, the hijab has taken on symbolic status, far beyond its original meaning and intent. Many women who willingly wear a burkha do so because they sincerely believe it is the holy thing to do. It’s not. It has zero to do with the Qur’an. It is a rule that was inflicted on women by bearded old clerics who sought to control every aspect of their community’s behavior in order to solidify their power and influence. The same kind of behavioral manipulation and thought control goes on in cults. So, the question is, do you free women from this practice even if they don’t see it as a form of oppression? I think you do. You just have to make sure you’re not simply replacing an old form of repression with a new one. Ultimately, women as a class of people would benefit from the elimination of the hijab and, especially, the burkha because it would send a strong signal to Muslim men.

  3. I appreciate the concern over Muslim men’s attitudes towards women (though I admit I don’t have any personal knowledge of Muslim misogyny). I just don’t think you can throw everything into one basket like this.

    This is why I wrote this post in the first place – because I don’t like the idea that Americans are going to somehow “storm” Muslim countries with our notions of what is right and wrong. Do we have any self-awareness at all? Don’t we realize that many of the things we do are probably highly offensive to people in other countries? Could it be that those things are part of the reason we are hated sometimes in Muslim countries?

    I’m not supporting censorship or anything of the kind – but I confess I feel ashamed sometimes in the theater at the thought of what people in other countries must think about what is being watched. That’s just self-awareness. You can’t legislate awareness. By definition, self-awareness is self-imposed.

    And I would support, I admit, talks with leaders of Muslim countries about the hijab, in countries where the hijab is part of the oppression of women. I would anticipate the need in many Muslim countries for a discussion of the rights of women in general – especially their right to education – and for more say in determining their own “futures”. We need to lift up the status of women in many of these countries; and it is imperative that we do so, not only for their sake, but even for the sake of the planet.

    But I also think there is a time and a place for religious expression – even the hijab.

  4. The very morning after I wrote the above reply, I was listening to NPR and heard a report of Congressman Judy Biggert’s visit to Afghanistan. One of her meetings was with a group of women. As they were talking, one of the women removed her burkha revealing bruises on her body. When a man reentered the room, they had been all women up until that point, the woman put her burkha on again.

    This is what johnrj08 is refering to when he says Muslim men who support the hijab are “misogynistic.” What the burkha and some of the other forms of hijab coverings can do is hide violence done to women. Marital rape I believe is as much an evil as acquaintance rape or rape by strangers. On top of this there was some report that in Afghanistan they want to make it a law that a woman cannot refuse her husband sex if he demands it.

    Knowing what I know now, I would agree we need to be more aggressive in our approach.

    I’m not the world’s most confrontive type of person, but I do think Americans’ frankness and straightforwardness in telling other people what we think is an asset that many other nations do not have. I just wish we could do it in a balanced and self-aware way. And I would also like to hold out a little respect for a religion which includes many nations of the earth, and – over a billion people, who in many ways are a blessing and a bastion of good.

    Learning to discern where that blessing ends and where man’s evil begins is something we should all be trying to do.


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