15. The veil
Finally, let us shed some light on what is considered in the West as the greatest symbol of women’s oppression and servitude, the veil or the head cover. Is it true that there is no such thing as the veil 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 . 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” . 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 .
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 . 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 . Some of them, such as the Hasidic sects, still use the wig .
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 dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours 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 . 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 .
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....”
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”
This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation or simply, modesty is protection.
Thus, the only purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic veil, 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 Islamic veil, unlike the veil in the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married women.The Islamic veil is only a sign of modesty with the purpose of protecting women, all women. The Islamic philosophy is that it is always better to be safe than sorry. In fact, the Quran is so concerned with protecting women’s bodies and women’s reputation that a man who dares to falsely accuse a woman of unchastity will be severely punished:
“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”
Compare this strict Quranic attitude with the extremely lax punishment for rape in the Bible:
“ If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives” (Deut. 22:28-30)
One must ask a simple question here, who is really punished? The man who only paid a fine for rape, or the girl who is forced to marry the man who raped her and live with him until he dies? Another question that also should be asked is this: which is more protective of women, the Quranic strict attitude or the Biblical lax attitude?
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, civilised behaviour, 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 a respected university like Queen’s has 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! I could not believe my eyes when I read the following statistics, written in a pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women’s office at Queen’s University:
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.”
Something is fundamentally wrong in the society we live in. A radical change in the society’s life style and culture is absolutely necessary. A culture of modesty is badly needed, modesty in dress, in speech, and in manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will grow even worse day after day 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.”  Therefore, 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 for the purpose of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of ‘oppression’ when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women.
The one question all the non-Muslims, who had read an earlier version of this study, had in common was: do Muslim women in the Muslim world today receive this noble treatment described here ? The answer, unfortunately, is: No. Since this question is inevitable in any discussion concerning the status of women in Islam, we have to elaborate on the answer in order to provide the reader with the complete picture.
It has to be made clear first that the vast differences among Muslim societies make most generalizations too simplistic. There is a wide spectrum of attitudes towards women in the Muslim world today. These attitudes differ from one society to another and within each individual society. Nevertheless, certain general trends are discernible. Almost all Muslim societies have, to one degree or another, deviated from the ideals of Islam with respect to the status of women. These deviations have, for the most part, been in one of two opposite directions. The first direction is more conservative, restrictive, and traditions-oriented, while the second is more liberal and Western-oriented.
The societies that have digressed in the first direction treat women according to the customs and traditions inherited from their forebears. These traditions usually deprive women of many rights granted to them by Islam. Besides, women are treated according to standards far different from those applied to men. This discrimination pervades the life of any female: she is received with less joy at birth than a boy; she is less likely to go to school; she might be deprived any share of her family’s inheritance; she is under continuous surveillance in order not to behave immodestly while her brother’s immodest acts are tolerated; she might even be killed for committing what her male family members usually boast of doing; she has very little say in family affairs or community interests; she might not have full control over her property and her marriage gifts; and finally as a mother she herself would prefer to produce boys so that she can attain a higher status in her community.
On the other hand, there are Muslim societies (or certain classes within some societies) that have been swept over by the Western culture and way of life. These societies often imitate unthinkingly whatever they receive from the West and usually end up adopting the worst fruits of Western civilization. In these societies, a typical “modern” woman’s top priority in life is to enhance her physical beauty. Therefore, she is often obsessed with her body’s shape, size, and weight. She tends to care more about her body than her mind and more about her charms than her intellect. Her ability to charm, attract, and excite is more valued in the society than her educational achievements, intellectual pursuits, and social work. One is not expected to find a copy of the Quran in her purse since it is full of cosmetics that accompany her wherever she goes. Her spirituality has no room in a society preoccupied with her attractiveness. Therefore, she would spend her life striving more to realize her femininity than to fulfil her humanity.
Why did Muslim societies deviate from the ideals of Islam? There is no easy answer. A penetrating explanation of the reasons why Muslims have not adhered to the Quranic guidance with respect to women would be beyond the scope of this study. It has to be made clear, however, that Muslim societies have deviated from the Islamic precepts concerning so many aspects of their lives for so long. There is a wide gap between what Muslims are supposed to believe in and what they actually practise. This gap is not a recent phenomenon. It has been there for centuries and has been widening day after day. This ever widening gap has had disastrous consequences on the Muslim world manifested in almost all aspects of life: political tyranny and fragmentation, economic backwardness, social injustice, scientific bankruptcy, intellectual stagnation, etc. The non-Islamic status of women in the Muslim world today is merely a symptom of a deeper malady. Any reform in the current status of Muslim women is not expected to be fruitful if not accompanied with more comprehensive reforms of the Muslim societies’ whole way of life. The Muslim world is in need for a renaissance that will bring it closer to the ideals of Islam and not further from them. To sum up, the notion that the poor status of Muslim women today is because of Islam is an utter misconception. The problems of Muslims in general are not due to too much attachment to Islam, they are the culmination of a long and deep detachment from it.
It has, also, to be re-emphasized that the purpose behind this comparative study is not, by any means, to defame Judaism or Christianity. The position of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition might seem frightening by our late twentieth century standards. Nevertheless, it has to be viewed within the proper historical context. In other words, any objective assessment of the position of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition has to take into account the historical circumstances in which this tradition developed. There can be no doubt that the views of the Rabbis and the Church Fathers regarding women were influenced by the prevalent attitudes towards women in their societies. The Bible itself was written by different authors at different times. These authors could not have been impervious to the values and the way of life of the people around them. For example, the adultery laws of the Old Testament are so biased against women that they defy rational explanation by our mentality. However, if we consider the fact that the early Jewish tribes were obsessed with their genetic homogeneity and extremely eager to define themselves apart from the surrounding tribes and that only sexual misconduct by the married females of the tribes could threaten these cherished aspirations, we should then be able to understand, but not necessarily sympathize with, the reasons for this bias. Also, the diatribes of the Church Fathers against women should not be detached from the context of the misogynist Greco-Roman culture in which they lived. It would be unfair to evaluate the Judaeo-Christian legacy without giving any consideration to the relevant historical context.
In fact, a proper understanding of the Judaeo-Christian historical context is also crucial for understanding the significance of the contributions of Islam to world history and human civilization. The Judaeo-Christian tradition had been influenced and shaped by the environments, conditions, and cultures in which it had existed. By the seventh century C.E., this influence had distorted the original divine message revealed to Moses and Jesus beyond recognition. The poor status of women in the Judaeo-Christian world by the seventh century is just one case in point. Therefore, there was a great need for a new divine message that would guide humanity back to the straight path. The Quran described the mission of the new Messenger as a release for Jews and Christians from the heavy burdens that had been upon them:
“Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own Scriptures--In the Law and the Gospel-- For he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good and prohibits them from what is bad; He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them”
Therefore, Islam should not be viewed as a rival tradition to Judaism or Christianity. It has to be regarded as the consummation, completion, and perfection of the divine messages that had been revealed before it.
At the end of this study, I would like to offer the following advice to the global Muslim community. So many Muslim women have been denied their basic Islamic rights for so long. The mistakes of the past have to be corrected. To do that is not a favor, it is a duty incumbent upon all Muslims. The worldwide Muslim community have to issue a charter of Muslim women’s rights based on the instructions of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet of Islam. This charter must give Muslim women all the rights endowed to them by their Creator. Then, all the necessary means have to be developed in order to ensure the proper implementation of the charter. This charter is long overdue, but it is better late than never. If Muslims worldwide will not guarantee the full Islamic rights of their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, who else will ?
Furthermore, we must have the courage to confront our past and reject outright the traditions and customs of our forefathers whenever they contravene the precepts of Islam. Did the Quran not severely criticize the pagan Arabs for blindly following the traditions of their ancestors? On the other hand, we have to develop a critical attitude towards whatever we receive from the West or from any other culture. Interaction with and learning from other cultures is an invaluable experience. The Quran has succinctly considered this interaction as one of the purposes of creation: “ O mankind We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other” (49:13). It goes without saying, however, that blind imitation of others is a sure sign of an utter lack of self-esteem.
It is to the non-Muslim reader, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, that these final words are dedicated. It is bewildering why the religion that had revolutionized the status of women is being singled out and denigrated as so repressive of women. This perception about Islam is one of the most widespread myths in our world today. This myth is being perpetuated by a ceaseless barrage of sensational books, articles, media images, and Hollywood movies. The inevitable outcome of these incessant misleading images has been total misunderstanding and fear of anything related to Islam. This negative portrayal of Islam in the world media has to end if we are to live in a world free from all traces of discrimination, prejudice, and misunderstanding. Non-Muslims ought to realize the existence of a wide gap between Muslims’ beliefs and practices and the simple fact that the actions of Muslims do not necessarily represent Islam. To label the status of women in the Muslim world today as “Islamic” is as far from the truth as labelling the position of women in the West today as “Judaeo-Christian”. With this understanding in mind, Muslims and non-Muslims should start a process of communication and dialogue in order to remove all misconceptions, suspicions, and fears. A peaceful future for the human family necessitates such a dialogue.
Islam should be viewed as a religion that had immensely improved the status of women and had granted them many rights that the modern world has recognized only this century. Islam still has so much to offer today’s woman: dignity, respect, and protection in all aspects and all stages of her life from birth until death in addition to the recognition, the balance, and means for the fulfilment of all her spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional needs. No wonder most of those who choose to become Muslims in a country like Britain are women. In the U.S. women converts to Islam outnumber male converts 4 to 1 . Islam has so much to offer our world which is in great need of moral guidance and leadership. Ambassador Herman Eilts, in a testimony in front of the committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress on June 24th, 1985, said, “The Muslim community of the globe today is in the neighbourhood of one billion. That is an impressive figure. But what to me is equally impressive is that Islam today is the fastest growing monotheistic religion. This is something we have to take into account. Something is right about Islam. It is attracting a good many people.” Yes, something is right about Islam and it is time to find that out. I hope this study is a step on this direction.
1. The Globe and Mail, Oct. 4,1994.
2. Leonard J. Swidler, Women in Judaism: the Status of Women in Formative Judaism (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1976) p. 115.
3. Thena Kendath, “Memories of an Orthodox youth” in Susannah Heschel, ed. On being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), pp. 96-97.
4. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 80-81.
5. Rosemary R. Ruether, “Christianity”, in Arvind Sharma, ed., Women in World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987) p. 209.
6. For all the sayings of the prominent Saints, see Karen Armstrong, The Gospel According to Woman (London: Elm Tree Books, 1986) pp. 52-62. See also Nancy van Vuuren, The Subversion of Women as Practiced by Churches, Witch-Hunters, and Other Sexists (Philadelphia: Westminister Press) pp. 28-30.
7. Swidler, op. cit., p. 140.
8. Denise L. Carmody, “Judaism”, in Arvind Sharma, ed., op. cit., p. 197.
9. Swidler, op. cit., p. 137.
10. Ibid., p. 138.
11. Sally Priesand, Judaism and the New Woman (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1975) p. 24.
12. Swidler, op. cit., p. 115.
13. Lesley Hazleton, Israeli Women The Reality Behind the Myths (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977) p. 41.
14. Matilda J. Gage, Woman, Church, and State (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1893) p. 142.
15. Jeffrey H. Togay, “Adultery,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. II, col. 313. Also, see Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990) pp. 170-177.
16. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 41-42.
17. Swidler, op. cit., p. 141.
18. Gage, op. cit. p. 141.
19. Louis M. Epstein, The Jewish Marriage Contract (New York: Arno Press, 1973) p. 149.
20. Swidler, op. cit., p. 142.
21. Epstein, op. cit., pp. 164-165.
22. Ibid., pp. 112-113. See also Priesand, op. cit., p. 15.
23. James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) p. 88.
24. Ibid., p. 480.
25. R. Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974) p. 162.
26. Mary Murray, The Law of the Father (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 67.
27. Gage, op. cit., p. 143.
28. For example, see Jeffrey Lang, Struggling to Surrender, (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1994) p. 167.
29. Elsayyed Sabiq, Fiqh al Sunnah (Cairo: Darul Fatah lile’lam Al-Arabi, 11th edition, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 218-229.
30. Abdel-Haleem Abu Shuqqa, Tahreer al Mar’aa fi Asr al Risala (Kuwait: Dar al Qalam, 1990) pp. 109-112.
31. Leila Badawi, “Islam”, in Jean Holm and John Bowker, ed., Women in Religion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1994) p. 102.
32. Amir H. Siddiqi, Studies in Islamic History (Karachi: Jamiyatul Falah Publications, 3rd edition, 1967) p. 138.
33. Epstein, op. cit., p. 196.
34. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 162-163.
35. The Toronto Star, Apr. 8, 1995.
36. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 318-329. See also Muhammad al Ghazali, Qadaya al Mar’aa bin al Taqaleed al Rakida wal Wafida (Cairo: Dar al Shorooq, 4th edition, 1992) pp. 178-180.
37. Ibid., pp. 313-318.
38. David W. Amram, The Jewish Law of Divorce According to Bible and Talmud ( Philadelphia: Edward Stern & CO., Inc., 1896) pp. 125-126.
39. Epstein, op. cit., p. 219.
40. Ibid, pp 156-157.
41. Muhammad Abu Zahra, Usbu al Fiqh al Islami (Cairo: al Majlis al A’la li Ri’ayat al Funun, 1963) p. 66.
42. Epstein, op. cit., p. 122.
43. Armstrong, op. cit., p. 8.
44. Epstein, op. cit., p. 175.
45. Ibid., p. 121.
46. Gage, op. cit., p. 142.
47. B. Aisha Lemu and Fatima Heeren, Woman in Islam (London: Islamic Foundation, 1978) p. 23.
48. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 45-46.
49. Ibid., p. 47.
50. Ibid., p. 49.
51. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 144-148.
52. Hazleton, op. cit., pp 44-45.
53. Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 140.
54. Ibid., p. 17.
55. Ibid., pp. 88-93.
56. Ibid., pp. 92-97.
57. Philip L. Kilbride, Plural Marriage For Our Times (Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1994) pp. 108-109.
58. The Weekly Review, Aug. 1, 1987.
59. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 126.
60. John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A history of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988) p. 87.
61. Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp. 263-264.
62. Ibid., pp. 257-258.
63. Sabiq, op. cit., p. 191.
64. Hillman, op. cit., p. 12.
65. Nathan Hare and Julie Hare, ed., Crisis in Black Sexual Politics (San Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1989) p. 25.
66. Ibid., p. 26.
67. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 94.
68. Ibid., p. 95.
70. Ibid., pp. 95-99.
71. Ibid., p. 118.
72. Lang, op. cit., p. 172.
73. Kilbride, op. cit., pp. 72-73.
74. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 187-188.
75. Abdul Rahman Doi, Woman in Shari’ah (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1994) p. 76.
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. The Times, Nov. 18, 1993.