Women In Islam versus Judaeo-Christian Tradition The Myth & The Reality


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  • Women In Islam versus Judaeo-Christian Tradition The Myth & The Reality



  • 16. 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. 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 symbolised 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. 79 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. 80 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 realise 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. 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.

    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...." (24:30,31). 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" (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 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" (24:4) 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 'civilisation' 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." 84 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.


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