Sarah is studying to receive her eventual Ph.D in Christian-Muslim relations. She plans to teach at the university level in the near future.
Ahh, a Piece of Fabric!
While scrolling through my Facebook page, I am flooded with images and articles about Muslim women being harassed in public. The Muslim woman, of orthodox practice, is usually easy to spot. She dresses modestly, covering all but her hands and face, and dons a variation of the hijab, a word meaning "barrier." Why this makes her a target for ridicule is something many people find hard to grasp. Why should a decorative piece of fabric determine anything about her personality, her past behavior, her association with a widely misunderstood religion?
Women covering their hair is not a new practice. It is also not necessarily a sign of oppression, as so many people in France seem to believe. It is a sign of devotion to God, whether a women of the cloth or a laywoman, where she can be modest and keep her beauty under wraps. It is also due to certain traditions of different cultures. This, in a nutshell, is why most women of all faiths and cultures cover, but there are many other aspects to consider when you see a covered woman.
What Does it Mean?
Consider that for many denominations of all mainstream faiths, a woman covering her hair meant (and still means) respect and honor for her, her family, and her devotion. In some cases, like Islam and Judaism, a woman with covered hair and sometimes face (see: niqab), means she is most likely married or engaged to be married. This is a sign to men to lower their gaze; that this is a woman who should not be pursued because she is already spoken for. It is also a reminder for ladies of faith to act modestly as well as dress the part. For women who are not particularly religious, some view this as simply as this woman carries herself in high esteem.
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In the case of African American culture, black women were told to (and even required by law at one point) to wear a scarf on her head. In the days of slavery, this originally was meant to protect the women from head lice and other pests whilst working outdoors. As time passed, it furthered into a form of her identity and stature of lesser value. While ladies of privilege were covering with bonnets and other finery, slave women were given a crude piece of fabric to cover. While this was designed to demean and embarrass them, it allowed black women to use it as a sign of courage, perseverance, and unity among their community. Different styles allowed the black woman to express her own personality, and thus became a symbol of strength and individuality. While this is not a religious reason, it is another aspect of covering that counters the claim that women who cover are oppressed.
For Islam specifically, a woman covers for similar reasons mentioned prior. However, something that is expressed many times in the Qur'an is to avoid being self-centered or preoccupied with appearance; to be more concerned with one's words and actions and less about one's physical attractiveness. This goes for women and men alike. For example, while it is asked for a woman to cover her hair and neck, a man must also not expose anything below his bellybutton. You will rarely see a man scantily clad unless he is in a "men's only" sort of establishment. But more to the point, this encourages a Muslim woman to focus less on her concern with attention being drawn to herself, and to allow herself privacy when in public. While there are women worldwide who may not agree with the hijab, many of the women who wear it state that they find it liberating and label it a choice, rather than a sign of oppression.
Lastly, Christianity seems to go unnoticed when it comes to covering. While veils aren't commonplace in today's society, they are still used in certain denominations. It was and still is acceptable for women to wear hats in church, showing a sign of respect by covering in a place of worship or during religious ceremonies, particularly solemn occasions such as funerals. It should be noted that women who do decide to cover in Christian practice specifiy the covering of the "head", not necessarily covering their hair.
Breaking the Stigma
While the stigma that sadly exists around certain religions, it should be reminded for people to not judge so quickly based on how a woman decides to dress her hair. In today's society, where no weight is perfect, no style of dress is without flaw, and even how a woman makes up is scrutinized, differences should serve as a splash of color in our increasingly black and white world. As long as they are not bringing harm, changes from what we consider norm (what a ghastly word) should be welcomed and examined with innocent curiosity, and far less discrimination and hatred.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Sarah Jason