TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, June 30, 2008

Five Faiths: Religious Head Coverings, Part 1 (Islam & Christianity)

This post is part of my Five Faiths series. I'm taking a look at religious textiles used in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Click Five Faiths to see all the articles on one page. The topic of religious head coverings is huge and controversial, so I am breaking it down into two parts. This part takes a glimpse into Islam and Christianity. The second part looks at Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

A couple of years ago, my husband humored me by taking some role reversal photos for our Christmas card. I come from farmer stock, so he dressed up in my bib overalls, and he is part Berber. He helped me put on a shawl and drew a pretend tattoo on my face. I always have fun dressing up! I asked him what his mother, a real Berber, would think of me if she saw me like this and he shook his head and said, "Very weird..." Well, his mother and my mother would both agree on that!

Those of us who love ethnic textiles, know that shawls, hats, and other head coverings can be absolutely drop dead gorgeous. But, we also know of all the controversy that surrounds the religious coverings of women, especially in Islamic cultures. The burka has been strictly condemned by the West and shedding it is a symbol of emancipation.

Burka Graduation. Click on the photo for the source, although I could not find any information there about the context.

The rise of fundamentalist Islam in the last 20 years, especially through the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and modern Saudi Arabia, has created a public outcry against the burka (a full body cover which allows limited vision) and the dark veiling where only eyes are exposed. Women have suffered greatly not because of the veiling in itself, but because of the limitations that have been imposed on them in terms of employment, purchase power, education, access to sunlight, and mobility. Renowned photographer Harriet Logan documents the lives of several women in her book, Unveiled. These women had enjoyed the liberal 70's in Kabul and then were subjected to humiliation, beatings, and obscurity under Taliban rule. Logan interviewed Zargoona in 2001. She had been a physics teacher in the Polytechnic. She said she had a good salary and a good life. Now she was stricken with cancer, lived in a small room with no heating and no glass in the windows. Logan says they sat under blankets during the interview and Zargoona cried the whole time. She taught in secret to earn some income as her husband had passed away. "I was beaten by the Taliban for teaching only three months ago. My door was not locked, as I was expecting my students that day. One of the neighbors had shown them my door. Three Talibs just walked in; two more stood outside. They were terrifying. ... they said it was forbidden to teach girls, and they started to beat me with a cable until my leg bled." (page 60)

Stories like this one are abundant in areas where extremism is dominant. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was raised in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. She was excised (female circumcision) with no warning when she was around 10, forcibly married to a man she did not like, and survived a childhood of violence. I recently read her book and was quite moved by her story. Ali made it to Denmark as a refugee, put herself through University and ended up in Danish Parliament, only to be then kicked out of the country because she had lied about her status when she first arrived. I think she now lives in the United States. Ali's experience made her question her traditions, religion, and finally the existence of God. There is a fatwa against her and a Danish colleague was shot to death while riding his bicycle because of a movie the two of them made.

Yet, not all women veil themselves or wear the burka because men force them to. In fact, Ali talks about the radicalization of Islam while she was a teenager and describes how a few crazed men drew crowds of women who hungered for the law. She describes how Islam for her nomad mother was a part of life, with certain rules, yes, but also mixed in with ancient lore that preceded it. The new Islam that they encountered in urban areas was imported from Saudi Arabia, very foreign to historic Somalia. Many of the husbands begged their wives to stay away from these new preachers, to take off the veil, to go back to a more flexible way of life. Divorces happened left and right on both sides, spurred on by women who refused to step back into normalcy. Some of the stories are absolutely unbelievable! Click on the photo below for an article about a woman from Saudi Arabia who divorced her husband because he lifted her veil while she was sleeping. He hadn't seen her face in 30 years! The article stated that this is a practice done by a small minority of people. Make sure you read the comments, too!

In terms of interest to fiber enthusiasts, the burka and Saudi veils are extremely boring as textiles. In other Muslim cultures, the coverings can be absolutely stunning! Intricate embroidery, bejeweled and exotic, these are pieces coveted by museums, cultural associations, and film directors. African Ceremonies documents the peoples and religious customs of Africa. Here they show a Rashaida dancer in Eritrea:

Veiled Rashaida Dancer, Eritrea At a Rashaida wedding, a young woman dances in celebration of her friend's marriage. Surrounded by admiring guests, the girl swirls in circles as the many layers of colorful fabrics she wears, including her richly appliqued skirt, enhance her movements. Veiled from the age of five, Rashaida women are required by the law of purdah to cover their faces when they are in public. The mask is considered an expression of female beauty and its elaborate style has remained unchanged for more than 150 years.

When I see photos of women dressed in these garments, yes even with the facial coverings, I feel a sense of sadness for the lack of ritual, adornment, and festivity in our modern lives. No, I don't want to be covered through a social decree, but there is something beautiful here that we do not see often in Western society. Perhaps there is a glimpse of this mystery in the bride who wears a veil over her face as she slowly approaches the altar... I grew up in Brazil where wearing nothing is an acceptable social code. I have to agree that when you see it all, the air of mystique is almost gone.

Accompanying some of the gorgeous head scarves and covering we also find beautiful jewelry that is often hidden under layers of cloaks and shawls. The Turkmen women are known for their large head pieces and pendants that hold shawls together or are incorporated into elaborate hair styles. This crown is a sample of Turkmen jewelry carried by Afghan Tribal Arts:

Abdul, my friend and owner of Afghan Tribal Arts, once teased me saying that I probably should not wear a burka in Afghanistan. I am tall, almost 6', and he said I would probably get bopped on the head, someone thinking that a man was hiding in there and up to no good. He struggles, too, with the question of how to raise his four daughters here in the United States. At first, they wore shawls to school, but it attracted attention and the principal spoke with him after 9/11 and encouraged him to let them blend in as much as possible. It is interesting to watch these girls as they mature. They are pious yet they have questions. It is not easy to choose what cultural practices to maintain and what to give up.

Another liberal Muslim Turkish friend of mine once said that there is also something liberating when you wear a covering that hides your face. She laughed and said you don't have to worry about "bad hair" days. And, you disappear in the crowd, which can sometimes be a relief. But, she said that it is nice to have the choice of whether to cover or not. In Turkey, you can do both.

And, yes. Muslim women cover themselves not because of the Koran, but because of cultural norms. Blogger Alixianna has a wonderful post in her blog, Beautiful Muslimah. She uses this photo to introduce her article on the context and history of veiling.

It is extensive and I encourage you to read it if you are interested in this issue. But, here are a couple of things she says:

"Misconception: The veil is homogenous.

Contrary to popular belief, there are many different kinds of veils. There is no one Arabic word for "veil" and even the English dictionary lists four distinct definitions of the word veil, in terms of material, space, communication, and religion. In regard to Islamic culture, the veil is best viewed as a part of dress in the manner that, like other elements of dress, it is specific to time and space. In different areas of the Islamic world, styles of veiling and reasons for it are distinct.

Here are three common types of veils:
a. Hijab- a head scarf that usually is worn for religious reasons. There is not one type or color.
b. Chador- a large black shawl that covers the hair and entire body. The chador is most commonly associated with Iran today. If it covers the face with a mesh screen it is the blue body garment worn by Afghani women.
c. Veil or burqa- two peices of cloth sewn together with a slit for the eyes worn over hijab, or a stiff mask made of cloth.

Misconception: The Quran states that Muslims have to veil

The Quran does not specifically mandate veiling, but simply speaks about modesty, respect, and the covering of the body. In fact, male modesty is more frequently referred to in the Quran then female modesty. In most Muslim societies veiling is not enforced, but a choice. It is a way for Muslims to outwardly show their devotion and respect for Islam."

She also points out that men also choose to veil in some Muslim cultures. The Tuareg men, for example, veil themselves, while the women do not. This transitions nicely to talk about Islamic head coverings for men, does it not? I've never understood why Western articles about Muslim women covering their heads do not also talk about men. The same circles that have strict codes for women do the same for men (Uh, except that they do get to have jobs, education, mobility, and all of that...). Men may have to wear beards and cover their heads as well.

Photo by one of my favorite photographers, BabaSteve.

The turban is the most recognized head covering worn by Muslim men. Again, Abdul explains how ingenious this long piece of cloth is in a nomadic culture. It's a helmet. If you fall off your horse, your head is protected. If you broke your arm in that fall, you have something to wrap it with. If you are cold, you can wrap yourself in it. If you need to carry things and don't have a bag, well, just cut off a bit and there you go! I found this photo of a Sikh, which doesn't really fit in this subject, but had to share it:

It's from an article from the Times Online: "This is Major Singh wearing a major turban - purported to be the biggest in the world at 30kg and 400 meters of cloth. He hopes it will be a source of inspiration to young Sikh boys who are opting for having their hair cut rather than covering it."

Sikhnet has an interesting article on the history of the turban in the Old Testament. Sikhs and Muslims both have historical ties to the Old Testament, along with Christians and Jews. Many texts there use the turban as a symbol of purity, royalty, courage, self respect, dignity, and strength.

But, turbans are only one of many styles of Muslim head coverings or hats. The kufi style is popular in Central Asia and in Africa.

Another photo by Baba Steve from his Pakistani collection.

Sometimes a turban is wrapped around a kufi. The hat style represents the region or village one belongs to. The two vintage Pashtun hats below are an example of a skull cap type style that would be worn with a turban around them. They are hard and would offer good protection, almost like a helmet.

Sometimes a hat will transcend its original context and become popular world wide. The Afghan "Rebel Hat" became popularized during the war against Russia. It's actually a traditional hat from Nuristan, a cold, mountainous region. The hat is ideal for that climate as it can be pulled down during extremely cold weather, although it is normally rolled tight and worn on the top of the head. This is a big seller for us on eBay during the Fall and winter!

All of this discussion of Islamic head coverings may seem exotic and foreign to Westerners. However, these traditions are not that far from home. Western women also covered their heads in public with hats and scarves until not long ago. Think of movies from the 50's and 60's and the stars from that period wore something to protect their heads. I lived close to a Polish neighborhood in Chicago and the older women still boast flowery scarves when they are in public. My parents live in rural Wisconsin and in the last 15 years they have seen more and more Amish families relocate to their area. This photo is from the Library of Congress, around 1940.

Amish women do not cut their hair and must have their heads covered, especially during prayer. They believe in keeping their appearance simple in order to focus on their inner qualities. OK. Still too exotic? Actually, as Islam has grown in fundamentalism, so has Christianity. There are many, many Christian pentecostal groups and non-denominational groups that adhere to head coverings, especially in Church. My own sister frequented a church where she had to wear a doily on her head. The church did not recognize women as equals nor give them a voice during the service. Eventually, she and her husband compromised on a Baptist church and I think both are very happy there.

The main text these churches use to support this practice is I Corinthians 11:2-16 in the Bible's New Testament:

2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason the woman should have authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 In any case, woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman, in the Lord; 12 for as woman is [created] from man, so man is now [born] through woman. And all things are from God. 1314 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

Michael Marlowe of the Bible Researcher dissects this text and explores it historically, reaching the following conclusion, among others:

"The old claim that fashion in clothing is morally neutral and essentially devoid of symbolism has now been destroyed by recent downgrade trends in women's fashion, and Christian parents are keenly aware of the significance of clothing in the case of their teenage daughters. Moreover, the feminist movement (which knows very well what clothing may say about a woman) has created a social environment which is so inimical to Christian values that many Christian women now finally recognize that they cannot allow themselves to be creatures of fashion. And so the church is ripe for a reconsideration of this whole question. In any case, church leaders and evangelical authors who have been discouraging the use of head coverings should reconsider their opposition to it."

Chapel Veil, available through Modesty Veils

Thus, the industry for Christian head coverings for women abound online, all quoting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Oh, that Paul! Such interpretation of Biblical text walks that fine line that determines the roles women and men have with each other. Wikipedia describes this line of Biblical thought as expressed by the Plymouth Brethren:

"There is no distinction made in Brethren teaching between men and women in their individual relation to Christ or position before God as believers. However, in most Brethren meetings, the principle of male "headship" is applied in accordance with teaching found in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, verse 3 and elsewhere in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 11:3 says:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

Thus most Brethren meetings reserve leadership and teaching roles to men based on 1 Timothy 2:11, 12...

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
From this, Brethren teaching traditionally (there are regional exceptions) outlines a system in which the men take the "vocal" and leadership roles, and the women take supportive and "silent" roles. In practical terms, what is traditionally seen is the men being fully responsible for all preaching, teaching, and leading of worship. Therefore, in most Brethren groups, women will be heard to sing the hymns along with the group, but their voices will not otherwise be heard during the service. Often the men are, practically speaking, the only ones involved fully and vocally in all discussions leading up to administrative decision making as well."

The Bible is the Other Side states: "We need not to forget, with remaining sin in the world, and with radical feminism which is the liberal dogma on how women should act and their redefining roles contrary to Scriptures. Christians need to pray for these lost souls who believe in such things as they need the Gospel to be presented to them. Because just believing in head coverings as a Scriptural foundation and not knowing who Christ is, makes one's faith vain. The Lord doesn't save people who don't know Him."

The hope is that men will love and honor their wives and thus take their private counsel into consideration. How far removed is this, though, from the tyranny of the Taliban when society was perceived as a bit too free?

Still not mainstream enough? Well, alright, we'll finish this glimpse into Islam and Christianity by taking a look at Roman Catholicism. Although a diminishing church, Roman Catholics still have a strong presence in the United States, but much more in Latin America and other parts of the world. And, they like to wear hats! Or, traditionally, at least, they have a rich history of interesting head coverings. This book looks like a fascinating read! Click on the photo for the link.

The description says: Curiosity about nuns and their distinctive clothing is almost as old as the Church itself. 'The Habit' presents a comprehensive visual gallery of the diverse forms of habits through the ages and explains the principles and traditions that inspired them. Author Elizabeth Kuhns also examines the gender and identity issues behind the veil and presents engaging portraits of the roles nuns have played in ministering to the spiritual and social needs of the wider society.

I attended a Brazilian Catholic school, Regina Mundi, for a few years when I was growing up. I remember right after Vatican II, the order of nuns that ran our school opted out of the habit. Our head nun showed up from one day to the next in high heels, make-up, a skirt down to her knees, and wowzers! Was she gorgeous! It was hard to take her seriously anymore. (So what does THAT say?) Somebody sent me this photo in an e-mail a long time ago. I have no idea where it came from, but the nuns I knew had a good sense of humor and they would have enjoyed it.

Pope John Paul II, who hailed in Vatican II, also knew how to laugh. Tradition in Action states: "As a sign of the Vatican II spirit of inculturalization, John Paul II dons a feathered African headdress during his 1980 six-nation African tour. Curiously, he never wears the papal crown."

The current Pope Benedict XVI probably did not wear this hat as a sign of humor:

The Roman Catholic Church uses the same text by Paul to encourage women to veil themselves. The Catholic Planet has a page dedicated to the proper dress and behavior for Catholic women. Here is their take on the text:

"In obedience to Sacred Scripture, many Catholic women wear some kind of veil or headcovering. Some wear a headcovering only at Mass. Others feel called to wear a head covering at other times during the day, as well as at Mass. Many non-Catholic Christian women also wear a head covering. These women are following the call of the Holy Spirit. Society discourages women from wearing a head covering and from doing anything else which shows submissiveness and obedience. Yet these women have found the light of truth in the midst of dark times. The moral law requires all women to wear the veil on their hearts."

"The Virgin Mary wore a veil or head covering because she understood this symbol of the different roles given to men and women. Those women who wear the veil are imitating the Virgin Mary in her humility and submissiveness. Nearly every Catholic Church has a stature or image of Mary wearing a veil."

They have a sizable list of links on articles examining the topic.

So what is the moral of these stories? To me, nothing is simple when it comes to evaluating society and religion. I believe that our challenge is to look at our history and what is around us and try to sift the wheat from the chaff. Keep what is good, get rid of what isn't. Each of us has to decide what that might mean, but I believe that it has to do with breaking the cycles of violence in our lives.

Well, this post took all day, so hope you like it!


  1. What a great article! Thank you for all your time spent to walk us through this very interesting topic. Here in Turkey, I'm often asked about the headscarf controversy (about lifting the ban on headscarfs for university students) by visitors to our shop. I explain the various ways that about 50% of the women here chose to cover their heads, which are based on tradition and piety, and recall the times as a Catholic girl I had to wear a mantilla to Mass. Not entirely different after all, are we?

  2. Rachel, you are one talented lady. I learn so much from reading your posts. I enjoy everything you write. Clearly you do your research. Head coverings for a bad hair day were a must in the 60's. They were called "bandanas".

  3. The research you do for your blog post continually astounds me.

  4. again with another great blog post! your posts are a gift to me when i read.... and you handle your subjects deftly and with great poise. thank you for sharing your knowledge, interests and research.

  5. Rachel, this is a wonderful post which is what I've grown to expect from you - it is such a great education to read your blog. I have an addition to suggest - the Easter Bonnet! :)


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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