Friday, May 08, 2009

Christians and Hijab...some thoughts

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a fascination with head covering. I've done it, I've not done it. I go back and forth. It's this thing for me. My current practice is to wear a mantilla during Church and for formal prayers at home. I've done doilies, I've done scarves, I've done hats, I've done full time, part time, none at all...the whole gamut.

But one place where I draw the line: looking like something I"m not. And because of that need, to fit into my own particular genre of Christianity, I've shied away from wearing Mennonite bonnets, doilies (since becoming Orthodox) or Hijab. I also don't want to look like a monastic wannabe. That was a thought that struck me really strongly when I visited the monastery at the beginning of lent: I am not a nun, nor a wannabe, and there's always been a strong dividing line, in Orhtodoxy, between the monastics and regular laity, in the sense that we are still in the world, and they are not. Our journey is different. And as a person "in the world, but not of it" I still have to navigate issues like what to wear, or how to present myself...I don't get the "free ticket" of "death to the world" and a monastic uniform that the monastics have. My journey is different. Especially as a woman who is also someone's wife.

It's perfectly possible to find a whole slew of Early Church Fathers, commenting on the first half of 1 Corinthians 11 where one could make a good argument for wearing what constitutes full hijab (which I know people were wearing long before even Christianity came on the scene). But they were the bishops of their people, in that culture. And while their words and their teachings can certainly inform us, and should, we also can't take what was written so long ago and say "this is binding on me" if the current Bishops of the Orthodox Church (by "we" I mean if course, Orthodox Christian women) have not made this rule. Christian modesty rules are pretty clear, and to go above and beyond calling it a religious thing, when really it's just my personal preference, smacks of pride in my heart. Because part of being Orthodox is listening to our bishop and not just making my own personal, private religious pronouncements. Lest we set ourselves up as the judge and jury, and lest we also make a mountain out of a molehill on an issue that is potentially "small fry". (Scripture is scriptures and the traditional interpretation of it, in the context of worship is also abundantly clear, however, which is why I cover in Church. It's a fine line to walk, I guess.)

But is it really a "small fry" issue? Having a heart of purity and spirituality that is controlled by the Spirit of God and not the ways of this world is definitely not a "small" issue. And that is what it boils down to. And what is in one's heart must certainly (and will) make itself known in the choices a woman (or a man) makes in all areas of life, including dress and deportment. Including a head covering.

And then there's the issue of identity. I sort of did a big experiment this past year, and wore a scarf on my head full time. It was hard. I struggled. I loved it and hated it all at the same time. Ultimately, living with the inner conflict was something I decided I couldn't do. I never really felt good about it, or peaceful one way or another. Because of that, I think it's safe to say this might be something I revisit again and again over the years, as the future unfolds. But I doubt I'll ever be 100% sold out on full time head covering the way some are. (I wish I weren't so complicated.)

But while wearing a head covering this past year, I also moved into a new community. I changed jurisdictions and started attending an Orthodox Church that traces it's identity back to the that street in Damascus called Straight, where St. Paul was taken after he was struck blind. Yes indeed. The leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Damascus still resides on that same street. Now there's some history for ya!

And this has given me pause. I'm part of a community, and I need to listen to what my sisters and my brothers in that community have done and said over the centuries. While it may be true that Christian women have been wearing hijab type veiling for a lot longer than Islam has ever been around (as in "we did it first") there's also never been a consensus that this middle eastern style of covering is mandated by Scripture for Christians. The apostles weren't specific on it. In fact it is my understanding that historically, Christian women in the middle east, living in an Islamic context, have typically expressed their Christian identity by NOT wearing a scarf outside of Church, it seems. Sort of an "us" and "them" thing. I could be wrong. This could be a 20th century development like so much else pertaining to this topic. I just don't know.

So part of embracing humility and learning to be a part of my new community has been taking a step back from wearing a full time head covering, to start to learn to listen, with an open heart, to the traditions (small t) of the community of which I'm a part.

Because if nothing else, I've learned over the years that the Orthodox Christian journey is never done alone, but always in the context of the Eucharistic community of the Church.

Now, the other day I was at Walmart with my husband. He was wearing a collared shirt and slacks, as usual, and I had thrown a skirt over my leggings and t-shirt that I'd worked out in, and my hair was up in a little bun. A pentecostal man stopped us and asked us which church we went to. Clearly he thought we were pentecostal, based on our dress. He must not have notices the crucifix. Just goes to show, you can't always not look like some other religion...but one can try.


Kristen said...

I always veil outside the house. I could give you may reasons on why but it is not my job to try to change your mind. I would only ask your thoughts about the fact that the bible says we are to cover our heads when we pray and also tells us to pray without ceasing.

Blessings and Shalom

margi said...

There are some very pretty hijab styles around but you are right about not using them. No matter how generic they are (and Nesterov's paintings of 19th century Russia show Orthodox women in something similar as was the wimple of mediaeval Europe) I still feel that as a Christian wearing something so associated with Islam which has persecuted Christians from its beginning right up to the present would be wrong and utterly distasteful. Also I think the reason St Paul didn't specify exactly how we are to cover while still stating that we should was to allow women from different cultures and ages to adapt. I have to admit I wouldn't have taken you for pentecostals - you sounded totally normal to me but I think normality is a seriously underrated aspect of modesty. Part of modesty is not standing out so, ironically, a woman in an Anne of Avonlea frock and a hijab scarf is rather immodest because every second person will look and look again and wonder what the heck she is while someone in jeans and a tee shirt doesn't get a second glance. That thought helped me greatly years ago when I was hung up on various aspects of modesty. It's not so bad now that I'm middle-aged, it's amazing where temptation goes when you realise so much of you looks *better* covered up! I had a post written on headcoverings - I may dust it down in preference to sanding woodwork seeing as I am off church due to sneezing and not wanting all the mums to think I am trying to give swine flu to their kids.

deb said...

I appreciate your now more nuanced understanding of this matter. I think you are right to notice that a focus on headcovering, outside of one's bishop's, priest's, and community's guidance, can become a type of spiritual free-lancing that nurtures pride. (Especially when one agonizes and obsesses over it.) This and other types of spiritual free-lancing can be like trying to go for extra credit. It doesn't make us more Orthodox.

elizabeth said...

Yeah. This is not an easy issue, for sure. I also appreciate the naunces you are dealing with; it is not simple. I have been part of two Antiochian churches - the first very few covered heads - and certainly not the cradle orthodox - it seems often to be a convert thing - but yet - at one of my other churches - with newer immigrants from Slavic countries where it is totally normal to have a headcovering in church, they were glad when some coverts (like myself) would wear a head covering because then they felt (so it seemed) that they also could and be doing what is still culturally normal for them.

I wear a small hankerchief style head covering and feel strange entering churches (went to a small grad ceremony at an Anglican church) without one as I personally feel it is an act of reverance but at the same time a connection with and honouring of the Theotokos (covering one's head is often seen as honouring the Theotokos in more Russian circles that I am aware of; the Bible verses are not even mentioned!).

It is not a simple thing and I think it is very important to allow each woman the freedom to do what they feel they must do and to also experiment and even 'go through phases' where they try to figure out how to be in Church.

I appreciate also how your post has touched on the respect of each individual and thier choice of head-covering or not. I think this is incredibly important not only because it can be an issue of spiritual pride...

If one was wearing a headcovering and judging the other woman as less holy for not wearing them, then they just lost whatever they may have gained by wearing it. Kind of like fasting foodwise but feasting on another person in judgement.

Thanks again for your post!

Veiled Glory said...

Its good to see you fitting in with your parish and place. :-)

Pres. Kathy said...

For me, I do whatever my spiritual fatehr says.

jasmine said...

I'm mystified by the "we did it first" mentality about which you spoke. Why on earth would someone make it a contest? According to Islam, Islam is from the Abrahamic tradition and is last in the line of such faiths. Of course most everything would have been done first by Christians as opposed to Muslims. Islam, on the other hand, is not as subject to interpretation, changing times, and etc. Interesting read.

Jasmine said...

And, Alana, I didn't gather from your post that you try to avoid the hijab look for the same reasons as your commenter Margi, was I wrong? I thought you were trying to avoid looking the same as any other religion or sect for the sake of identity. I truly hope that not all Orthodox Christians have such biggoted and narrow minded views of people of other faiths. It is downright abhorrent!

Alana said...

Jassmine, I'm not sure what you are seeing here as bigoted and narrowminded. If it is bigoted and narrominded for me to believe that my religion is the right and correct religion then yes, that makes me bigoted and narrowminded.

ANY adherent to ANY religion is going to believe this about their own religion. If I did not believe that Orthodox Christianity were the right religion, I would not be an Orthodox Christian. If you did not believe that Islam were the right religion, you would not be muslim. Standing up for one's religion and BELIEVING in it, is not, IMO bigoted and narrow minded. It is the essence of being religious. Just because I am proudly an Orthodox Chrisitan and I am not willing to be a religious universalist does not mean I will be hateful towards people of other faiths, nor does it mean that I think God will not be merciful to others, or anything like that.

God's mercy and judgement are NOT something I control. Nor has God ever asked my opinion about it.

So is it bigoted and narrominded for me not to want to pass myself off as Amish? Is it bigoted and narrominded for me not to want to fall into the "pentecostal" mode of dressing?

Basically for me, I want to present myself humbly as a Christian who is an Orthodox Christian. Which generally comes off as rather incognito. I'm not sure where all the anger is coming from.

Jasmine said...

I have no anger toward you, and it's hurt more than anger. It was in response to the quote from your commenter about it being "utterly" inappropriate to imitate Muslims who 'have been persecuting Christians since Islam began.' And it's not just because I'm Muslim. I just wish that people would not use incorrect sweeping generalizations as a reason to hate others and be intolerant. I really wish people would stop finding it somehow so convenient to hate. I would never view you as hateful, however. And yes, we are all entitled to believing our chosen religion is superior to all other religions, as you said. Being entitled to believing our religion makes us superior humans, on the other hand.... That's just a way to justify making other humans expendable, and from when I last checked, not considered cool by any religion. And please, anyone who would respond, don't say something ignorant about Islam justifying hatred and making humans expendable. Because it DOES NOT.

deb said...

Leaving the issue of Islam, something else that Margi said is right on the money:

"Part of modesty is not standing out so, ironically, a woman in an Anne of Avonlea frock and a hijab scarf is rather immodest because every second person will look and look again and wonder what the heck she is while someone in jeans and a tee shirt doesn't get a second glance."

Amen to that, sister. When I see such modes of dress taken up by someone who's not a member of a community where it's the norm, I can't shake the feeling that the individual's ostensible claim to modesty is overshadowed by the "look at me, look at me!" message in her deliberate effort to be so glaringly different in appearance. You can dress modestly without playing Awkward Cross-Cultural Dress-Up.

I suppose I may be risking offending someone with this, but hey, if you're going to make yourself look so out-of-the-ordinary, you know you're going to get a lot of attention, right? So what's your motive? You don't have to answer me, but you have to admit people are going to wonder.

Note well, I don't apply this to people who actually belong to communities that require such modes of dress. So I guess I'm critiquing the urge to free-lance for "extra credit" again.

Robb said...

I read your blog almost daily, and love it! However, I take umbridge with your assertion that parts of the Bible are for certain time periods - if as Christians we state that the Bible is the word of God then it is as relevant today as it was then! We can't just state that when people such as St Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that it only had any significance then and not now re covering of the head. The Apostles may have been talking to people in their time, but given that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit then their word is still binding, just as much now as it ever was - and any Bishop who differs from that or doesn't teach the word of God as per the scriptures, should be denounced with no credence given to his words.

In Christ

margi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
margi said...

Alana, I'm sorry for offending someone on your blog. Your response was excellent.

Jasmine, I'm sorry you were personally hurt but the facts about persecution remain the same.

margi said...

I think headcovering is a convert thing in a Greek/mid-east based church but almost de rigeur in recent Slavic immigrants, certainly here in the UK. I go to a mixed, mostly Scottish and Russian parish, and new people speak Russian to me simply based on me wearing a headscarf and I respond in my awful Russian which hurts their ears and they run away :-)

Jasmine said...

To Margi: I do not want to get into a debate, especially on someone else's blog.

However, what you are saying is, indeed, incorrect. I'm sure that Muslims and Christians have both been persecuting each other for centuries, and that there are also a lot of Christians and Muslims who very much respect each other. I am of the latter. I only wish that you would back up your "sweeping generalization" with some real, documentable facts rather than just keep reasserting it. I am sure there have been shameful things done in the name of Islam just as in the name of Christianity. I am also sure that Muslims are a defeated, desperate people by so called Christian nations. Uh, crusades ring a bell? Imperialism anyone? Wouldn't it be more apt just to say: 'it would be utterly inappropriate to give any credence to the modest dress of people we have conquered?' I guess that would give off too obvious a stench, so one has to go the hypocritical route instead.

And a new point. I would be interested to know what is defined here as hijab? Because hijab does not actually refer to a certain style of head cover and there are MANY styles used by Muslims everywhere. In fact, many hijabis in the Western world are quick to imitate styles in the Western world out of respect and not wanting to stand out. It is still considered hijab. Hijab means modesty, literally. There is no concept of it being a marker of religious identity; it is purely for the sake of God, not humans. So, if you really don't want to look Muslim then the only thing you will be throwing off, essentially, is modesty. And if you want to look modest, in the sense of covering the head, and in some cases, just the body, you are guaranteed to look like some Muslim, somewhere!

Anonymous said...


You don't want to debate, yet you want to defend your religion. It's understandable. However, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, Muslim claims of oppression by us is nothing more than wishful thinking and historical revisionism. DO you really want to go there? Your assertions can easily be proven wrong with plenty of documentation. Meh, it is what it is. The truth can be rather offensive.

It is my understanding that hijab requires Muslim women to cover the neck, ears, and all hair. Also, women are not to show their curves in any way. So, abayas from the wrists to the ankles it would have to be for a woman to truly be a hijabi. I see girls who wear a headscarf that covers their hair, neck, and ears quite frequently- yet- they still wear form hugging western fashions. They're rather missing the point. As are hijabis who wear colors that might be pretty or flattering. Plenty of what supposedly flies with Muslim women as hijab really isn't- they just do what they have to do to fit in with certain expectations- and some understandably push the limits of what is acceptable. That's not modesty.

Alana said...

Hi Robb,

you completely misunderstood what I said. I never said that some parts of Scripture can be set aside. Quite to the contrary, I said they could NOT be set aside, therefore I wear (and always will wear) a head covering when I'm in Church or praying formal prayers at home or in another gathering of Christians.

Jassmine, one thing that is creating a misunderstanding in this discussion, is that I, and most of the commentators are speaking from an Orthodox Christian perspective, here, and the Christianity that you are familiar with and refer to (when you say Christianity has changed) is Western Christianity. Orthodoxy has NOT changed, nor have Orthodox Christian nations ever been the oppressors and conquerors of Islamic peoples. Rather, they have lived under the yoke of Islam and have paid the price of that (quite literally with their blood and taxes and restrictive laws) through the centuries... The Ottoman empire. And for what it's worth, Orthodox Christians were just as battered and slaughtered (sack of Constantionople in the fourth crusade: during the crusades by Western Christians as any muslims were.

Chelle said...


Here's the thing. Nobody is saying that modesty is a terrible thing; to the contrary. However, there are a few problems that I see regarding hijab that I'd like to share.

1. When it is imposed on women instead of being a personal choice. This happens all the time.

2. When the women who are wearing hijab get prideful about it, legalistic, and condemn all other women in their hearts, minds, words to each other, etc. who don't wear hijab. We all really know that not wearing hijab does not always equal being immodest. What some women wear under their abayas would make a western woman blush (and these women are considered righteous muslimahs).

3. Wearing hijab or not has zero effect on how women are perceived and treated in primarily Muslim countries. It is pretty apparent that the more oppressive cultures are to their women, the more harrassed the women are going to be despite the way they dress to be invisible and not attract attention. If the status of women is low IT DOES NOT MATTER. When you have a segment of the population that is supposed to remain invisible, anonymous, who is considered worth half a man legally, and take whatever is dished out to them, then it stands to reason that they will be just as objectified as if they were on the cover of Maxim magazine- chattel.

Please take a gander at this article:

It is very interesting that wearing Hijab or not has no effect on sexual harassment of women in Egypt (on a large scale). Apparently, wearing Hijab has no bearing on how men view women and their bodies in this primarily Muslim society. This is very sad.

4. I have an Afghani friend who used to tell me that she was a terrible Muslim and was going to hell and that she had come to terms with it. She dressed very modestly, but did not wear hijab. She fasted, she prayed, and she could read the Quran in Arabic. She dreaded getting married and turned down every marriage proposal sent to her through the Afghani Muslim network of mothers and aunts in the eastern US. She looked to marriage as something she should do, but in the future. In this future, she would marry this fictional perfect guy, start wearing hijab, have kids, give up her career and stay home. Unfortunately, she felt that the reality would be a lot more grim for her. It broke my heart to see her being so fatalistic.

Another friend who never wore hijab but dressed modestly, was going to be forced into a marriage with an older man she didn't know, and was expected to move to Egypt, even though she herself had never lived there. Her parents were very strict with her (even though her brother was allowed to do all kinds of things Muslims consider sinful). Her future looked very grim to her. She wound up eloping with a Catholic guy, changed her first and last name, and moved as far across the country from her family as was possible.

My point is, these girls had no hope. All of this legalism was a standard ideal for them to either aspire to or that would be forced on them at their marriages. Hijab represents a lot of negative things, even to a lot of Muslim women. Legalism, no choice, lack of personal identity, etc.

Kristen said...

Dear Deb,

I think it is really offensive to people who dress in those ways to accuse of saying look at me look at me.

I know that I do not dress like people around me. If I would I would eather dress like an Amish person or walk around showing way more skin then I feel is modest and am comfortable with.

I would always feel uncomfortable dressed that way.

I am comfortable when all my legs and all my arms and all my body is covered.

I do not dress that way for attention or for people to look at me. I do not want attention. I would be perfectly happy if people looked right through me.

I dress the way I do because I am not comfortable with nonfamily seeing more of my skin then that. SO it is for my comfort not to be looked at.

Blessings and Shalom

deb said...


I'm sorry if I offended you. Re-reading my previous comment, I can see how I may not have been perfectly clear about what I meant. I did not mean to say that simply dressing in a way that provides maximum coverage is asking for attention. I was referring to women who adopt a very identifiable cultural style of dress that is normal for a culture to which they *don't* belong. Like any of us (who aren't part of traditional Anabaptist communities) dressing as if it were 1860 on the prairie. Or a midwestern woman of Northern European descent like me wearing, say, a burqa.

I was agreeing with Margi's comment about the "Anne of Avonlea frock and a hijab scarf." Obviously, women can dress in ways that provide full coverage without making spectacles of themselves or looking as if their wardrobe came from another century and/or culture. Many Orthodox Jewish women may provide the best example here: they dress very modestly, with rules about covering their arms and legs and hair, but wear contemporary styles in doing so.

Look, if you're just an individual American Christian woman whose church makes no specific demands about your clothing style beyond basic decent modesty, and you choose to dress in a way that looks to the average person on the street as if you were in costume for a play, how can you objectively say that isn't asking for attention?

Again, if your church does require an anachronistic or culturally strange-to-American-eyes style of dress, that's a different story.

margi said...

"I think it is really offensive to people who dress in those ways to accuse of saying look at me look at me."

Kristen, I wasn't accusing anyone of saying... look at me... I was saying and it's personal that I believe part of modesty, as well as being covered up, is being passed over without a second glance whether admiring or critical.

Of course because clothes are a cultural thing it's always a question of balance and we've lost the old sensibilities that once told everyone what was and wasn't appropriate for time and place. I realise there are places where to blend in one would have to be half-naked and times when any headcovering will attract attention but to me the trick is to find the via media and not get more attention than is unavoidable in the context.
Shalom to you too.

Cindy said...

I appreciate your honesty and transparency. As I was reading your post and some of the comments, a verse kept coming to mind. "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ." Col 2:8

In my area of the country a woman wearing any headcovering, whether it be a handkerchief style, or something more "full" covering all the hair, and dressing in loose (meaning not skin tight) clothing, will stand out. Believe me, I know :-)

I realized a long time ago,that I'm going to stand out if I dress at all differently than those around me, but that doesn't mean I'm going to dress like everyone else, just so I can fit in.

If someone wants to think I'm Muslim, Jewish, or whatever, I guess I can't stop them from thinking those thoughts, but what they think, shouldn't determine what I wear :-) I am much more concerned about pleasing (out of love) my heavenly Father.

The culture has changed, but His word never changes. It is clear both from history and from scripture that most women covered their bodies and wore something on their head when in public, up until we were "liberated" in the early 20th century.

Still, how we dress and whether or not we cover is a very personal decision. It isn't easy being different than others, I encourage you to follow God's leading through His word. You are His child - He loves you. No church leader will stand with you when you face Him someday - while you can get counsel, beware of following the traditions of man above God's direction.

Be blessed!