Copyright: Michel Cojan

Can Christian Women Wear the Hijab?

In 1994, Nazma Khan, with several members of her family, made the grueling and life-changing journey of leaving their lives behind in Bangladesh in hopes of starting a new life in America. Khan recalls her father’s hard work, who used to sell newspapers on the street to find a living space that would accommodate up to seven family members in the Bronx. Overjoyed at finding a one-bedroom apartment for $600 per month, Khan was ecstatic about the next significant chapter of her life; attending an American school for the first time. 

In her TedTalk delivered in Ocala, Florida, last year, Khan recalls wanting to feel “beautiful” on her first day of school. Khan wanted to go to school wearing the hijab just like her grandmother did whenever she stepped outside the home. At age 11, she would experience “awkward looks” and “whispers” during her regular commute to school, due to being a part of the mere five percent of minority students. Things worsened when Khan entered the school as the only hijab-observing girl and international student who could not speak English. 

“Slowly, the abuse became physical and unbearable,” Khan said. “I no longer felt safe going to school, but I forced myself to continue as I loved learning and did not want to disregard my parents’ sacrifice or shatter their American dream.” 

Life only became more difficult for Khan after the tragic event of 9/11, where she was chased and labeled as a “terrorist” and called “Osama bin Laden.” Despite such traumatic experiences, Khan became a catalyst of change and acceptance for the hijab. Feb. 1st would mark an annual global movement where women share their journeys of observing the hijab on a day filled with positivity and solidarity. The movement became even more special and impactful as non-Muslim women from various denominations spoke up in support of the observance of the hijab by wearing the veil themselves. Catherine Valler, an Orthodox Christian from Belarus, shared her testimony to “World Hijab Day,” stating, “I want to show people from Russian-speaking countries that they have got the wrong opinion about Muslim women.” 

Maria Virginia, a non-Muslim woman from Brazil, expressed her solidarity by saying, “I want to support women who wear the hijab. Women should be free to decide to wear the hijab or not — and both decisions are important and [deserve] respect.”

Other women of Orthodox and Christian belief systems stepped forward to display their support. When studying the topics of modesty and particularly the veil, many see that these are concepts predominantly observed in Islam. Research shows, however, that the observance of the veil is encouraged and emphasized across all Abrahamic faiths. 

The question then arises: can non-Muslim women, specifically Christian women, observe the hijab in the same ways Muslim women do? Do Christianity and Islam share the same beliefs concerning the veil and modesty? What exactly is the “hijab” for women in Christianity? 

How is Modesty Practiced In Different Religions? 

Derived from the Latin word modestus, defined as “keeping within measure,” communities globally share different viewpoints on what is/is not modesty. For some, it may be the covering of the hair. For others, it may be the entire body. In some nations, public nudity is criminalized, and in other areas, certain groups want to work with those in office to legalize public nudity.

Modesty for some may include abstaining from speaking with men, while for others, it may be avoiding them altogether, especially if they are not mahram (an individual who is related to a person through marriage or blood.) In the physical aspect, some countries consider modesty as a concept where concealing the body is encouraged from the eyes of men who are not mahram to a woman. Loose-fitting or long clothing garments hide the body’s form, skin, undergarments, and private areas. 

Taking a closer look into modesty in society, the humility of clothing is also observed in various settings. For example, wearing a bikini in professional spaces may be severely frowned upon because there are certain etiquettes of dressing that are to be obeyed. However, if a Muslim woman were to visit a beach in France completely covered, her modesty would be condemned, and in some unfortunate cases, prohibited, for not following society’s standards. Yet as literature and research suggest, purity is not limited to outward practice. Instead, it is a concept encouraged in one’s lifestyle and mannerisms.

According to a critical essay, A Brief History of Modesty, written by Abigail Williams, “the word ‘modest’ is a term that is everywhere in the long eighteenth century: in political rhetoric; aesthetic debate; new science and quantification; and in evolving ideas of gender and politeness.” Williams explains that over time, the term has adopted new meanings, and it most commonly signifies a personal attribute — having a “moderate or humble estimate of one’s abilities or achievements.” 

During the gathering of preliminary research for this article, Muslim women were requested to define the terms hijab and modesty. They defined the hijab as protecting one’s private parts and establishing a clear boundary between men and women so they could observe the teachings of Islam. Something worn to protect oneself from the “pornographic society” that we live in,  how you speak and dress, the hijab is worn to cover yourself and your beauty. They defined modesty in similar ways, stating that it is power; it is the action of not beautifying yourself in any way, thinking before you speak, and lowering your gaze in the presence of men. 

“The hijab protects the modesty of women because Allah (SWT) [has] always talked about the importance of women, right? How much power do we have,” said Zaina Khan, a freshman in high school. “This is just to protect our rights and to give us more power, in my opinion.”

According to the survey, approximately 80% of Muslim women who participated, believe Islam and Christianity share the same definitions of modesty. It is noted that in early religions, several intersections and similarities exist that encourage followers of the denomination to uphold just, pious, and moral values to protect them from participating in any form of cardinal sin. 

The Observance of The Veil In Islam And Christianity

In Christianity, The Virgin Mary is depicted wearing a head covering. In this photo, The Virgin Mary receives the Annunciation. A book with gold clasps lies open on her lap. Circa 1500 (British Library)

 In Zohreh Sadatmoosavi and Mohammad Ali Shokouhi’s comparative study, Chastity and Modesty Observance and their Impacts on the Human Spiritual Development in Quran and the New Testament, the authors emphasize that in Islam and Judaism, the practicing of the veil is encouraged so both women and men can protect themselves from being persuaded into sins that would stray them from keeping their marriage, its stability, and family formation at the forefront of their lives due to how sacred these things are. Several verses within the holy scriptures of Christianity announce the importance of modesty and the urgency to become exemplary models showcasing it in mannerisms and lifestyles. According to the study, the scripture of Genesis does not explicitly mention the term “modesty”; however, its emphasis is still evident through the narrations of early events narrated both in Christianity and Islam.

“The word “modest” [was] not mentioned in Genesis, but Biblical principles are often demonstrated through literal events. For instance, God [covering] Adam and Eve establishes a moral principle that is reinforced throughout the Old and New Testament,” the study states. In Genesis, when Christ narrates the story of Adam and Eve, he recounts that after Eve was brought to Adam for the first time, the vicegerent recited a couplet which said this creation had been made from my flesh and bones, and so a woman comes from man. The next verse in Genesis states, “Adam and his wife were both born naked, and they felt no shame (Genesis 2:25).” 

However, many Muslims believe that after knowing the pious and humble nature of the prophets, Adam must have averted his gaze upon meeting Eve for the first time. 

“The hijab has been around for a really long time. Honestly, a lot of people do say that it started with Prophet Muhammad when the Qur’an was introduced, but I disagree with that,” Khan said. “Because I think that the hijab has been there since the beginning of time. Because we could see Prophet Adam and Eve’s story, right? When they took the apple and everything, then Allah took the hijab from them.”

Further, like in Islam, a debate exists on how God has advised His creations to observe the proper veil. Sumana Asgar, a university student in the UK, says that in her experience of studying the Bible, there are specific chapters that urge the covering of the head. Through dialogues with Christian peers, she discovers that some still find loopholes for what this “covering” is. 

“I have read a chapter of the Bible, I think it was Chapter 11, and there’s a lot of emphasis about how women should cover their heads when they pray and all of that,” Asgar said. “I’ve read a lot of interpretations of that chapter as well, but I find it very interesting how this is what you’re expected to do — cover your head while you’re praying, and people finding loopholes in all of this to match their sort of perspective.” 

In this specific chapter of Corinthians, Christ says that every man who covers his head while praying dishonors his head, “but for every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is the same as if her head were shaved (Corinthians 1:11).” In this holy scripture, man is not required to cover his head since “he is the image and glory of God; but a woman is the glory of man (Corinthians 1:11).” 

Can Christian women observe the hijab? 

While the veil and modesty are practices found within not just the Abrahamic faiths, but in religions globally, within Christianity there exists a complex history of when the veil was first worn. Even before the revelation of the verses in the Qur’an about modesty were revealed to Prophet Muhammad, women of the bedouin tribes still veiled their heads and bodies, but more so for cultural and environmental reasons. 

Father Christopher Robinson, an adjunct professor of religious studies at DePaul University, highlights that across religious scriptures in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, clothing is a complex topic due to fairly clear descriptions existing of how priests should dress. However, for the veil, there seem to be more cultural and regional practices behind them in early history. 

“For protection from the sun, protection from bugs, different ways in which the winds of the sands, especially for bedouin, mobile people, the veil seems to have developed as a utility, if you will,” Father Robinson said. “A lot of times when people will study this question, they associate it also with dietary loss because those have a lot more description in Hebrew scripture than even clothing.” 

The shift of wearing a veil with the intention of modesty was then experienced within the 13th century when regions around Syria began to mandate the veil due to no environmental impacts. 

Before Vatican II, Christian women observed a form of hijab where nuns would either cut their hair quite short or shave it off completely. They would then cover their heads with a veil, and this practice continues for Eastern Christian and Orthodox communities. In the Orthodox communities, women will wear a veil before entering the church, and men will remove the hats they’re wearing. While many Christians may say that nuns in the church observe modesty because they have to, the theological reason behind this action is not just submission, but their complete servitude to God. 

The veils of modesty for nuns are their symbols of purity and humility, and depending on their status in the church, the colors can also vary. For example, the wearing of a black veil will indicate that a nun is in a senior position within the church. In fact, some nuns also use a black veil to cover their faces during times of prayer, or mass. Nuns in Christianity have been practicing modesty since approximately the Middle Ages when instead of using a veil, nuns wore more modest clothing to cover their bodies. 

Yet there have also been some moments within the history of Christianity where the veil was not utilized as a symbol of modesty. There was an era where women of lower socioeconomic status, especially prostitutes, were prohibited from veiling their bodies and instead, women of wealthier status covered themselves with a veil. Although the veil may not be practiced as frequently as it has in the past, it’s slowly beginning to come back, especially within Christian communities across Chicago. 

Despite the practice of the hijab being prominent within Islam, it is a concept that has been instituted within all religions as a way to empower women worldwide. Whether it’s to show solidarity with the Muslim women who continue to be negatively impacted by the tragic events of 9/11; revering Lady Mariam as an exemplary role model of chastity; or submitting one’s life in complete servitude to their creator, hijab is that door to God’s glory that embraces all those who make the intentions to wear it, and serves as an eternal symbol of power to break down barriers, and implement change in today’s society.