Yesterday I heard a news story on NPR about the debates in Turkey over women’s head scarves (hijab). Those arguing in favor of allowing them on university campuses and government facilities appeal to religious freedom. Those opposing them suggest this is an attack on the Turkish secular tradition and a step toward religious oppression. A number of western proponents of women’s rights in the Islamic world see the hijab as an abusive tool for the oppression of women.
The debate is a curious inverse parallelism to the discussions about the hijab and other religious symbols in Europe, much of which seems to center in France. There the concern seems to be that any religious symbol is offensive and a threat to national secularism. Religion is acceptable only as a private concern but is impermissible in the public arena.
In the U.S. religious symbols seem almost relegated to the realm of fashion and treated as fairly innocuous, though women who wear the hijab are definitely identified as Muslim. For many non-Muslim Americans, this takes on a cultural dimension with the assumption that with the passing of a generation it will be abandoned for current western dress. Some non-Muslim Americans may interpret the hijab as a threatening sign that Islam intends to displace American culture, perhaps even violently. Some Christians in the United States see the hijab as a symbol of “the competition” and even suggest that it is inappropriate with this country’s Judeo-Christian roots.
As a male Christian and pastor of a church in the U.S., I must acknowledge that my response to Muslim women wearing the hijab in western society is largely positive. Now, I do advocate equality, justice, opportunity and freedom for women in Islamic societies and in the rest of the world. I welcome and celebrate women in ministry in the Church. So I would not approve of using the hijab as a weapon of subjugation.
I do believe that Christians should refuse to let our faith be privatized, as though religion was a matter of personal taste akin to one’s favorite flavor of ice cream. This can happen through legal structures such as seem to be under consideration in Europe. Perhaps even more powerful, though, is an informal social consensus that makes it impolite (or “politically incorrect”) to bring faith or religious convictions or symbols into public discourse or even casual conversation. More insidious is reducing religious symbols to mere fashion, as that empties them of value, so that a cross ceases to represent Christian faith. Perhaps if Christian symbols were powerful enough not to be expressions of fashion but of faith, and being publicly identified as a Christian was socially unacceptable, then Christian discipleship would be stimulated for strength and significance.
It would seem that U.S. politics have already moved in this direction. The press, if not the electorate, now expect candidates for the U.S. Presidency to say that their religious beliefs are private and will not influence their public decisions and policies. While there have certainly been abuses of politicians trying to use their clout to impose a particular religious perspective without regard to varieties of perspective in the public, to suggest that religious convictions of public officials shouldn’t influence their policy decisions diminishes faith to an inconsequential hobby rather than the core of being from which all of life springs. Perhaps that means that a fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ could not serve as President of the U.S. or in other public offices. I would suggest instead that an authentic disciple of Jesus would respect the convictions of others and want them to be part of open social discourse. After all, the only Christian faith that matters is that which is understood (within the bounds of finite intelligence and infinite mystery) and freely, voluntarily adopted.
So as a Christian, I welcome Muslim women wearing the hijab as a religious symbol. It opens respectful, mutual conversation about faith. I feel no need to protect Jesus or the Bible from the free exchange of ideas from alternate or competitive sources. Nor do I feel compelled to convince people that Christianity is right (and other religions are wrong) or superior. I am confident the Holy Spirit is quite capable of whatever persuasion is needed.
Christian symbols seem to have become either expressions of fashion (a cross on a necklace) or trivial (a fish or dove or WWJD) or a culture wars attack (a slogan on a bumper sticker). What symbol might have the strength and significance to represent serious Christian discipleship the way wearing the hijab signals that this woman is a devout Muslim?
The hijab, however, is more than a symbol of being Muslim. It is a means of modesty. I am not at all suggesting that covering the hair is necessary for modesty. But I do sense that modesty has gone out of fashion, not only in the general society but among Christians as well. We snicker at Victorian cover ups and equate modesty with prudishness or repressed sexuality. My concern for modesty has little if anything to do with what I expect of the culture in which I live, but everything to do with how Christians respect their bodies and sexuality and that of others. Also, this is not just about women or about thinking of women as temptresses who corrupt men.
Rather, I want to cultivate and explore how a modesty that values and celebrates our physical bodies and sexuality might be expressed in Christian discipleship. As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
We tend to get caught up in rules and externals: how much and which skin showing is immodest? How short is too short for skirts and shorts? How tight is too tight? All of that, I think, misses the point of our internal, spiritual modesty. How do I dress, and how do I look at the way others dress that glorifies God for, with and in these bodies? Beauty, strength, energy, movement, focus. What is my own (male, Christian) hijab that disciplines me toward Christ-like modesty in my time and place? When I see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab (as is common enough to be a daily occurrence when I am out and about in the city), I respect her courage in outwardly identifying her faith, even if unpopular, and her expression of modesty. I take it as Christ’s call and reminder to me to cultivate my inner spiritual modesty.