Modest Dress in Contemporary Judaism and Islam

A cultural and religious analysis.

Reprinted with permission from JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

When I lived in Cairo in 1993-1994, I became friends with Manal, a young Egyptian woman who worked in a nearby post office. Manal, the first woman of her lower income family to work outside the home, wore a plain white headscarf (hijab) pinned at her neck. She described her hijab as spiritual armor, which signaled her pious status and provided “cover” for her pioneering effort to work and travel on her own.

Although I understood that Manal would wear a hijab, I was astonished to see how many wealthy students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) covered as well. Far from signaling a return to traditional female roles, these AUC students wear custom-made Hermès hijabs as they pursue professional degrees.

Explaining The New Wave of Modesty

Much like the generational difference in observant Jewish circles on head covering, Egyptian and other Muslim societies have witnessed a recent trend of young women choosing to cover irrespective of, or even despite their mothers’ practices. In both Muslim and Jewish cases, the head-covering phenomenon cannot be explained solely in terms of increased religious observance. By exploring comparatively the writings of contemporary Muslim and Jewish women regarding head covering, we can better untangle the web of religious law, cultural identity, and politics at play in discussions on modesty and physical appearance.

Muslim woman wearing a hijab.

A Source of Mutual Understanding

The similarities between Muslim and Jewish head coverings can often be a source of mutual understanding, but occasionally may trigger discomfort and even competition. In interfaith settings, on panels, and on “modest dress” blogs, women of the two religions share their personal reasons for dressing modestly and bond over the challenge of dressing counter-culturally in American society. 

These shared experiences have practical outcomes–from a combined market for modest bathing suits to a “hijabchique” blogger who provides “an introduction to tichels” for fellow Muslims.  At the same time, especially in post-9/11 America, Muslim women more often experience negative stereotyping and even hostility because of their head coverings than do their Jewish counterparts. Likewise, Jewish women do not experience the pervasive criticism of the headscarf as a sign of women’s subjugation as Muslims do in France and Turkey today, nor do they face legal obstacles for donning a headscarf in these contested locales.

According to one commentator, one reason that Jewish women do not cover their hair is to distance themselves from the association between head covering and “Muslim fundamentalism.” In one extreme case of an opposite reaction, a group of ultra-Orthodox women in Ramat Beit Shemesh consciously emulated the Islamic burka as a way of recapturing the mantle of religious modesty. These intense reactions–whether sympathetic or critical–attest to the potent symbolism of the head covering even among natural allies.

Beyond the shared external similarities, hijab and kissui rosh (Jewish women’s headcoverings) both serve as the focal point for religious and cultural debates within their respective Muslim and Jewish communities. One realm of this debate is the legal question of whether a head covering is religiously mandatory. To understand this debate, a brief religious and historical background on hijab is necessary. The term hijab, translated usually as “veil,” refers not to a face veil but to material that covers one’s head and neck/chest.

Understanding the Hijab

More generally, hijab refers to modest clothing that a Muslim woman wears in public–covering all of her body except her face and hands. Unlike the prevalent Jewish practice of linking head covering to marriage, Muslim practice dictates that a woman begins to cover at puberty; in certain circles, Muslim girls begin wearing a hijab even younger.
Jewish women wearing head coverings at the Western Wall.
The Qur’an does not explicitly mandate head covering, leaving room for some modern scholars to argue that it is not compulsory. Rather, the Qur’an commands both female and male believers to behave modestly toward the other sex by lowering their gazes and covering their private parts. In addition, women should “not show their adornments beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should let their cloaks cover their bosoms and not reveal their adornments except to their husbands, their fathers…[and other male members of the household]” [24:31].

The Development of the Law of the Hijab

In another verse, the Qur’an calls upon Muslim women to drape their outer garments over their bodies in a distinctive way when they go outside: “Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized and not insulted” [33:59].

Whereas the first verse mandates covering one’s “adornments” as part of an Islamic code of modesty, the second verse dictates extra caution with regard to one’s dress to protect Muslim women from unwanted male advances. According to the Hadith literature, which includes reports of Muhammad’s sayings and behavior and serves as the second source of guidance for Muslims, early Muslim women wrapped their bodies (and, by some accounts, their heads) in garments when they went outside.

There are also numerous reports that Muhammad enjoined girls reaching puberty to cover their heads and chests when praying. Classical jurists of Islamic law unanimously interpreted the Qur’an and Hadith sources as evidence that all women between puberty and old age are obligated to cover their heads and bodies.

The majority of jurists permitted a woman to expose her face and hands, whereas a minority held that a woman must cover all parts of her body in public. Moreover, some early jurists conflated the requirements of modest dress with Quranic restrictions on mobility imposed exclusively on Muhammad’s wives [33:33; 33:53], following the general legal trend to regard Muhammad’s wives as the model for all Muslim women.

Linking Mobility & Modesty

The tendency to sequester women also reflected shifts in cultural norms; by the ninth century, Muslim rulers emulated the Persian aristocratic custom of purdah–keeping women in the home as a sign of one’s wealth. In this context, we can understand Maimonides’ relatively “moderate” ruling that a woman should not be a prisoner in her own home, but that her husband can prevent her from going outside more than once or twice a month.

Cultural norms remained fairly stable until the early 20th century, when the conflation between clothing restrictions and seclusion ended for all but an extremist minority of Muslims. Likewise, feminist movements during that period, supported by men intent on modernizing their societies, led many upper and middle class women to remove their headscarves.

Shifting Attitudes

Among contemporary Muslims, most traditional scholars maintain that the hijab is obligatory. Conservative scholars, affiliated with the Wahhabi school of Saudi Arabia, go further and maintain that even the face veil is compulsory. And yet, a number of Muslim feminist historians as well as more liberal scholars (both in the West and East) have argued that the revelatory sources do not explicitly mandate a head covering and that classical legal scholars were influenced by cultural norms instead.

One need only look at the JOFA website’s archive of articles on head covering to see parallel calls by some modern Orthodox scholars to reinterpret the traditional obligation on head covering based on shifting cultural norms. Beyond the legal issue, one finds that women’s dress continues to be the touchstone of a cultural debate regarding Western values.

Proponents of hijab argue that covering represents a rejection of Western materialism and superficiality in favor of piety and spirituality. Here, one finds a striking similarity with those Jewish writers on tzniut (modesty) who see modest dress as the antidote to the hypersexualization of women in Western society.

Consider, for example, the juxtaposition of Western superficiality and Jewish spirituality in the autobiographical article by Chaya Rivka Kessel, posted on the website: “By embracing the laws of tzniut, we acknowledge that spirituality is, in its very essence, private and internal. Tzniut refines our self-definition. By projecting ourselves in a less external way, we become aware of our own depth and internality, and are more likely to relate to those around us in a deeper, less superficial manner.”

Modesty as Empowerment

Rather than seeing tzniut as a system imposed upon women from without, Kessel viewed her decision to dress modestly as a process of self-actualization. As her female teacher once declared, “I will not allow myself to be objectified. I choose to reveal to whom I wish to reveal, when I wish to reveal.” For Kessel, the turn to modesty represents a neo-feminist act of choice.

This theme of empowered choice echoes in the narrative of Canadian Muslim, Naheed Mustafa. In her article, “My Body Is My Own Business,” Mustafa explains why she decided to wear a hijab:

“But, why would I, a woman with all the advantages of a North American upbringing, suddenly, at 21, want to cover myself so that with the hijab and the other clothes I choose to wear, only my face and hands show? Because it gives me freedom. Women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness. We feel compelled to pursue abstract notions of beauty, half realizing that such a pursuit is futile.”

These Jewish and Muslim writers both regard the act of covering up as a declaration of freedom and a rejection of the Western objectification of the female body.

However compelling the notion of modesty as an act of agency, the idea stands in tension with the way that both Jewish and Islamic literature on modesty place restrictions primarily on women. Instead of calling for a cross-gender focus on spirituality, writings on tzniut (and I would add, on Islamic dress) focus primarily if not exclusively on covering women to control the sexual appetites of men.

Covering Up for Men

As Tova Hartman argues, books on tzniut profess to emphasize a woman’s spirituality, but actually delineate the titillating effects of female body parts upon the sexual drive of men. In light of this dissonance, Hartman concludes that “despite being framed as the antithesis of Western values, religious discourse, and even practice, preserves precisely those unsavory elements with which it claims to be at war.”

As she points out, religious women are caught in a double bind: either male religious scholars objectify women by trying to cover them up, or the Western “male gaze” seeks to conquer women by stripping them down. Islamic feminists similarly struggle with the double bind of moving between a patriarchal religious system and the Western obsession with a women’s sexuality.

As African American Muslim scholar Amina Wadud writes, “In reality, the hijab of coercion and the hijab of choice look the same. The hijab of deception and the hijab of integrity look the same.” Although Wadud wears a hijab and traditional dress, she does not consider it to be a religious obligation or of moral value. Nevertheless, Wadud recognizes that others project their own assumptions about hijab on her.

The stereotypes embedded in women’s clothing inevitably hurt all women. “For some people, if you cover your head you’re ignorant, and for others, if you do not cover your head you are outside Islam,” said Sharifa Alkhateeb, who founded Muslim women’s advocacy groups in North America before her death in 2004. Although Alkhateeb wore a headscarf, she pointedly encouraged her three daughters to make their own decisions. She advocated downplaying the stereotyping and animosity, saying: “We are trying to take women beyond that whole discussion.”

For Wadud, the only way to transform the symbol of hijab is by linking one’s physical appearance to words and actions. By choosing to wear the hijab while uttering ideas about gender equality and social justice, she is challenging pervasive assumptions about the hijab while reinvesting it with new meaning.

To encourage her listeners to move beyond their assumptions about modest dress, Wadud recites what she calls her “hijab mantra” in public appearances: “If you think that the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised.” And with theatrical flair, she often removes her own hijab and drapes it on her shoulders.

In conclusion, the juxtaposition of Muslim and Jewish women’s writings on modesty allows us to highlight the various ways that cultural values interact with religious norms. The act of reinvesting old symbols–such as hijab or kissui rosh–with new meaning is an age-old process found in all religious traditions that withstand major cultural shifts.

It is striking, though, that even women who pointedly reject Western cultural values frame their decision to don head covering as an act of empowered choice, which stands as the archetypal Western feminist value. That is, not only are the norms that define modest dress influenced by cultural values but the very process of defining those norms is shaped by cultural–in this case feminist–values as well.

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