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What to do with Muslim veils?

"The issue of Muslim women wearing veils in public ... has already led to bans in a number of European countries, and is destined to become an issue in Canada too," wrote Peter Glover ("Muslim apartheid," C.L. December 2006, pp. 18). He may well be right.

Before discussing Muslim veils, let us recall that the veil has ancient origins and that within the Catholic tradition, it has played, and still plays, a special role.

In ancient Rome, a red veil, or a veil with red stripes, distinguished newly married women from the unmarried. In Palestine, all Jewish women wore veils. Throughout the ages, the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, has been portrayed wearing a veil and when she appears to visionaries to entrust them with a message for the Church and the world, this is the way they see her. The tradition of the veil has been carried on among Christians until today. What does it mean?

St. Paul explains it as follows in his first Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 11, verses 3-10:

"But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head ... For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man ... That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels."

The Jerusalem Bible translates vs. 10 as follows: "That is the argument for women covering their heads with a symbol of authority over them, out of respect of the angels." (A footnote in the Jerusalem Bible states: "Apparently a reference to angels as being guardians of public order in public worship.")

The veil, then, is an acknowledgement of submitting to authority, and in the Church, this is taken as a sign of subjection to the authority of Christ. Among the general population of Catholics the veil or, as fashions changed over the last few centuries, the hat, remained in use until recent times.

In addition, the veil acquired a particular place among women consecrated to Christ. As Catholic sisterhoods developed, in addition to wearing a habit, they adopted the local headdress of their times and retained them even as the local populations abandoned them. Consequently, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Catholic Sisters stood apart, and paid the consequences in Protestant areas of Europe with insults, catcalls or even had stones thrown at them.

In short, the chief purpose of the Sisters' wimples and headcovers was to witness to Christ and the Catholic faith. Modesty and protection from men were side-effects, not the original intentions.

Because of this tradition, Catholics should be sympathetic to the propriety of the Muslim veil. Yet, there are major differences with the Christian tradition.

First, the origins of the Muslim veil is the reverse of that of the Christian veil; it is cultural, not religious. Its prime purposes are subjection to the husband and protection through modesty. Only secondarily do some Muslim women also see it as adherence to Allah.

Second, the Muslim veil ranges from headscarves or the hijab, to the niqab, a face veil, and the burqa, which covers body and face. The latter two leave only a slit opening for the eyes.

While Christianity teaches the essential equality of man and woman, Islam does not. The Quran teaches that the woman is inferior to the man (Sura 2: 228); that this is so by divine decree (Sura 4:34); that a man may beat his wives (Sura 4:34); and, of course, that a man may have more than one wife (R. Spencer, Islam Unveiled, 2002, Chapter, "Does Islam respect women?").

Both the burqa and the niqab are now associated with the intolerable and unacceptable cultural treatment of women in Muslim countries so vividly illustrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan, who keep women at home, deny them basic schooling, and indeed deny them any rights at all, other than what the husband sees fit to tolerate.

As the burqa and the niqab are like masks, several countries in Europe such as Italy have forbidden them. Headscarves are fine, it seems to me, but I cannot see a place for the face veil or the burqa in Canada.


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Author:De Valk, Alphonse
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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