The decision to ordain women in the Church of England was controversial...
The controversial Islamic teaching that women should cover their heads is often viewed as oppressive. Yet, until recently, head coverings were not uncommon among Christian women. Is this an outdated, sexist concept? Heather Tomlinson dons a headscarf to find out.
There are certain aspects of religion that used to be anathema to me: anything with a whiff of submissiveness, modesty or apparently arbitrary rules.
I (mis)spent my youth dancing on podiums in a bikini at nightclubs, and I vividly remember having a long argument with a radical Islamist outside my university about why it was ridiculous that women wear the hijab.
When I came to Christ later in life, my views didn’t change much at first and I continued to call myself a feminist through the confused lipstick and ladette culture of the ’90s and noughties. So if you were picking a woman to try out wearing a head covering, I wouldn’t be the obvious choice. It would be even less likely that I would come to respect and enjoy the practice.
Head coverings for women were once fairly common in the Church, based on 1 Corinthians 11:5: ‘A woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head’ (NLT). This is one of those passages that modern, enlightened Christian women prefer to ignore. Pastors cite ‘context’ and ‘culture’, saying it was a practice for then and not for now.
There is speculation that this teaching is only found in Corinthians because uncovered women were considered to be prostitutes back then. I’m not convinced by this. The passage talks about angels, glory and authority as the reasons to do it, with no reference to prostitution. So what on earth does this mean?
"COVERING MY HEAD BROUGHT HOME TO ME HOW SEXUALISED MODERN NOTIONS OF FEMININITY ARE"
Of course, this issue sits within one of the more acrimonious debates within the Church at present. On one side are the complementarians, who think women and men have fundamentally different roles. They usually ignore head covering. On the other are egalitarians and feminists, who believe God gives us equal and identical roles, and that Bible passages that appear to say otherwise have been misinterpreted.
THE HANDS-ON APPROACH
Rather than debate academic studies about first-century womanhood, why not try out a biblical notion such as head covering and see what happens? Rachel Held Evans took this approach in A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson), and the results were entertaining and sometimes enlightening. Jewish writer AJ Jacobs tried living according to the Old Testament law in The Year of Living Biblically (Simon & Schuster). Despite being a scornful sceptic, he actually went on to have a religious experience.
A huge number of women cover their heads for religious reasons. There are nuns of every kind of faith, many Catholics, plus the Amish, Brethren, Orthodox Jews, Hutterites and Mennonites. Most of these are Christian. Recently, there has been a head covering revival in certain wings of the US Church: especially the ultra-reformed and those calling themselves ‘Torah-observant’.
Lobbying in favour of the practice is The Head Covering Movement, set up last year by a man called Jeremy Gardiner, who cites the theologically conservative Gospel Coalition in his profession of faith. The movement’s website features personal stories of women who are usually the only head coverers in their churches, as well as arguments from scripture to support the practice. It cites Martin Luther, William Tyndale and Thomas Aquinas, among others.
A ‘HOW TO’ IN HEAD COVERING
However, the organisation’s website is not practical in terms of giving you a ‘how to’. Instead, I venture onto YouTube, where I find countless instruction videos. Tichels, head wraps, caps, shawls, mantillas, hats, snoods: take your pick. There are even online shops dedicated to the practice, such as Garlands of Grace. I took the easy route and wound a scarf round my head like an African head wrap.
And…I liked it. It was warm, comfortable, neater than my crazy locks and I thought it looked funky. I started experimenting each morning with Jewish tichels, snoods (when in a hurry) and Brethren-style triangle headscarves. Sometimes I had all manner of colours and textiles nestling together on my head, like a crown. So far, so good. But was head covering mentioned in the Bible as a thoughtful, timesaving, artistic hobby? Probably not.
To my surprise, I started to get some spiritual insights. Covering my head made me think more deeply about which other bits of my body were covered. The first time I went into town with wrapped hair, I also wore a longish skirt and was generally a bit more ‘modest’ than usual. I was taken by surprise. I thought I would have felt self-conscious and dowdy. Instead, I felt empowered and liberated.
This experience brought home to me how sexualised modern notions of femininity are. Disagree? Go into your average high-street fashion store and try to find an item of clothing that isn’t tight, short or see-through. Attractive, well-coiffed, sexy women such as Angelina Jolie are idolised, while frumpy souls such as Ann Widdecombe are either laughed at or ignored. The subtext is that, if we don’t attract men, we’re not valuable.
Even without sexual pressure, there’s the tyranny of fashion and the fear of being judged on your appearance; by women as well as by men. Somehow, by covering up, I felt as though I was stepping out of the League Table of Female Attractiveness, and that this might be a good thing. All the better as this was achieved without wearing a hessian smock and brogues.
However, while I might have been learning from the experience, the rest of the world didn’t really notice. Perhaps if I had worn a more obvious covering that screamed ‘religious’ I would have received more comments; certainly, if I had worn a hijab. I received the odd curious question from friends, and a neighbour who is not known for his love of multiculturalism made a rude comment, but that was it.
I watched videos of women from different faiths telling their own stories of head covering. They had a variety of reasons for doing so. Some sounded a tad pious. Christians often cited modesty, keeping something for their husbands or wanting to obey God. Often these women had long, blonde hair that could attract a lot of attention.
A number felt empowered by covering their heads. Andrea Grinberg, an Orthodox Jew who has become a kind of head-wrapping guru, said in one YouTube video that donning a headscarf had surprising effects. ‘I wanted to reveal my soul,’ she shares.
‘I wanted to reveal my warmth and my love and be connected to people, instead of them looking at something external…I wanted to be an attractive person for who I am on the inside. I cover in order to be who I truly am.’
Author Karen Armstrong, a former nun, echoed Grinberg’s sentiment in a recent interview with The Guardian: ‘I myself was veiled for seven years [when she was a nun]. It was liberating in some ways. I never had to fuss about my hair or make-up or all the other trivial things with which women in the west fill their heads.’
‘Modesty’ is a tainted word, as it is often associated with the view that women invite sexual harassment if they dress in a provocative way. I found that the concept can be liberated from such sexist ideas, but that it’s not about wearing dungarees, shaving our heads and burning our bras. It can just be liberating to have our physicality in the back seat, allowing our inner selves to take centre stage. Is this what Peter meant when he talked about avoiding being concerned with ‘outward adornment’ and instead focusing on ‘the hidden person of the heart’ (1 Peter 3:3-4)?
You can’t consider the practice of head covering in 1 Corinthians 11 without also thinking about another aspect of the passage that gives modern women like me the heebie-jeebies. Verse 10 says it is a symbol that a woman is under the authority of a man, who in turn is under the authority of Christ. It says we should wear it because woman was made for man ‘and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority’ (NLT).
As I covered my head, I meditated on gender, authority and submission. These words evoke the obedience of a servile woman to a harsh, schoolmaster-like figure: they’re in control, I’m their subject. But where does this idea of authority come from? Certainly not Jesus. He taught that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and that if we are to lead we are to serve. And he followed this through by washing a queue of smelly, dirty feet. So the notion of patriarchal authority that my generation has been rebelling against isn’t anything to do with Jesus.
Any female-specific commands to submit to a (godly) man mean submitting to a servant. I feel that I’m being asked in the Bible not to abuse men in their vulnerability: not to control, boss or manipulate someone who is serving me, but to serve them myself. In other words, I understand this passage to refer to mutual submission. I began to see my own head covering as a symbol that I am working on not being bossy, controlling or manipulative. This is what ‘being under authority’ means to me.
This kind of interdependence in a male/female relationship is echoed in 1 Corinthians 11:11: ‘Neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord’ (NKJV). In light of this revelation, several tricky, gender-related Bible passages started to make sense to me, and they became joyfully liberated from the extremes that can be painted by both sides of the egalitarian versus complementarian debate.
"I HAD ALL MANNER OF COLOURS AND TEXTILES NESTLING TOGETHER ON MY HEAD LIKE A CROWN"
REMEMBERING THE OPPRESSED
My experience of covering my head has been relentlessly positive. I may have found it fascinating, but any celebration of head covering has to recognise that, for many women, the practice is a symbol of oppression and spiritual abuse. In some countries, a woman or her husband would be flogged or worse for not wearing it. Iranian women made headlines this summer when they de-hijabed themselves on a Facebook page as an act of liberation. Their Stealthy Freedom Facebook page has more than 600,000 ‘likes’.
This image of a hijab as repressive and misogynistic is probably why it is so controversial. It is banned in French schools and UK politicians have called for the same to happen here.
It sometimes feels as though women are pressured from all sides: they should be good wives and mothers, they should be career women, they should be earning the same and achieving the same as men, they should be Proverbs 31 women. Should, should, should. The last thing we need is another ‘should’, and I’m in no way suggesting that women ‘should’ cover their heads. 1 Corinthians 11 can be interpreted in various ways, and our individual journeys with God sometimes take us down very different routes.
If wearing or not wearing something on our heads comes out of guilt, manipulation, threat or abuse it must be far from God’s will. But what about the modern symbols of femininity: the lipstick, the push-up bras and the 50 brands of hair-styling product? Muslims might be justified in questioning why they are percieved to be oppressive, while we continue to exploit and objectify women in Western culture. Could the Western woman’s apparent need to get up early to wash, dry, straighten, curl or lacquer her hair in an attempt to look attractive be just as oppressive as being forced to cover your head?
Jesus doesn’t impose a list of regulations. Our only law is the law of love, and that is achieved through God himself. But I discovered that there might be more beauty and wisdom in those tricky, ignored Bible passages than I had perhaps thought, when approached as an exploration with God and not a law.
Somehow, this seemingly arbitrary bit of cloth on my head helped me to navigate my own path through the warzones of feminism versus subjugation, egalitarian versus complementarian, and sexual object versus sexless nun, to a place where I feel comfortable. So, while that continues, the scarf stays on.
SHOULD WOMEN COVER THEIR HEADS?
‘It took me eight months or so to finally find the courage to be open to this, not for my own discomfort, but for others. The ‘fear of man’ was a really big part of my hesitation. Friends, guys, family; no one I know does it.
‘Even without the biblical passage (1 Corinthians 11), I have so many reasons why this is right for me. Since I started covering, I have felt God so much more. I hear him, I feel him, I’m constantly reminded that I belong to him.’
Carlie Bunch, a vegan health coach living in the US. Taken from headcoveringmovement.com.
‘I started wearing a head covering some time in elementary school. When I was younger, I’d wear the lace ones, but when I reached young adulthood, I switched to wrapping my head and hair in scarves.
‘I think it ought to be left up to the individual whether they wish to cover or not, but I also think it lends itself to supporting a system that necessitates the controlling, silencing and subjugation of women.’
Dani Kelley was raised in a Brethren home in the US. She wore a head covering from fourth grade onwards, but stopped when she lost her faith