By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (nickgier@adelphia.net)


To see image of Sultana Freeman, please click on www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/hijab.htm


          I've always been envious of the extra money that my colleagues in engineering make consulting.  I thought I would never get a consulting job until the day that the ACLU gave me a call.  Some Muslim prisoners in the Boise penitentiary were complaining that the warden was forcing them to cut off their beards. The ACLU must have found me in the University of Idaho directory as the Coordinator of Religious Studies. For $25 an hour I agreed to research the issue of beards and religion and write a report. 


Hair Regulations in the World Religions


           I interviewed Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis, and I found that certain sects of each did indeed require beards as part of  male religious identity.  Certain sects of orthodox Judaism do not even allow the trimming of beards because they read: "You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard" (Leviticus 19:27).  I also discovered that Sikh men may never cut their hair or their beards.  They are required by their religion to wear a turban, not only to cover the hair but to protect the sahasrara charka, an opening at the top of the head by which the believer achieves union with God.  Sikh women also must cover their heads, and they may not remove hair from any part of their bodies.


          Although it is common for Hindu women to wear a veil as part of their clothing it is not a religious requirement.  The shaving of hair, however, is a common practice for all Hindus--men, women, and children—who go on pilgrimage to famous temples.  It is viewed as a form of sacrifice of the most beautiful aspect of the head, which is considered to be the most sacred part of the body.


A similar tradition is found in Narazite of ancient Israel, who "shall shave his dedicated head of hair at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting, and take the dedicated hair of his head and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace offerings" (Num. 6:18).  In the Old Testament hair is sometimes conceived as the source of male power, as in the case of the famous story of Samson who lost his strength when Delilah cut off his hair.


          Talmud requires that women cover their hair while in public, and Orthodox Jews still follow that tradition.  Roman Catholic canon law used to require that women cover their heads during Mass, following Paul's injunction that a "woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonors her head" (1 Cor. 11:5).  Some Pentecostal, Independent Baptist, and Mennonite women cover their heads in public as well as in church.


          The passage most often cited from the Qur'an (24:31) has more to do with general modesty, although the specific injunction to cover the bosom with a veil does of course imply veil wearing, a common custom for women in the Middle East and now considered to be a religious requirement for Muslim women. It is important to note that the Qur'an also requires modest dress for men and that their private parts not be noticeable in any way.


Historians also point out that wearing the veil was the sign of nobility and that poor women put on the headscarf as a way to raise their social status. The notorious burqa, covering the woman's body entirely, was first worn by rich Indian women as a means for them to pass unrecognized through their towns and markets. Some Muslim scholars contend that initially only Muhammad's wives were required to wear the veil and that later Muslim women followed suit to emulate them.


General Anglo-American Tolerance versus French Intolerance


Recently Abercrombie Kids refused to hire a Muslim woman because she was told that her headscarf did "not fit the Abercrombie image."  Abercrombie's own Code of Business Conduct and Ethics prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, and guidelines for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have now been specifically amended to include religious headscarves.


The Muslim headscarf (hijab) can be worn in several ways: very loosely as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did; completely covering the hair; or covering the head except for the eyes. U.S. citizen Sultana Freeman (left) is now suing the State of Florida because she refused to show her full face for a photo required for a driver's license. Freeman's attorney believes that she will win on the basis of legal precedent, because 14 other states have made exceptions for Christians who claim that taking photographs of them is a violation of the Second Commandment.


In October of 2006 Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary, stepped into deep controversy when he suggested that Muslim women should show their eyes and mouths to him when they visited his office.  Straw explained that he always had another woman present, and in dealing with his constituents it was important to "see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say."  Harsh criticism of Straw came not only from Muslim leaders but Conservative and Liberal Democratic politicians.


General Anglo-American tolerance of the hijab stands in contrast to French intolerance.  A law prohibiting the wearing of hijab in France's public schools was passed by a vote of 494-36 in National Assembly. There was already a ban on the hijab for public employment, and Muslim women have lost their jobs for refusing to remove their headscarves. Recently a Moroccan woman was denied French citizenship because she insisted on wearing the burqa.


Most Americans and Europeans are proud of their commitment to a liberal secular democracy in which church and state are kept separate.  But the Latin word liberalis means "pertaining to the free person," and a liberal society should protect, first and foremost, its citizens' right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs, as long as those beliefs to do infringe on the rights of others.

Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights states that religious freedom is subject "only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

There are other limits as well. There have been cases, for example, of prisoners who have obviously faked religious conversion to demand kosher food, and most people hold that female genital mutilation should be outlawed.  This is an inhumane East African custom and has nothing to do with Muslim belief. Since the ritual makes the young woman vulnerable to infections and sometimes lead to their deaths, the prohibition comes under public health laws.

I agree with Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, who declared that the French law "is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice."  The law will force many Muslim children to seek private education, which will separate them even more from French society and make them more vulnerable to the policies of Islamic extremists.

Turkish Secularists Clash with their Moderate Muslim Compatriots

Turkey's radical secularists have also undermined the liberal foundations of modern Turkey.  In 1924 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate, the world-wide Islamic theocracy that had been the basis of the Ottoman Empire. (This is the same organization that Osama bin Laden wants to reestablish.) Ataturk 's Republican People's Party abolished capital punishment, legalized abortion, extended women's rights, and banned the hijab in public.  Ironically, Ataturk's insistence that Turkish men wear European hats rather than the brimless fez has been ignored, but the law against hijab has been strictly enforced.

In the past several decades there has been an Islamic revival in Turkey, and a moderate Muslim party has won the last two elections, the second one by a 47% margin.  From 1999 to 2006 the number who identified themselves as Muslim first and Turks second has risen from 36 to 45 percent. The new government, under the leadership of former cleric Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has liberalized the Turkish economy and started negotiations with the European Union for membership. 

Erdogan's supporters have started banning alcohol in some towns and his education minister has begun a revision of textbooks.  Careful not to offend the new prime minister, the mayor of the city of Kars removed a sculpture of bare breasted maidens before a visit by Erdogan. It was the hijab, however, that caused the most debate.  The wife of the new president Abdullah Gul wore it in public, and the issue came to a head when Erdogan proposed that the hijab should be allowed on university campuses. Turkey's chief prosecutor brought charges against Erdogan's party claiming that it is threatening the secular foundations of Turkish society.

In August 2008 the Turkish supreme court ruled 10-1 against Erdogan and Gul.  The prosecutor had recommended that 70 members of the party be banned for five years, but that punishment required at least seven judges to rule in favor.  The vote was 6-5, so the party lost half its government stipend and it promised to withdraw its proposal to allow the hijab on campuses.

One vote the other way would have thrown Turkish society into chaos, and most of the world is now relieved that moderation on both sides has prevailed.  Religious persecution in Europe was one of the primary reasons for American and French Revolutions, and failure to respect the rights of believers of all faiths will lead us into times just as dark as the religious wars of pre-Revolutionary Europe.

Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.




Schoolgirls wearing Muslim headscarves