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America’s Long History of Hysteria About Women’s Veils

Rep. Ilhan Omar is the first person to wear a hijab in Congress. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Fox far right wing propagandist Jeanine Pirro came after Ilhan Omar for veiling, saying it is unconstitutional for her to follow the sharia and accusing her, horror of horrors, of dual loyalty.

Pirro says that the Qur’an requires women to cover their heads. Many Muslims do believe this, but it isn’t in fact clear. The Qur’an says women should cover their pretty parts, which I suspect refers to the general state of undress common in seventh century Arabia. It doesn’t explicitly mention the head. Indeed, when I lived in the Middle East in the 1970s as a young person, I would guess that 5% of urban women wore headscarves or veiled. During the past 40 years there has been a women’s veiling revolution in Egypt and Iran, for instance. Not so much in Tunisia and Turkey still. In any case, outside of ideological states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, the practice is universally admitted to be a personal choice. In Egypt it is common to see veiled and unveiled friends walking together. I can’t see what it has to do with the Constitution.

For the nth time, Muslim sharia is equivalent to Catholic canon law or Jewish halakha and for a believer to put themselves under this discipline is hardly disloyal to the United States. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson and the Founding generation wanted people to be free to practice their various religions and religious laws, which is why they put the First Amendment into the Constitution. Jefferson said it did not matter to him whether his neighbor believed in a thousand gods or none. It did not, he said, pick his pocket or break his leg.

The far right wing American project of making a fetish of Muslim canon law is itself unconstitutional. And it contains a severe danger of fostering anti-Semitism, since Jewish halakha is very similar in most respects to Muslim law. If the one makes an American disloyal, doesn’t the other?

Here’s something for Pirro to consider: Orthodox Jewish women often feel that only their husbands should see their hair. The NYT notes,

    “While some women chose merely to cover their hair with a cloth or sheitel, or wig, the most zealous shave their heads beneath to ensure that their hair is never seen by others.”

Orthodox Judaism is a small but vital American religious tradition with a long history on the North American continent.

Pirro is herself Catholic, and should be more sensitive to the long discrimination suffered by Catholic women in orders in Protestant America for their veiling.

In fact, nothing is more American historically than veiling and debates on veiling. Most Christians until recently following St. Paul’s dictum that women should cover their heads in church. But many women have gone far beyond that in American history.

Roger Williams (d. 1683), the Puritan minister who founded Rhode Island, favored the veiling of women, and his female followers used to wear “impenetrable veils” in the congregation as he preached. Joseph Cotton differed with him on this practice– so perhaps here we have the first big debate on American veiling!

Martin Luther wrote, “the wife should put on a veil, just as a pious wife is duty-bound to help bear her husband’s accident, illness, and misfortune on account of the evil flesh.” He also said, “Fur and head coverings are women’s most attractive and honorable and most genuine and most necessary adornment.” It is not at all clear that he was speaking only of being in church. American Lutherans are a major strain in American Protestantism and many Lutheran women wore head coverings in church until recently.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that a man should not cover his head, since he is in the image of God. Women, he held, however, only reflect this divine glory of men. He wrote, “Therefore she ought not to appear, but with her head veiled, as a tacit acknowledgment of it.” Although Wesley was mainly speaking of public religious services, he seems to have thought women might better veil in general, since he urged the practice “especially in a religious assembly.”

Methodism was perhaps the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in the late 19th century.

Kathleen Holscher writes that in 19th-century Protestant America, Catholic women in orders were a scandal:

    “Female religious orders offered antebellum Protestants a constellation of possibilities that alternately frightened and fascinated them. Catholic sisters took vows of obedience to an institution that could seem sinisterly at odds with democratic governance. They wilfully accepted imprisonment (or so it seemed) and made themselves discouragingly plain and sexless to the eyes.”

She points out that the Protestant public was nevertheless sort of obsessed with these sisters’ lives: “Their curiosity made one of these– Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery –the second bestselling title in the United States in the years before the Civil War.

Holscher says, “Early in Awful Disclosures, Monk recounts her own “taking of the veil”: “I stood waiting in my large flowing dress for the appearance of the Bishop. … I then threw myself at his feet, and asked him to confer upon me the veil. He expressed his consent, and threw it over my head, saying, “Receive the veil, O thou spouse of Jesus Christ.”

The cloth thrown over her head binds the narrator in a spurious pseudo-marriage and provides quite literally the shroud of secrecy that will drive the horrors of her memory along.”

[Kathleen Holscher, “Contesting the Veil in America: Catholic Habits and the Controversy over Religious Clothing in the United States,” Journal of Church and State; Oxford Vol. 54, Iss. 1, (Winter 2012): 57-81.]

And of course then we have the Amish, the Mennonites and other minorities.

Pirro doesn’t know the constitution, doesn’t know American history, doesn’t know her own tradition of Catholicism, and doesn’t have the slightest idea about Islam.

Once again, Fox plays the role of the 21st century American Goebbels, spreading racialized hatred and making accusations of disloyalty at the minorities it holds to pollute the body public.

What, oh what, you have to wonder, is the Fox Final Solution to this problem?

Juan Cole / Informed Comment
Juan Cole
Contributor
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the proprietor of the Informed Comment e-zine. He has written extensively on modern Islamic movements in…
Juan Cole

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