"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Veiling and Hair and Paul

I have a relatively new Facebook friend and she's Jewish - my first Jewish friend! I met her on a HuffPo link. I liked one of her comments, and she requested me as a friend just like that!  I'm not sure how she'd label herself (if she would), but she told me that as a married woman she doesn't wear "trousers," but wears skirts that cover her knees, blouses that cover the elbows and she covers her hair in public.  She said single women don't cover their hair, but married women do in her community.  She also pointed out that her husband does modest things for her like not swimming in gender-mixed places.

I say all that because I was reading Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden. She said she really did not like Paul because he sounded so misogynistic and homophobic, but as a scholar in classical languages, she started reading Paul in light of his contemporaries.  The book is "the apostle reinterpreted and reimagined in his own time."  She quotes Bible passages attributed to Paul, and compares them to other literature and known historical contexts of Paul's time.

One thing that really took my attention was about hair. It made me think, "Oh wow, the Middle East really hasn't evolved much from this thinking," and I don't mean that in a derogatory way because, likely, they have evolved, but they just still hold onto the traditions. That's more what I mean. I recall hearing people talk how in some places in, say, the Levant tribes do what they have done for centuries. And in many ways, I find that wonderful because there is something to be said for holding onto your culture and not letting social media or all this dang stuff available in the world make you lose something precious.

(I'm probably not saying that right, but I know what I mean in my own mind.)

So the subject was women's hair. More specifically she was talking about that passage concerning women in church covering their heads. From time to time I see a Christian group that practices this here, but despite my rather strict upbringing, it's one thing we never did in the Baptist churches I'm familiar with.  (Women didn't even have to have particularly long hair thankfully, since mine really doesn't grow long without growing into a shrub).  I have heard Muslims declare "See, you all are supposed to do what our women do...you just cherrypick that out and don't obey. You should be wearing hijab as well."  (Have you heard this, too?)

So I was going to write what she said about the veil, but figured first I'd ask for interpretations that you have heard regarding this passage. The main one I recall is that it was cultural and that our hair is our natural covering so we don't have to worry about veiling in the 20th century.

Instead of writing her thoughts on the veil, here is what she said about hair:

"Paul does not write of 'nature' (verse 14) by accident. The ancients believed that it was female hair's nature to inflame men, almost like breasts or genitals: men experienced women's hair as powerfully, inescapably erotic, in a way that makes our hair-care product companies look like an accounting textbook."  (pg. 88)

Then she quotes erotic passages from Ovid and Apuleius about hair and continues, "Notice the implicit association between hair on display and actual nakedness. This wouldn't make much sense unless both signaled sexual availability and both were thought of as automatically bringing on male desire."  (pg. 91)

What are your thoughts on hair, veiling, Paul's words on the subject, interpretations you've heard, what your church teaches on this matter, the fact that I added a new friend on Facebook based on a HuffPo link comment?  Anything?


Rebekka @ Becky's Kaleidoscope said...

This is something that used to really fascinate me (I don't know if you remember, but on the old blog I did a 3-part series on hair coverings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Personally, I actually find that the Bible is much clearer in its command for women to cover their hair, than the Qur'an is. I do think that people interpreting Paul's message as being "to another time" are cherry-picking what to follow and what not to follow (at least when they are then also claiming that other parts of his writings, e.g., male temple prostitutes sleeping with men seen as a ban on homosexuality are still relevant today). There isn't necessarily anything wrong with cherry-picking, I think it is actually impossible to be a Christian/follow the Bible without doing some degree of cherry-picking, but it annoys me when people aren't honest about that.

In terms of considering the hair a veil already, I do not think that is what Paul meant when he said that women's hair is her crowning glory in the exact same passage as telling her to cover it.

Actually I think the best argument that it is a cultural thing, is the argument that Paul says women should cover their hair because it is shameful for them to have it shaven off, but since that (usually) is not seen as shameful today, you no longer need to cover it. That makes some sense, although I do know of a lot of Christian communities where it is still seen as shameful for women not to have long hair, so I don't know.

Amber said...

I think it's awesome that you have a new FB friend from a newspaper article!

Hair...I love hair and I can absolutely understand where it's a sexual/sensual thing. One of the first things I notice about people is their hair. :)

I still love veiling, though I don't do it 24/7 as I used to. I think that the Bible is clear about a woman's hair being covered when she is praying/in church/or speaking prophetically, but covering all the time? Not quite so clear. And I see modesty enjoined in the Qur'an, but does that necessarily equate hair covering or hijab (the entire style of dress, not just the scarf) specifically? I'm not as sure about that. Modesty is a variable concept.

I go back and forth on Paul in general, to be honest. That being said, it's hard to argue that a woman's hair is a natural veil and therefore counts as her 'cover' when Paul says in the same breath that it needs to be covered.

I have heard/read the argument that Christian women are supposed to cover just like Muslim women, yes. *shrug* If we went by the standards of the times in which the portions of the Bible were written, it's true.

Veiling isn't the tradition in the Lutheran church (at least not the one I grew up in) and the Catholic church does have a long history of veiling but it's not required any more.

That 'Paul Among the People' book is actually on my wishlist, so I'll be interested to hear what you think about it. And I'm looking forward to your new friends response!

Unknown said...

I have never heard a Muslim say that Christians should cover their hair too. In fact, when I started covering I was worried about offending Muslims, so I visited some websites and asked if it was okay for me to wear hijab. Everyone who responded said some variant of "Of course it's not offensive! But why on earth would you do it since you're a Christian and don't have to?" :D When I visited a Muslim community center wearing a tichel-style scarf, the director told me (gently, not like an order) to take it off!

My favorite interpretation of this comes from an article in a Biblical Studies journal my library was giving away once. It argued that Paul (and others of the time) saw hair as part of human genitalia, and that's why it was supposed to be covered. The author discussed ancient medical writings that showed some people believed women became pregnant because their hair sucked men's essence into their bodies during sex. If a woman couldn't get pregnant, one test a doctor might do would be to have her eat garlic and then come back a few days later. If when she came back the doctor couldn't smell garlic on her scalp, it meant her hair wasn't working properly or there was a block somewhere in her body!

It's an incredibly bizarre reading and I'm not sure I agree that it's what Paul was getting at. But it's certainly interesting and fits well with the idea that (female) hair was considered sexual in nature. I'll have to find it and maybe share it on Facebook or something.

I like that you met a new friend on HuffPo so simply! I've had something similar happen on Google+ a few times, but I don't do a lot of commenting on news sites or things like that.

Susanne said...

Becky, yes, I remember your series on this topic!

" There isn't necessarily anything wrong with cherry-picking, I think it is actually impossible to be a Christian/follow the Bible without doing some degree of cherry-picking, but it annoys me when people aren't honest about that."

Good point! I enjoyed your comment. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I apologize for not replying before now.

Amber, oh, I am curious what you will think of this book. I hope you get it and either argue or agree with her so I'll know if you think she makes good arguments.

Sanil, that's interesting that you've never heard Muslims say this about covering the hair. I think maybe it was Muslim guys now that I think of it. Ha! But I definitely have seen them use Paul's words to say Christians should cover, too!

I love that interpretation. Wow, garlic and hair! Heheheh...thanks for sharing that!

The thing about the HuffPo friend was that I didn't even comment. I just "liked" her comment on one particular post I saw. It was a picture - a Jewish scene and I read her reply and "liked" it. Next thing I know, she requested me as a friend. :)

I greatly enjoyed everyone's comment. Thanks much for sharing your thoughts on this topic!

Soon I'll have to share what the author said to see if you all agree that it's plausible.

Susanne said...

I posted Sarah Ruden's thoughts ... check it out and let me know what you think.

Amber said...


Clearly we hung out with different Muslims. I don't hear it often, anymore, but I've moved away from (internet) hanging out with Salafis.

sheeshany said...

Hello there, v good read, thank you. I also liked the comments; they were informative.

This is my first "official" visit to your blog. I always noticed your comments on Wafa + Jaraad + Chiara`s blogs, they are funny and insightful.

I came to see your blog more than once, read a couple of posts, liked that u have a reading list / month :) but sadly never placed a comment.

Annnnnnyhow, I don`t have much to add I guess but I`ll say the following:
In Qur`an there is no explicit mention for women to cover their hair. This is an issue -obviously- that gets a lot of debate, whether on the "why" of it, the definition of a hijab, the issue that there is a continuity matter "mentioned + practiced in Christianity as well as Judaism", and if it is just a mere cultural thing.

In Islam, the basic justification for covering hair (I`m certain you know) is because it is -as you and the commentators showed- sexual in nature/scope and hence needs to be banned/controlled.

I wish I can give a "comforting" answer (in lack of a better word!) I`m sure it would not be easy for me if our planet gets dominated by women (now that`s a thought, lol) and they mandate ,based on novel interpretations of holy books and/or a link between the modern world`s necessities and its survival, that males need to cover their right hand (humour me, I`m just trying to make an analogy) :)

It is hard to shut everything out and focus on 1 element (in order to grasp it better) in such situations. Situation where covering hair is crucial and needs to be implemented vs. choice to make a decision and act accordingly.
A lot of subsequent "ideas" follow; is it enough to rationalize it by coming from a higher power (God, etc..), examples of what is happening in cases of both covering as well as not covering and weighing pros & cons and deciding to either force one option or ensure measures/mechanism to get a sought-for-balance "if any", and many ..many more.

I realize I`m commenting all over the place so I shall stop now :) but yr post -apparently- stirred a lot of thoughts in me, so again, thanks!

Susanne said...

Hello Haitham!

So nice to see you over here, and I'm delighted that you left a comment on this post. I'm glad you found this post thought-provoking enough that you wanted to share your thoughts. I really appreciate that. I don't really blog a whole lot any more, but I always enjoy comments even on old stuff.

And I'm always glad to read your thoughts on Malik's post, of course. :)

Have a good week!

sheeshany said...

I think I know what you mean about (don`t blog a whole lot any more)! It is addictive yet time consuming and the balance is hard to find when it comes to blogging (posting vs commenting!)

You have a fruitful week ahead of you too, I shall keep an eye for new posts :)


* About the (add) based on the (like): I guess it is quickly becoming the norm, hyperconnectedness (is that even a word?) is the thing now!

truth said...

You have a bad taste on hijab.