Dressed for faith: What head scarves, kippas and turbans reveal about religious freedom, tolerance and national identity

Leila, a 68-year-old Arab woman in a simple black head scarf, enjoys a Saturday afternoon sitting on a park bench along the promenade by the South Jerusalem train tracks.

Passing by is Yael, a young modern Orthodox mother with two children in tow. She has also covered her hair with a light blue kerchief, in accordance with Jewish law for married women.

Elsewhere, Hasidic men in long black coats wearing top hats known as striemels mix on the streets with young Muslim women in hijabs and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox nuns in full habit.

No one draws a second glance in this Holy City for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

That is increasingly not the case in other parts of the world, where religious dress is often seen as a threat to national identity and, at worst, a reason to inflame old prejudices.

Jewish people in Paris and Muslims in London who wore distinctive religious attire reported frequent instances of verbal and physical attacks, including being spat at on the street, according to one study.

While ordinary Muslims endure anti-immigrant and anti-Islam stereotypes in England, Religious Jews are perceived as a threat to French secularism by bringing visible religiosity into public spaces and in so doing awakening deep seated anti-Semitism which has been part of European societies for centuries, researchers Lucine Endelstein of the Université Toulouse in France and Louise Ryan of Middlesex University in England concluded.

The concerns are not limited to isolated incidents.

Many Western nations have gone beyond social pressures to pass laws and regulations banning religious dress.

Consider these actions:

  • In France, a law was passed in 2004 banning public school students from wearing any clothes with religious symbols, prohibiting Muslims from wearing head scarves, Jews from wearing head coverings called kippas and Christians from wearing visible crosses. The nation again in 2010 passed a law banning veils covering the face in public. Earlier this year, a Muslim student was barred from her high school class after her skirt was deemed too long and branded a violation of the society’s secular norms.
  • Half of Germany’s 16 states have banned teachers from wearing headscarves, with the state of Hesse extending the ban to all civil servants.
  • In Belgium, a 2011 law bans the wearing of full-face veils in public.

Nor is the West alone in enforcing such dress codes.

At the other extreme, some countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran have long required women to wear face-covering veils in public. And radical groups such as the Taliban and now the Islamic State are imposing strict restrictions wherever they have taken control in nations such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

A Pew Research Center study found that 57 countries had some form of regulations on the wearing of religious symbols in 2010, a dramatic increase from 2007 when such regulations were in place in 21 countries.

What makes this issue so sensitive is that it touches on so many other concerns from immigration to global politics to setting boundaries on diversity. The fear that the essential character of a nation will be changed by allowing distinctive religious attire lies behind many efforts at regulating public displays of religious symbols, analysts say.

But picking and choosing freedoms based on social and political pressures can have far-reaching consequences to both the stability and the democratic character of a nation, researchers have found.

Limits on religious freedom are significantly related to religious persecution and violence, and such restrictions even if targeted at one group lead to reduced rights for all.

The potential for conflict is particularly high when the rights being denied are central to the faith of individuals.

A modest response

Modesty in dress has long been a central tenet of many of the world’s major religions.

Still, for many believers, formal and informal dress codes have relaxed in the modern era. Reasons for this include the rise of less strict movements such as Reform and Conservative Judaism, evangelical Christianity’s embrace of contemporary worship that emphasizes outreach to the unchurched, the rise of secular influences and massive migration that promotes assimilation to new cultures. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s encouraged even many Catholic priests and sisters to wear more modern dress.

Other believers, however, have responded to secular pressures by embracing distinctive forms of clothing as visible signs of their faith commitments and a reaction to a contemporary culture that they believe promotes immorality and the sexual exploitation of women.

Consider, for example, the plain dress of Amish and Mennonite Christians.

In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox community is becoming even more modest in dress than were their pious European ancestors, said Marc Shapiro, a professor of Jewish studies at Scranton University in the U.S. who has studied the evolving modesty norms of the ultra-Orthodox .

Looking at old records, You see men and women sitting together, you see clothes in which the top button is open on women, you see shorter sleeves, you see women in pictures in rabbinic circles—in books and newspapers, Shapiro said.

What accounts for the shift?

A lot of this has to with a backlash against the overly permissive culture, Shapiro said. When there’s so much skin showing, then you have a backlash moving in the other direction.

But there is also something more, said Rabbi Joshua Pfeffer, founder of Hebrew University’s Haredi campus.

Modesty norms, known as tzniut in the Jewish tradition, go back to the Bible, and in particular Micah 6:8: What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Religious dress, Pfeffer said, is part of a larger aspirational ideal of modesty, of being in communion with your God in modesty. In the Haredi community, that meaning isn’t lost on people.

Proponents of restrictions on religious dress cite reasons ranging from security and anti-terrorism concerns in the case of full-face coverings to their desire to promote the dignity and equality of women.

In backing a ban on face-covering veils, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the clothing goes against French values. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom, he said.

This argument has drawn criticism from groups such as Human Rights Watch.

The right to autonomy, a core principle of women’s rights, is understood to be a part of the right to a private life guaranteed under international human rights law, the organization states. At a practical level, it is hard to see how proscriptive laws targeting women serve the cause of women’s equality.

Research is also bringing to light not only the way many believers of different religions view distinctive attire as a positive expression of faith, but also the potential benefits of religious dress.

One study of 53 Muslim women in the U.S. found those who adhered more closely to traditional standards of Islamic dress were more likely to report a better adjustment to college life. A theory advanced by the researchers: Wearing a head scarf may have allowed students to more easily connect with other Muslims, creating a wider social group in much the same way African-Americans on predominantly white campuses find affiliation with the black community to be a critical resource.

Another study of second-generation American Muslim women concluded the decision to cover their hair, ears and neck is consistent with the emphasis in American society on equality and independence. Wearing the hijab gives them some room to feel at home and to prosper, the researchers concluded.

For many people of varying faiths, wearing religious clothing is an essential part of their faith and life, despite the risk of verbal and sometimes physical abuse.

The study of Muslims in England and Jewish people in France found some people had modified their dress – such as wearing a flat cap over a kippa – to avoid persecution.

But many continued to wear religious attire with a sense of pride.

I used to wear the kippa only on Shabbat day. I never use a flat cap because it reminds me of the Shoah. The day I will be afraid to go out with a kippa, I won’t have anything more to do here, said one 42-year-old man in Paris.

Living together

Hasidic Jewsish families walking together on a city sidewalk
Image by kafka4prez [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr

Governments regularly assure citizens of their right to religious freedom. Some nine in 10 nations offer such guarantees.

Still, more than six in seven nations have laws restricting religious practice. Likewise, studies have found a similar percentage of countries in which people have been physically abused or displaced from their homes due to religious persecution.

So how, in the face of intense political and social pressures, can nations both protect individual religious freedoms, and prevent the majority belief system, whether secular or religious, from imposing its views on Others?

A key to stopping the tyranny of the majority is a free and independent judiciary, researchers report.

And the court system has played an important role in protecting religious freedom.

In March, the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany ruled that female Muslim teachers may wear head scarves in school.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Muslim woman who was denied a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a head scarf. An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice … a factor in employment decisions, the court ruled.

In Israel, Rachel Azaria launched her campaign for the Jerusalem City Council in typical fashion. She set out to buy an ad on local buses. If you were a politician, you had to have your poster on a bus, she recounted.

But she was shocked to find out that, to accommodate the religious sensitivities of the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, the bus company had opted to eliminate women from its advertisements. Azaria could publicize her candidacy, but not her own picture.

Azaria took the case to Israel’s Supreme Court and won. Today, Azaria is a newly elected member of the Knesset, and women are regularly featured in Jerusalem bus ads.

Yet tensions remain, as a growing ultra-Orthodox community seeks to exercise its influence on issues from removing photos of women from billboards to having separate seating for men and women on city buses.

Still, the judiciary cannot resolve tensions over religious attire on its own.

What is also needed, analysts say, is greater understanding among diverse groups in society.

The number of attacks on highly visible groups is likely to increase as tensions rise between religious minorities and mainstream populations in many Western societies, especially in Europe, Endelstein and Ryan said.

In reflecting on their study of Jews and Muslims in the two nation, the researchers wrote: It is important for religious organizations, policy makers, media, police and neighborhood associations to work together to encourage mutual understanding and dialogue so as to avoid fueling further animosity and hatred.

A little more civility, researchers suggest, can go a long way to reducing hostilities and protecting freedom of belief – and dress – for all.

Rosenberg is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem

(GlobalPlus editor David Briggs also contributed to this report.)


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