1 Corinthians 11:4-6
4Every man praying or prophesying and with anything down over his head dishonors his head, 5But every woman praying or prophesying with head uncovered dishonors her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
I love the depictions of veiled women, also the Quaker and Amish women in their traditional caps; I have always loved watching the Sunday-Go-To-Meeting Church Ladies in their fanciful hats, each brilliant by design. We have forgotten why we covered our heads for church; it wasn’t just to make a statement, to enhance our outfits, to be stylish in our brilliant plumage. Indeed no, we women were commanded to cover our heads when we pray. In fact, for centuries Christian woman, like their Muslim and Jewish sisters veiled, that is covered their heads upon marriage to signify their subservience to their husband and through him to God.
The standard covering was a Wimple up to the fifteen century, which similar to the modern Hijab worn by Muslim women covered the head and neck. The Wimple was worn by married women of all social classes; it was replaced by materials that were more lightweight and less constrictive designs. If you look at art through the ages, the depictions of women both high and low born rarely will you see a woman that is not without a head covering, some utilitarian some fanciful but always present. Scarfs, veils and later wimples were worn by Jewish, Muslim and Christian women through the sixteenth century, because this was the religious standard, the commandment of God, the social custom. Later Christian women would adopt snoods, still later of course for many the customs would become more lax and only the most conservative would retain the custom of veiling.
Why is this important?
Since September 11, 2001, we in the West taken on another enemy, Islam. We have identified the enemy in the shrouds of their devotion to Allah, the outward indicators of their religious belief. We have demanded they unveil in our presence, in our nation and their own; the unveiling we claim is a sign of their freedom, though what it truly does, it alleviates our fear of ‘other’.
If only we could free the women of the veil, they would be more like us. Free them from their religious and cultural bondage; they would no longer be ‘other’. But wait, are they really? Really, ‘other’ that is, Mennonites, Amish and many other more traditional Anabaptist denominations still require women to cover their heads during worship services and their everyday lives. Other less strict Protestant denominations have no official stance; nevertheless, many women still choose to wear hats when attending church.
This takes us to the Catholic Church, where it all started for the Christians; Paul was quite clear in his letter to the Corinthians, either cover your head or shave your head to be shamed. How much more clearly can the rules be stated? He wasn’t making this up as he went along either, he was simply repeating what was handed down from previous laws, taken directly from the his understanding of the Torah (two examples: Genesis 20:16 and Genesis 24:65). Cannon Law, Vatican I of 1917, Cannon 1262 stated clearly that women must cover their head any time they are in the presence of the Holy Sacrament; this means in church, when making sick calls and most especially when approaching the alter. Vatican II did not overturn or in any way abrogate this rule, in fact Cannons 20 and 21, of 1983 specifically state no Cannon that is not specifically mentioned should be presumed to be changed.
What does this mean?
It means, Catholic women are still required by Cannon Law (that is the rules of the Church) to cover their heads! Why is this important? It means we are not so different. The fact is we are started from the same place, we execute differently. Our cultures have taken different paths, thus our societies have as well. We spend a great deal of time staring at our Muslim sisters, worried they are downtrodden and abused simply by the fact they wrap their hair in the Hajib each morning as a sign of faith in Allah (God) and to signify their respect for themselves and their families. Has anyone bothered to ask them if they want to be free?
Don’t misunderstand me; I have great compassion for the women currently in nations guilty of true abuses. I am not discussing those nations or those abuses. I am simply addressing women and men in the west who look askance at those who are ‘other’, because they are Muslim, because they are easily identified as such by their choice to veil. Perhaps we could see how they are not so different from us, how our history parallels in many ways, we could eliminate some of the fear, some of the ‘otherness’. Maybe, just maybe we can start to extend our hand in friendship instead, begin to heal the wounds created by ‘other’.