A Catholic Nun and a Muslim Woman: Piety or Oppression?
We have all seen pictures that represent different belief systems. For this article, bring to your mind a picture of a Muslim woman (Muslimah) in a khimar, and a Catholic nun, dressed in a habit. There are many stories in the media depicting Islam in a negative light and alleging that women following this faith suffer oppression at the hands of their husbands and other Muslim males. One such method of the alleged oppression is the supposed forcing of Muslimaat, the plural of Muslimah, into wearing clothing that is not revealing and which also covers their hair, neck and ears. This modest dress is called hijab. Yet we can picture two women with diverse belief systems dressed remarkably similarly. The habit worn by many Catholic nuns is also attire which does not reveal the nun’s body and covers her hair, neck and ears. Why then is hijab worn by the Muslimah regarded in the West as a sign of oppression, but the habit worn by many Catholic nuns regarded by this same group as a sign of piety and modesty?
Both religions dictate a certain style of dress for women who strive to be closer to God. Both beckon the female believers to maintain their modesty so as not to attract unwanted attention. Both believe that modest dress is a command from God. However, the West regards the khimar as a sign of the oppression supposedly endured by millions of Muslimaat, while praising and standing behind a nun’s decision to wear the habit.
Contrary to what is propagated in the media, the khimar is not forced upon a Muslim woman by her husband or anyone else. Hijab, the modest attire worn by Muslimaat which includes the khimar, is a direct command from Allah (swt)1 as found in the Qur’an – the holy book of Islam:
"And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof, hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms. And let them not display [more of] their charms to any but their husbands,..." (Asad, 2005, p. 600)
What is less known, and not reported by Western media at all, is the command that appears in the Qur’an in the ayah (verse) which is found directly before the above ayah and reads:
"Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity – [and,] verily, God is aware of all that they do." (Asad, 2005, p. 600)
Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of Allah (swt), given to the believers by way of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)2. It would not be possible for any human to force a Muslimah to wear a khimar, as the directive was given by Allah (swt), as evidenced in the Qur’an. The khimar, then, cannot be a form of oppression suffered by Muslimaat as forced on them by the men in their lives.
Muslimaat wear loose fitting clothing that does not reveal their body. They wear a khimar to cover their hair, ears and neck. Some Muslim women choose to wear colors that will not attract attention – black, brown, and tan. The majority of them understand that it isn’t the color that is important, it is the coverage. Western civilization lays great value on the "liberation of women." What is sad is that they do not realize that to be liberated does not mean that they must reveal their body.
Liberation comes in many forms. As a woman, you should strive to be recognized for your mind, not your body. It is your mind that will set you free. There seems to be no thought put into whether this Western liberation of women is true liberation or an underhanded ploy to give men exactly what they want from women anyway – a display of the "forbidden" in plain sight. It is a legal form of public pornographic pictures, at least as we look at it in the light of attire. Sure, liberation goes well beyond what one wears. It also encompasses the person’s actions and thoughts.
Dr. ‘A’id al-Qarni (2005) says it eloquently in a book entitled You Can be the Happiest Woman in the World: A Treasure Chest of Reminders:
"So, preserve your beauty with faith, your tranquility with contentment, your chastity with hijab. Remember that your adornment is not gold, silver or diamonds… Clothe yourself with the garments of taqwa (piety) for you are the most beautiful woman in the world, even if your clothes are shabby. Clothe yourself with the cloak of modesty, for you are the most beautiful woman in the world even if you are barefoot." (p. 54)
This passage conveys true liberation. It depicts for us how not to become slave to fashion and points of view. Rather, we should carry ourselves in the most respectable manner possible. In order to earn the respect of men, be considered their equal, and obtain true liberation women must demand that respect and equality through their minds, not their bodies. Skimpily clad women earn men’s attention. Gaining their attention is a far cry from gaining their respect. True liberation will not come for women until men respect them as their equal counterparts. We do not find any men walking around dressed one step away from obscenity in order to demonstrate their liberation from whatever oppressors they may have…
Similar to the belief stemming from the Qur’an, some Catholics have interpreted passages in the Bible and determined that God’s word instructs them to not only act appropriately in all things, but to dress appropriately as well. Catholic nuns who choose to wear the habit dress in clothing that is loose fitting and not revealing. The habit consists of a black veil, medal or crucifix of the order, a ring, with the main parts of the habit consisting of a dress, a scapular (long pieces of material which fall front and back over this dress) and coif (the white material worn over the hair). (O’Neal, 2005) They also wear a covering on their head to further demonstrate their modesty. To set them apart even further, the habit is usually all black with some white trimming. There’s really not much difference between the modest dress of Muslim women and Catholic nuns.
It is apparent that Western media is reporting only half of the story. They deem the modest dress worn by Muslimaat as an oppression imposed upon women of the Islamic faith by their husband or other male family member. They tout the Catholic nun’s choice to wear the habit as a sign of piety and closeness to God. The media depicts Muslim women as possessions of their male counterparts, being allowed only to do what these men allow them to do and nothing more. "It is true that gender inequity, oppression of women, and misogyny do occupy modes of the Muslim social and political worlds, just as they do in the Western world." (Waheed, 2001) However, just as there is cultural oppression in Islam, Catholic nuns are victims of oppression imposed upon them by priests and other males in the religion:
"Sister Isabel: Poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty in the sense that, well, everything you had you had to ask for. We weren’t poor, but we owned very little. On chastity, of course we couldn’t marry. And obedience, you did as you were told (emphasis mine). For instance, after I made my final vows, I was told I was going to Portland, Oregon. That was it, I went off to Portland, Oregon. You did as you were told." (Norris & Driscoll, 1999)
This statement seems pretty oppressive. Sister Isabel did not have a choice to go to Portland. She was told to go and did as she was told. She had no choice. Muslimaat have a choice. They can choose to wear the khimar or not. They can choose to go to Portland…or not. Sister Isabel’s attire and residence both were dictated by the church. She did not have a choice…
A Muslimah’s choice to wear hijab, including the khimar, is a choice of freewill. Allah (swt) commanded both men and women to "lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity." (Asad, 2005, p. 600) Making the choice to wear khimar is beneficial in many ways – including strengthening the bond between husband and wife. The khimar strengthens this bond in a few key ways:
1. A Muslimah wearing a khimar is less likely to be approached by another man – Muslim or non-Muslim. It is an outward sign of her taqwa.
2. In turn, a Muslim man knows not only that his wife is devoted to Allah (swt) as demonstrated by her freewill choice to follow Allah’s (swt) commands, he knows that his wife has an outward sign that will "ward off" male suitors without her having to first be bothered by their advances.
3. Muslimaat who dress Islamically appropriately add a new dimension to their marriages in that they reserve their body for the viewing pleasure of only their husband, for it is only he who will be present when she "lets down her hair."
4. The knowledge by the husband that it is he and only he who will ever see his wife’s charms and beauty is an ego boost immeasurable.
There are not many men walking this earth who can honestly say that their wife’s physical beauty has only been seen by him. A Muslim man, however, can say with almost certainty that he is the only man with this honor. I am not speaking of the viewing of a woman’s body in a sexually explicit manner. I am referring simply to the fact that no one will have even seen a Muslimah in shorts and a tee shirt with the exception of her husband and immediate family. This can have nothing but a positive effect on the relationship.
A stroll through a crowded mall will not leave opportunity for contention between husband and wife or husband and stranger. Many couples end up arguing because a strange man inappropriately addressed the wife. Either the husband becomes enraged and lashes out at the stranger, possibly culminating in a physical display of displeasure on the husband’s part, or he lashes out at his wife and accuses her of dressing inappropriately and thus attracting unwanted attention. He may feel that she did not adequately represent him and cut the stranger’s advances immediately. Many feel that the wife has somehow flirted to get the attention when she generally is oblivious to the other man until and if he speaks up. However, a Muslim woman dressed modestly and wearing khimar has effectively cut any advances off at the knees.
It is no easy feat to wear khimar in the West. The media’s representation of Muslim women as oppressed, degraded and even victims of violence make wearing it that much harder. For a Muslim woman in the West to proudly wear a khimar everyday is a testament of her faith. In all religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc. – knowing that your wife’s faith is strong enough to endure persecution and ridicule and she not waiver in her beliefs would bolster anyone’s commitment to that person. Most married couples who follow one of the major world religions want their faith to be an intricate part of their life. They would like to build a home and raise a family with strong moral and religious values. A Muslimah who endures the constant ridicule and pity thrust upon her by those of other faiths because of her decision to wear the khimar is verbalizing her deep rooted faith without uttering a word. A husband will only naturally latch on tighter to his wife – he knows that she is his partner in raising children with the values and beliefs that he holds himself.
If we take a look at the hidden "caveman" persona buried deep down inside of most men, we know that to some extent that taking a bride is equivalent to claiming his conquest. He has found and won the woman of his dreams. This is his "property," his "possession" although this conquest should not be looked upon negatively. In addition to having claimed his conquest, to know that no other man ever walking this earth will know his wife’s true physical beauty is another stake in his claim. It is another sign that this woman, this "cave man possession" is all his – 100 percent – and no other has had, or will ever have, her. (Before proceeding, let us remember that the references to women being possessions and conquests referenced here are used figuratively and not literally. These words are merely descriptions for the sense of "all mine" that a man feels when his wife leaves the house modestly dressed and sporting her khimar.)
Not only is wearing the khimar beneficial to marriage from the man’s point of view, but also from the woman’s vantage point. A Muslimah can leave the house confidently knowing that she will not be bothered by constant and unwanted advances by other men. She can walk through a crowded mall knowing that she is not attracting unsolicited and unwanted attention. The Muslimah can be confident in knowing that she will not have to deal with ego trips and jealousy from her husband. She has made a statement to the world that first and foremost, she is devoted to Allah (swt) and will follow His path, and that she will not display her charms to just any old body who wants to have a look. A Muslim woman modestly dressed and wearing khimar has stated that her beauty is displayed by her mind and what she has to offer the world intellectually and not by her body and what there is of her to offer physically. Only her husband has the privilege of seeing her physical beauty for it is only he who needs this information.
Simply wearing the khimar is a silent statement of all these things and more. All of these things mentioned will have a solid and positive impact on any relationship. Warding off unwanted advances even before they are made prevents someone unaware of her piety from offending or embarrassing her by some vulgarity. This in turn eliminates the need for her husband to defend her honor or misconstrue the other’s advances as some flirtation by her. It helps to instill in the husband that the woman he has chosen as his life mate has the same values and morals as he holds dear to him. With this knowledge, they both together have a great guarantee that the relationship they are forging will be built on a solid foundation. These assurances can help to protect, strengthen and sometimes even save a marriage.
When we take a look at this, we see that the West has put itself in a pickle. It denounces Islamic hijab and the khimar as a form of oppression while simultaneously upholding and giving credit to Catholic nuns who dress pretty much in the same fashion, esteeming them as pious. This is a clear indication of how politics and the media can sway a nation’s understanding and acceptance of things in which the West does not have full knowledge.
Al-Qarni, A. (2005). You can be the happiest woman in the world: A treasure chest of reminders. Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House.
Asad, M. (2003). The message of the Qur’an. Bitton, Bristol England: The Book Foundation.
Norris, D. & Driscoll, J. (1999). Life as a Catholic nun. Retrieved September 21, 2008, from http://melrosemirror.media.mit.edu/servlet/pluto?state=3030347061676530303757656250616765303032696430303433323033%5D
O’Neal, L. (2005). Catholics. Retrieved September 19, 2008, from http://en.allexperts.com/q/Catholics-955/nun-habits.htm
Waheed, S. (2001). U.S. shows continue to paint distorted picture of Muslims. Retrieved September 23, 2008, from http://www.iviews.com/articles/Articles.asp?ref=IV0101-1131
1 (swt) is an abbreviation for the Arabic term "subhana wa ta’ala" and means God is the greatest. It is used by Muslims in printed works after every mention of the name Allah (swt) in order to give Allah (swt) the highest praise and honor due only to Him.