Variety of Religious Practice: Head Coverings

Ever notice how even within a single religion, religious practice varies significantly from person to person? It can vary slightly, or it can vary a great deal, depending on the person, and the situation. It’s a phenomenon I will refer to as variety of practice, and I’ve noticed it a lot in my encounters with both my previous faith, and others around me. Religious head coverings are part of many religions, and they are no exception to variety of practice. In fact, they are a very easy way to discuss the phenomenon since they are easily observable.

Take Islam for example. If you mention religious head coverings, it’s the first religion on people’s minds, and for a good reason. There has been much debate over whether or not it is oppressing for women to be forced to cover their heads, or even in some cases their entire bodies. But not every Muslim woman covers her head. In countries like the the US, where we aren’t supposed to let any one religion make laws for other people (although we have had some difficulty following that rule lately), there is no law saying that, for example, all women must wear the hijab (headscarf), or the burka (full-body covering where only the eyes are unveiled.) This means that except in cases where there is heavy familial pressure to do so, women are able to choose the religious garb that they believe they should wear. Some choose one of the aforementioned head coverings, but others choose not to wear any at all, even though they identify as Muslim, and follow the teachings of Islam. From what I’ve read (and please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m not an expert on Islam), there is some debate as to whether or not the verse in the Quran instructing women to be modest actually implies that they should wear a hijab or burka, or simply that they shouldn’t show any cleavage. This leaves it up to the Imams, and individuals within the Islamic community to decide for themselves whether not women should dress that way, and to what extent. Naturally, some women prefer to look like everyone else on the outside, and don’t want to walk around with something that identifies them as belonging to a specific religion on their heads. Others may feel that the hijab or burka is an excellent way to practice their beliefs, and wear it because they want to.

Not all head coverings are for women, though. Sticking with eastern religions, let’s look at Sikhism. Strict Sikhs are taught never to cut their hair, and they wear their hair in turbans as part of their religious practice. I happen to live in a town that has a significant Indian population, and some of my neighbors are Sikh. One guy I met at my local community college surprised me when he told me he was a Sikh, because the Sikhs I had met all wore turbans, and he had short hair that was clearly visible, and not covered by a turban. I had assumed he was Hindu or Muslim, based on his nationality and his short hair, but nope. He’s Sikh. He explained to me that even within his family, some men wear turbans while others don’t. It’s just a matter of how strictly they follow their religion’s teachings. Some are very strict, while others, like him, prefer to dress like everybody else.

Married orthodox Jewish women, like Muslim women, are taught to cover their heads. If I understood what I read about this correctly, they believe, as many Muslims do, that hair is sexual, and something that should only be revealed in certain situations, such as to their husbands. In some communities, Jewish women are supposed to cover their heads in the synagogue only. In others, they are expected to also cover their heads in public. There are even some rules about women having their heads covered while their husbands are praying. There is huge variety of practice in Judaism, so it is very difficult to speak for everyone in the religion (and I am not particularly experienced with Judaism either). Some Jewish women wear a scarf or hat, but many, believe it or not, cover their heads with wigs! While this sounds odd (seriously, if showing hair is bad, why is wearing a wig any better?), my understanding of why this is considered a solution is that revealing one’s own hair is what is questionable, not showing some kind of hair in general. But again, it depends on the person, the community, which rabbi a woman listens to, and certainly how strictly she adheres to the rules as they are explained to her. Not to mention, not all Jews are orthodox, and to my knowledge, non-orthodox Jews are far less likely to require a female head covering when out in public. I can’t speak for non orthodox Jewish rules for in the synagogue though, as I have never been to one.  For more information on Jewish teachings about female head coverings, I found this article helpful and interesting:

Jewish men are also expected to cover their heads when they pray, which makes me kind of happy with Judaism. I mean, if you’re going to require one gender to cover their heads, why not expect the other one to do it too? If you don’t think God is sexist, then that’s probably the way to go when it comes to head coverings. According to the article I found, Jewish men are expected to always cover their heads while in prayer, but not everyone wears a yarmulke or other head covering at all times. This article mentions that some take the head covering idea to an extreme, and actually wear one on top of the other–it’s extra spiritual or something.

Then there’s Christianity. A surprisingly small percentage of Christians know this, but Christianity actually does have a rule about head coverings, and some people do follow it. 1 Corinthians 11:5 says, “But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.” That comes from the American Standard Version, and I found it online. But you can look at other translations, and they all say pretty much the same thing. See this link if you don’t believe me and scroll down to where it says “Other Translations.” Or just look the verse up in your Bible.  

I actually knew a Christian girl when I was growing up, who strongly believed this verse was true, and decided to cover her head at all times. I’ve seen recent pictures of her and she’s not doing it anymore, but at the time she thought, you know what, I might end up praying at any time potentially, so covering my head ensures that I’m always ready. And I totally respect that decision. But most Christian women don’t even know this verse exists. And many who do (and I used to be one of them) choose not to follow it. I, for one, didn’t like covering my head. I also disliked doing anything just because I was a girl. I didn’t think religion should be sexist. 

Catholic women don’t usually wear female head coverings anymore, but they used to. In my family’s church, I’ve only seen one or two women cover their heads, and it’s a pretty big church. But I was raised Roman Catholic. What Catholics don’t want you to know (and I’ll talk about this in a page I’m working on, because I think this fact should be broadcast to the world), Catholicism is divided on some pretty fundamental issues. There is a group of Catholics called Tridentine Catholics, or Traditional Catholics, and they basically reject the decisions made in the Second Vatican Council, and follow the old ways of worship. These included having women cover their heads in mass, among other things. They wear what’s called a mantilla, also known as a chapel veil, which is basically this lacy thing that looks a bit like an oddly shaped doily. If you’d like to know more about it, check out this link:

I actually think the mantilla is very pretty. I don’t buy the bullshit about how it’s modest. It’s barely covering the hair. (Seriously, they’re lace. You see right through them.) I do, however, recognize that for some women, it is a sign of reverence and devotion. But this is America, so they don’t have to attend a church where doily-wearing is mandatory. They are free to make their own decisions about whether or not to cover their heads, and they do. 

Variety of practice doesn’t just apply to head coverings. It applies to other aspects of worship and religion. I’ve heard people argue, for example, that you can’t be Catholic if you’re willing to vote for a pro-choice politician, or a politician who supports marriage equality, but guess what! There are tons of tithe-paying Catholics who do it all the freaking time. Tough titties. People are people, and while you may be able to get them to believe in your God, you can’t necessarily get them to agree with you on everything. Just look at how many directions Protestantism has gone in since the reformation began. People will disagree, and will join forces with others who have the same ideas. But even within those groups, there will be variety. Because ultimately, people are individuals. They are not defined by the groups to which they belong. As a matter of fact, it is the people who define those groups. As an atheist, I see this more and more in cases of religion, and it explains why there is so much variety of practice in something that’s supposedly created by God–it’s not. It’s being created, passed down, and recreated by people every single day.

Happy thinking!

Feel free to leave comments, even if you’re correcting me on something. While I may disagree with religions, I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s beliefs, which is why I often include links to pages written by people who actually follow a particular religion. I trust them to explain it accurately.