Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2001 / 11 Teves 5762

Throwing out the burka with the bath water

By Jennifer M. Paquette -- WALKING past a newsstand today, I was struck by the image of an Afghani woman pulling aside her burka, the veil she'd worn during the Taliban's reign of terror. I'm sure this picture will appeal greatly to a Western audience, already convinced that covering women is synonymous with repression. But is it?

People here would love to believe that Islam is evil, and that veiling women is just one more proof. Yet the Taliban are true Muslims only in the sense that the Nazis were true Christians; neither group represents their religion at its best. It's certainly true that Islam calls for women to dress modestly; so does Christianity, so does Judaism, though each of these religions interprets that call slightly differently.

In Judaism, many married women voluntarily cover their hair, usually with headscarves, hats, or sheitels -- wigs -- or some beguiling combination of these.

For us, the working principle comes from Tehillim, the book of Psalms: "All glorious is the king's daughter within the palace" (45:14). Glorious, yes; but inwardly glorious, privately glorious. A woman wearing a wig, however gorgeous, is conscious that it's not her own hair on display. This awareness lets her internalize the principle of modesty even while outwardly appearing spectacular. Plus, having covered my own hair during my marriage, I can also testify to the fact that even the most gorgeous sheitel can feel like a bulky hat when your own hair is crammed underneath.

While I was a student at University of Toronto, I rarely wore my sheitel to school. With scarves or snoods over my hair, I was often taken for some sort of nun or a Muslim --- even by other Muslims. (A girl once approached me and whispered the Islamic greeting, "asalem aleikum." I wonder what she would have done if I'd answered "aleichem shalom," the traditional response to the similar Hebrew greeting.)

Since my divorce, I no longer cover my hair. While most Jewish legal authorities rule this is not acceptable, wearing my hair uncovered has given me a sense of relief, of being unburdened, of having my youth back, and, my vanity --- I guess those aren't all good things. And I'm pretty sure I lost something, as well.

When people looked at me, they saw a religious person. Somebody who put G-d first and herself second. As good as it feels to have my own hair back, I miss that respect --- and the self-respect that grew from seeing myself that way.

So I'm in a fairly unique position. I think I know something of what those women are feeling as they toss aside their various scarves and heavy outer coverings. But I wonder if we in the Western world, instead of cheering them on as they toss away the vestiges of their religious traditions, ought to instead be urging them to save the baby -- true Islam -- as they drain the foul bathwater that was the Taliban's theocracy.

A Jewish acquaintance once asked: "Why cover your hair? When my bubby [grandmother] boarded the boat, she tossed her sheitel right over the edge and never looked back!" And my own bubby said that when she first came here from Poland, someone said she didn't have to keep kosher [follow the Jewish dietary laws] here --- so she didn't.

Well, bubby, I've learned something. You don't have to keep kosher here. And you don't have to cover your hair --- that's what freedom means, after all. But I wish you could have known how much more precious these things feel if you're choosing them freely rather than just doing them because you have to, or because that's the way you've always done them? My ancestors came here believing this was the goldeneh medineh, the fabled Golden Land, where Jews and non-Jews could thrive side by side. I pray for those Afghani women that their homeland will also become a goldeneh medineh, that they discover new opportunities and cherish new freedoms.

But I fear they're just trading one type of restriction -- "you must cover yourself" -- for another -- "you mustn't cover yourself." In which case, all that hard-won freedom is no freedom at all.

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© 2001, Jennifer M. Paquette