Modest Dress in Contemporary Judaism and Islam

A cultural and religious analysis.

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Reprinted with permission from JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

When I lived in Cairo in 1993-1994, I became friends with Manal, a young Egyptian woman who worked in a nearby post office. Manal, the first woman of her lower income family to work outside the home, wore a plain white headscarf (hijab) pinned at her neck. She described her hijab as spiritual armor, which signaled her pious status and provided "cover" for her pioneering effort to work and travel on her own.

Although I understood that Manal would wear a hijab, I was astonished to see how many wealthy students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) covered as well. Far from signaling a return to traditional female roles, these AUC students wear custom-made Hermès hijabs as they pursue professional degrees.

Explaining The New Wave of Modesty

Much like the generational difference in observant Jewish circles on head covering, Egyptian and other Muslim societies have witnessed a recent trend of young women choosing to cover irrespective of, or even despite their mothers' practices. In both Muslim and Jewish cases, the head-covering phenomenon cannot be explained solely in terms of increased religious observance. By exploring comparatively the writings of contemporary Muslim and Jewish women regarding head covering, we can better untangle the web of religious law, cultural identity, and politics at play in discussions on modesty and physical appearance.

Muslim woman wearing a hijab.

A Source of Mutual Understanding

The similarities between Muslim and Jewish head coverings can often be a source of mutual understanding, but occasionally may trigger discomfort and even competition. In interfaith settings, on panels, and on "modest dress" blogs, women of the two religions share their personal reasons for dressing modestly and bond over the challenge of dressing counter-culturally in American society. 

These shared experiences have practical outcomes--from a combined market for modest bathing suits to a "hijabchique" blogger who provides "an introduction to tichels" for fellow Muslims.  At the same time, especially in post-9/11 America, Muslim women more often experience negative stereotyping and even hostility because of their head coverings than do their Jewish counterparts. Likewise, Jewish women do not experience the pervasive criticism of the headscarf as a sign of women's subjugation as Muslims do in France and Turkey today, nor do they face legal obstacles for donning a headscarf in these contested locales.

According to one commentator, one reason that Jewish women do not cover their hair is to distance themselves from the association between head covering and "Muslim fundamentalism." In one extreme case of an opposite reaction, a group of ultra-Orthodox women in Ramat Beit Shemesh consciously emulated the Islamic burka as a way of recapturing the mantle of religious modesty. These intense reactions--whether sympathetic or critical--attest to the potent symbolism of the head covering even among natural allies.

Beyond the shared external similarities, hijab and kissui rosh (Jewish women’s headcoverings) both serve as the focal point for religious and cultural debates within their respective Muslim and Jewish communities. One realm of this debate is the legal question of whether a head covering is religiously mandatory. To understand this debate, a brief religious and historical background on hijab is necessary. The term hijab, translated usually as "veil," refers not to a face veil but to material that covers one's head and neck/chest.

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Raquel Ukeles

Raquel Ukeles is a Golda Meir Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University, specializing in Islamic law and ritual. She completed her PhD in Islamic and Jewish Studies at Harvard University in 2006.