I was waiting in the airport security line for my flight to Berlin when up ahead of me I saw what I assumed was a woman, covered head to toe, save for a slit in her veil exposing her eyes.
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I now know that this type of garment is called a niqab, and while it may be a common sight in other airports in this part of the world, at Ben-Gurion, it’s unusual, to say the least. Muslim women in Israel generally express their modesty by covering their hair, not their entire faces.
A few minutes later, as the line had snaked ahead slowly, I saw The Niqab Woman again, and had my second surprise. Now I could see that she was traveling with a small group of Orthodox Jews. Was this her family? Was she Jewish?
I began to recall news stories from a decade or so ago about a sub-sect of ultra-Orthodox women dubbed, ironically, the “Taliban mothers.” They were said to be under the influence of a female leader who had convinced them that religious modesty demands that they neither be seen nor heard by men. Over the years, there have been accusations, and even convictions, of child abuse among some of these women.
Many of us automatically recoil from such restrictive garb, and from the separatist modes of behavior that generally accompany it. We may assume that women who hide themselves so thoroughly are pressured to do so, if not by a dictatorial leader, then by sexist spouses, who are themselves agents of a male hegemony that believes that the best way to control its own sexual impulses is to remove all temptation from view
Maybe so. But if there’s one thing I took away from “Cherchez la Femme: Wig, Burqa, Wimple,” a new exhibition I happened upon the next day at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, it’s that women can have many different reasons for covering up, some of which are a sign of empowerment, not submission – at least not to other people.
“Cherchez la Femme” (on through July 2) examines the subject of women’s head coverings throughout Jewish, Muslim and Christian history, with the emphasis on current practice. Among contemporary Christians, the practice is limited largely to Roman Catholic nuns, and the show doesn’t have a great deal to say about that. But for Jews, of course, and particularly Muslims, there are few issues that serve so effectively as women’s headgear as a mirror for society’s fears, prejudices and concerns about religious orthodoxy.
According to the show’s co-curator, Miriam Goldmann, the earliest known written rules concerning women and their hair (and every other imaginable detail of female propriety) is the Code of the Assura, laid out in cuneiform tablets in ancient Assyria late in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. “Assyrian law,” writes Goldmann, in an article in the JMB [Jewish Museum Berlin] Journal, “required upper-class married women to keep their hair covered in public,” whereas for “slaves and prostitutes such covering up was prohibited and a punishable offense.”
Among Jews, the custom can be traced back to the Talmud (Ketubot 72, Berakhot 24a), and it too has always applied only to married women, though it quickly became a marker for Jewish identity in general once Jews began living as a minority in other cultures, just as Jewish men had their own distinct dress and head coverings.
When Jews had the opportunity to integrate, beginning in early-modern Europe, and they moved away from Orthodoxy, women stopped covering their tresses, but the latter-day resurgence in religious observance has led to a renaissance and diversification in women’s headdresses.
The Berlin exhibition has a long display case with busts sporting examples of the wide variety of head coverings that can be found among Jewish women today: the tichel (scarf), shpitzel (wig and hat combo), shaytel (wig), the wonderfully named snood (a pliant, knitted cap), the minimalistic but stylish fascinator, and another three or four examples. The variations can be subtle, but those in the know can often infer a lot about a woman’s worldview from the twists and turns of her headgear.
At the same time, some non-Orthodox women are now donning kippot when they pray, but that is more of a statement about equality than about modesty. As an essay by Jewish studies scholar Amy K. Milligan in the JMB Journal suggests, “Hair [has come] to represent a malleable symbol poised at the intersection of gender, ethnic, cultural and religious identities.”
For many people around the world, it is in Islam that the head covering has such resonance today. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the covering-up of Muslim women, with some non-Muslims, including political leaders, having concluded that this is yet one more indicator that the religion is inherently incompatible with the values of an open society.
There’s a paradox in the radically different reactions that people have to women’s head covering, and it is reflected with endearing simplicity in a schematic drawing displayed in Berlin, and originally posted on Twitter last summer (around the time of the burkini controversy in France) by the French artist who calls herself “La Sauvage Jaune.” The picture, titled “The Lottery of Indecency,” depicts and deconstructs a young woman whose left half is dressed modestly and whose right side is far more revealing. Each germane attribute is accompanied by the type of snippy comment it seems bound to elicit in the current atmosphere.
The comment adjoining the left side of the woman’s head, which is covered with a scarf, “You have a headscarf! Argh, my eyes! You’re clearly submissive!” The text emerging from the right side of her head, where both hair and makeup are exposed, declares, “You look like a whore with your makeup.”
The left half of the body of the woman depicted is dressed in a long skirt; the right half is clad in a mini-skirt. These two modes of dress elicit, respectively, the comments, “Long skirt? Too many religious connotations. You don’t belong in this school,” and “Short skirt? Too many sexual connotations. Don’t be surprised if you’re raped.”
At the press conference mounted by the Jewish Museum before the opening of the exhibition in March, one journalist expressed her displeasure that the museum did not take a stance against the subjugation of women she sees as implicit in head coverings. But as curator Goldmann told me later, the only position the museum believes is appropriate to endorse as an institution is the belief that women should have the right to decide for themselves what is suitable and comfortable for them.
Indeed, what’s refreshing and liberating about the museum's show is that it allows visitors to encounter different points of view. They can do this via clips from a decade-old social-media campaign called “My Stealthy Freedom,” in which Iranian women have themselves filmed sans hijab, their hair blowing freely in the wind, as an expression of their belief that women have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to cover their hair in public – a right denied them in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the installation “Taking Positions on the Headscarf,” produced specifically for the current exhibition, we hear from 21 Muslim women, and there are also a series of photos from this past February’s first Modest Fashion Week, in London.
In a JMB Journal piece on “Modest Fashionistas,” Katharina Erbe reports that international garment manufacturers H&M, DKNY and Uniqlo have created special lines for Muslim women in recent years, accompanied by appropriate advertising campaigns.
“Fashion choices,” writes Erbe, a historian and an exhibition assistant at the museum, “often involve a tightrope act between the personal interpretation of religious law and avoiding isolation through clothing. Additionally, Muslim women’s religiosity does not preclude an interest in fashion – but with limited choices, cultivating a personal style may be challenging.”
In a short comic strip also commissioned for the show, German-Tunisian artist Soufeina Hamed depicts a young veiled woman addressing readers who, she is well aware, are curious, if not a little suspicious, of her appearance. “Given all the public debates,” the woman admits, “I really can’t hold it against you.” Go ahead and ask me what you want, she urges us, even as she complains that modestly dressed Muslim women inevitably seem to become “targets of hate, hostility and racist stereotypes.”
An unidentified voice asks the woman, “Why do you wear it, then?” To which she responds, “I want to be myself. And I want to live in a country where that’s possible. Where I’m more than ‘the woman with the headscarf,’” as in a final panel, we see the scarf being tossed off onto the floor.
Does this mean that Hamed, who draws under the name “Tuffix,” wants the freedom to be able to wear a headscarf – and also to remove it – without needing to justify herself or feel singled out? Is she acknowledging that she wears it out of principle, but that once she feels that the principle is being respected by society, her personal preference would be to remove the scarf? The cartoon is ambiguous on this point, although in the photograph of Hamed on her own website, she appears in a hijab.
The ambivalence and non-dogmatic tone of the Jewish Museum show is in keeping with the pluralistic atmosphere that seems to prevail in contemporary Berlin. Call it “political correctness,” if you will, but whereas that expression is generally used in a disparaging sense, for a first-time visitor to the city, this very deliberate and self-conscious openness to different points of view and ways of life can be an invigorating tonic to the winds of intolerance that are blowing through so many parts of the world.