One of the most confusing experiences I had as a teacher in universities in Southeast Asia was seeing some of my female students change their regular pattern of veiling or not veiling. Why did some students, who were not wearing a veil at the start of the semester, don it part-way through? Why did a normally unveiled student have a veil on when I met her in the shopping mall? Why did a student, who always wore a veil at university, turn up to an event I had invited her to without her veil on? I was keen to learn, and to think about how to respond.[i]
Typically, my veiled students wore fashionable, colourful veils paired with trendy clothing (such as jeans). Some wore much longer, loose veils and loose-fitting clothing. I rarely saw a woman wearing a full black chador: students all agreed “it is too fanatic.”
Ready or not?
Most of my students believed that wearing a veil is something that shouldn’t be forced and should “come from the heart.” Students felt their hearts should be “clean” and they should wait for a personal conviction before wearing it.
Sharing our personal journey of faith with our friends can be a powerful witness.
Veiling as a symbol of purity and piety
Sofiya[ii] said she had been a “bad girl” and had done “bad things.” Now she veiled because she wanted to be “good,” to be “perceived by others as good,” and by doing so she would please her family who had invested in her education.
Evi, a house helper, was repeatedly hassled by a neighbouring helper who suggested she wasn’t a serious Muslim because she didn’t veil. Evi started wearing a veil, not just to and from work like her neighbouring helper, but all the time.[iii] She showed that not only was she serious about her faith, she was more serious than the neighbouring helper who’d goaded her!
For these ladies, purity and piety are key elements of their relationship with God and with others. We can affirm that purity matters to God (e.g. Numbers 19), relate how Jesus was not defiled by contact with impure things but that he transmitted purity to them instead (e.g. Luke 8), and ultimately show that no ritual of purity is as efficacious as Christ’s saving death and blood.
We can also point to Zechariah 3: “We stand before God in our filthy clothes, and we are rightly ashamed because of our sin. Jesus’ clothes are perfect and clean, but he gives us his clean clothes and wears our dirty clothes before God instead. Because of this we can approach God knowing he sees us perfect and clean in Jesus’ clothes.”[iv] This also links to the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve where God gives them clothing to replace that taken by Satan, and then advises them that the “clothing of righteousness … is best” (Surah 7:26).[v]
Veiling as a mark of identity
If a woman is wearing a veil it marks them as a Muslim. A western teacher started to wear a veil, and students asked me to confirm that she had become a Muslim—for them, there would be no other reason to wear one.
What marks us as followers of Jesus? Do our friends know what it means to follow Him through observing our lives and also by hearing our words?
Veiling for protection
Nina explained that women “should wear a veil and loose-fitting clothes, so boys can’t see their curves. Women will be protected from men this way.” While Nina doesn’t veil (she feels too hot in it), she feels uncomfortable that boys look at her as she passes them. Nura wears a veil to protect herself, to “keep boys away,” and to “prevent” herself from “being raped.”
In contrast, for Indah, a BMB, the veil as protection is “meaningless” and “doesn’t change anything.” Whether she wore the veil or not, she still received inappropriate comments and actions from males.
We ask our friends what they think of the picture in Psalm 91:4 of finding refuge in God under his wings.
Contextual and pragmatic veiling
The veil can be donned, or discarded, according to context. Fitri chose not to veil when she came to a Christmas concert at my children’s Christian school—she didn’t want to “look out of place,” and that it wasn’t “necessary” to wear it there.
Students are obliged to wear the veil for their compulsory Islam classes, and sometimes simply did not remove it before heading out into the local shopping mall after class.
Veils can hide socially unacceptable marks or activities. Tasya’s friend, a singer, wears a veil and long sleeves simply to cover her tattoos. Prostitutes often veil, so in a big city it is hard to know if a woman is wearing a veil for positive reasons or not—“we can’t tell if they are ‘good’ girls or not.”
While affirming that only God can see people’s hearts and know where they stand before Him (e.g. 1 Samuel 16:7), we could also talk about the visible, outward signs by which we know someone is a follower of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).
Veiling as a fashion statement
Veiling is a fashion statement for many. Mina and Sari admitted that now veils are “attractive and fashionable” and this helps them “want to wear one.” University regulations stating that no tight clothing was to be worn were regularly flouted. Indah condemned fashionable veiling—“girls who wear jilbab and tight clothing are hypocritical. They want it both ways—to be trendy, as well as to show they are religious and conforming to their religion.”
We can encourage our friends that while it is not wrong to want to be fashionable and attractive, our focus should be on God and having a godly character, rather than on conforming to the world’s view of beauty (e.g. Proverbs 31:30; Romans 12:2).
Women veil for a multitude of often overlapping reasons. Each woman I spoke to has made a choice to veil based on her own desires, convictions, and needs. Women are also influenced by the prevailing norms in the culture. I don’t want to assume the answers to my questions, but to listen and learn, and to prayerfully springboard into conversations about Jesus.
[i] Prior to going to Southeast Asia, I wrote an article about the recent phenomenon of Muslim women who are increasingly wearing a veil, despite it not being a common practice historically. This article was primarily based on published works and newspaper articles, and didn’t have personal stories of women who have, or have not, chosen to veil. Jefferies, Louise. “The Rise of the Jilbabisasi in Indonesia: implications for Christian witness.” Missiology: An International Review. Vol. XXXIX, no. 2, April 2011.
[ii] All names have been changed.
[iii] Many house helpers remove their veil once inside, as it can interfere with their manual chores.
[v] Thanks to Jan, a participant in the I-View Course, for this link from the Sahih International version. https://www.searchtruth.com/chapter_display.php?chapter=7&translator=29
Images: https://pixabay.com/en/sillluethe-women-hijab-scenery-2886530/, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Female_hijab_in_Islam.jpg, http://www.fashionglint.com/new-hijab-fashion-ideas-trends-for-every-occasion/.
© When Women Speak… January 2018
Louise Simon recently returned to Australia after six years in Southeast Asia with her family, where she taught English at universities and engaged with her Muslim students and colleagues. She also lived in China for three years; first as a student, and then as a teacher and participant observer in the secondary education system. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she teaches English to adult migrants and refugees, theological English to Chinese theological students, and is a language coach for cross-cultural workers. She also works as a researcher with When Women Speaks…She holds a PhD in East Asian Studies from the Australian National University.