Friday, March 23, 2012

Niqab Nicky, Modesty, Torah & Coexistence Beyond Relativism

Image by Charles Roeffy
Used under Creative Common License

See terms
“Nicky[1] has gotten married and will now be wearing the Niqab, she will even be covering her eyes”. This piece of news was about a talented young woman I have worked with. I was taken aback.

Some would say, so what?! The relativists or post-modernists might say that I have no right to an opinion, because all cultural or religious decisions are basically equal. I think that, in a way, saying that all behaviours are equal can be a cop out from dealing with our own opinions or biases. I am interested in considering this from a more robust coexistence perspective, how comfortable am I with this? Do I have reservations? A useful starting point in seeking to make sense of this for myself is to consider some religious ideas in my own tradition about women’s beauty. 

There are various views about female beauty in Jewish tradition; some of these are expressed about a donation of women’s mirrors. The Torah states, “And he made the washbasin of copper[2] and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting[3]”. The Midrash tells a story about two responses to this donation. “when the Israelites were involved in back breaking work (as slaves) in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that they should not sleep at home…the women would go down to draw water from the Nile, God will prepare small fish for them in their jugs, they would sell these and cook some of them and they would buy wine and go out to the fields and feed their husbands…as they were eating and drinking they would take out the mirrors and look at their them with their husbands, she would say I am prettier than you, he would say I am better looking than you and through this they brought themselves to desire and were fruitful and multiplied…(much later when the tabernacle was being created in the desert) the women brought these mirrors to Moses. When Moses saw them he was angry with them. He said to the Israelites, take sticks and break their thighs! These mirrors, what are they needed for?! But God said to Moses, Moses, these you despise?! These mirrors are the ones that (are responsible) for the rising legions (of Israelites) in Egypt. Take them and make the washbasin for the priests, from it the priests will be sanctified[4]”.   
The attitude in this source sees feminine beauty as a positive thing, at least in the context of a marriage. This view is perhaps taken further in the anecdote about the Lubavitcher Rebbe visiting a dormitory in a seminary for single women and he expressed concern about why there were no mirrors in the rooms[5]

On the other side of the argument are the views that what was positive about the donation of mirrors was the symbolism of rejecting vanity implied by giving them away. “It is the way of all women to beautify themselves, looking at their faces in mirrors… each morning to adjust their hair coverings…as the custom of the Israelite women was like the custom of the Arabs till today. But there were among Israel, women who worshipped the Almighty and distanced themselves from the desires of this world. They contributed their mirrors to the Tabernacle since they no longer had the need to beautify themselves. Instead they came every day…to pray and listen to hear matters of the commandments[6]. This rejection of vanity, by the modest women[7], led to them having the spirit of God rest on them[8].

In orthodox practice today, there is an insistence on modesty. Women in particular are expected to be careful to cover up much of their bodies, although these laws also apply to Men. There is the added requirement for married women to cover their hair, just as Nicky is not increasing her degree of covering. I can also still remember the on-going nagging/urging girls within my orthodox Jewish upbringing, to better cover themselves, an endless talk about socks, elbows and knees etc. The parallels between the traditions don’t make the idea of the Niqab comfortable for me, I am concerned about the limits it places on women. But the parallels help me recognise similar reactions by religions to the challenges presented by lust or perhaps more noble ideas about modesty. There is a strong argument that women should have the right to wear as little or as much as they want. Certainly in western countries, this is the culture and that must be and is respected by many of those with other ideas and ways. I can also see the point of religious people trying to focus minds on the spiritual and preserve sexual restraint wanting to minimize the temptation. 

Then there are the questions of male domination and gender equality. Of course male power is a problem outside religious communities as well as within the “patriarchal religions”. In at least one case that I am familiar with, the woman is wearing the Niqab over the objections of her deeply devout husband. She has made the decision, rejecting her husband’s scholarly opinion with her own formidable scholarship. Without first-hand knowledge, I still think there is a legitimate concern that in some cases and places such as Iran male coercion is the motivation which I strongly object to. I also think there is merit to the argument that if men have a problem than they should bear the burden, rather than it being borne by women. This might even relate to the argument about whose responsibility it is to avoid being damaged, the one doing the damage or the one being damaged[9]. One extremely pious Rabbi who recently passed away, went so far as to walk down the street with his eyes closed, guided by an attendant. 

It saddens me to think that while Nicky will never be able to use her winning smile or expressive eyes to argue a case, equally devout men only need to wear a white gown, cover their knees but can have their face uncovered which means they can participate more easily in the world. Perhaps it would be nice for Muslim men to be required to wear a burqa, and Jewish men to have to worry about covering their elbows and hair, so as not to tempt women with their handsome good looks. In my own tradition, women’s desire is taken very seriously and according to some views[10], the significance of the mirrors relates to the test administered to the suspected straying woman[11] who drank water from the very basin created out of the mirrors donated by these pure women[12]

Perhaps, more important than all the intellectual arguments is the following bit of context. Nicky is passionate about interfaith and has done a lot of work with Jews, Christians and even Agnostics. She believes it is her duty as a Muslim. In my dealings with her, I have always been impressed by her intelligence, and integrity.  She has done very well academically and comes across as a completely normal young Australian woman. Nicky’s mother told me about her own mother who migrated to Australia from Lebanon where she wore the Niqab. When Nicky’s grandmother arrived in Australia it was explained to her that she needed to leave it behind and assimilate. She tried so hard to fit in that she did not dare teach her daughter about her faith. At school the Christian children went to a religious class once a week, while she went to the library for “non-scripture”. One day Nicky’s mother came home and asked her mother why they did not believe in anything! That began a journey back to practicing the faith. Still, the granddaughter was discouraged from being too religious or wearing a headscarf, or hijab. She insisted. Now she has taken it to the next level and closed the circle.

I find it hard to imagine a God who would not be impressed by Nicky’s sincerity. I still don’t love the Niqab and I am sad about the limits it puts on Nicky, but I deeply respect the integrity of her decision and continue to value her as multi-faceted precious human being. If I see someone in a Niqab walking down the street, I will not make any assumptions about the person wearing it, for all I know it could be Nicky, or someone like her.

[1] Not her real name, however she also goes by an English rather than an Arabic name.
[2] Other translate it as brass or bronze
[3] Exodus 38:8, translation mostly from , much of the translation is contested
[4] Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9, Rashi
[6] R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, and Seforno
[7] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[8] Baal Haturim
[9] Talmud Bava Basra 18b, both options are discussed but generally the onus is on the one causing the damage
[10] Bchor Shor, Klei Yakar
[11] Numbers 5:12-31
[12] Bamidbar Rabba 9:14


  1. This is a very interesting post. Of course, it doesn't get us anywhere without sitting down and talking about it frankly as one person to another and not through religious text analysis. My own reaction to the completely closed Niqab, shown to me by someone we both know and respect was a shock, I can tell you. And since then I have been planning to have an open meeting between religious Jewish and Muslim women, but something else always seems to come up. But it's on my radar for after my radiation treatment. I've already talked to WomenPower about it last year and they were interested.

    1. Elizabeth, wishing you the best of health. I think a women only discussion might be more effective. Hope it goes well.

  2. Thank you for this very informative blog post, which I found via twitter. I respect a woman's right to cover if that's what she wants. It is sad though that people won't be able to see her facial expressions.

  3. Comment by A on FBApril 9, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    Thank u for your honest response to a choice by a friend. From what u have said her donning of niqab was a genuine attempt at obedience to God. And in this sense I hope she is rewarded for her actions. In His Wisdom and Justice I believe God takes account of the efforts and sacrifices we all make for His sake. I guess it varies from one individual to the next as to whether suffering physical limitations and discomforts plus relative social opprobrium is more or less of a test than engaging with the non Muslim world while wearing hijab.

  4. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    All in all, even though I don't agree with most of the article, I enjoyed the very last sentence. :)

  5. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    Don't get me wrong rabbi, I do respect you and your work! I know it's your opinion and you have every right to have, but I just found this article contrary to what you preach (i.e. co-existence and respect for all faiths) that's all. I hope you don't take what I've said to heart. :)

    1. Comment by C on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:18 PM

      B, I felt Zalman was being honest and respectful here. Admitting he felt uneasy about the inability BUT respecting Nicky for HER choice. Our society should be open and honest on this topic - people may be uncomfortable, even question, but we should respect individual's rights to express their religious values in this way. As long as there is no harm to individuals and our society.

  6. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:08 PM

    Rabbi I thought you might find this interesting, I found this on my wall just now.... Great timing :p

    "An amazing response on hijab by a Nobel Laureate from Yemen, Tawkul Karman.

    Yemeni Nobel Prize Winner in 2011 Tawakul Karman when asked about her hijab by journalists and how it's not proportionate with her level of intellect and and education, she replied:

    "Man in the early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and I'm wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It's the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times."

    1. Comment by C on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:19 PM

      B, Tawkul Karman's comment here is interesting and worth exploring and teasing out further. How is clothing connected to civilisation and ethics. Why have different cultures developed different types of clothing and does that have special meaning? Does the Nobel Laurete suggest that Orthodox Jains, who abhor clothing as part of an ethical principle of doing no harm, are not civilised? All thought provoking.

    2. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:20 PM

      I think you're reading too much into it C, lol, it's simple.. Man was born naked and had no intellect as time went by he was clothed and intellect grew, ie, through scientific discoveries etc, but these days you see soft porn shows on tv and people praising drunken naked people... Acting like idiots... No purpose in life... I quote from her: "It's the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times". You Dont see many Nobel prize winning recipients, naked, and with no intellect.. It defeats the purpose of "Nobel Prize" lol

    3. B, I am open to discussion about whether I am failing to live up to the ideal of respect between people of different beliefs. I am not offended by the suggestion, I am thirsty for knowledge and perhaps I got it wrong.
      I agree with C, that there is no contradition between deep respect for people who believe or do things differently from me and feeling uncomfortable with those beliefs. Eg. If a Muslim or a Christian says he does not agree with the Judaism's unwillingness to accept Jesus or Mohammed as prophets, or insistence of following our laws and traditions but respects my right to my beliefsas well as my sincerity and integirty. Is that not good enough? Do you believe in moral relativism, eg. all paths and beliefs are equal? if not, then how else can we have strong beliefs in our own path while also respecting others.
      I found the quote from the Tawakul interesting...I think it is absurd to suggest that wearing more clothes is primitive. I doubt she is knocking non-hijabi Western women, perhaps making a comment about the extreme minimization of clothing.

    4. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:22 PM

      Zalman lol... I just say it as I see it... I found the article offensive actually... You're indirectly saying that women with niqab aren't civilized or "aren't what you expected" from your friend.. So yes, it is contrary to what you preach. I don't know why you're side tracking with Judaism or the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) it's irrelevant to the topic... I don't find her statement absurd I find it witty and truthful actually.. I'm assuming you made a mistake by saying "to suggest that wearing more clothes is primitive", I think you meant by not wearing clothes... She is not refering to non hijabi woman, there are many non hijabi women who are civilized and educated just like hijabi women. But you seriously can't say to me that drunken fools, barely covering anything on teen tv shows for example, as not primitive??? At the very least? She's just simply saying what is correct... Man was naked.. As he evolved.. He starting clothes and his intellect grew, etc etc etc... But the mind wrapping filth you see on tv these days isn't exactly moving forward.... I think you and C have taken this way out of context....

    5. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:24 PM

      You need to be able to take criticism...... You yourself wrote in the title " Call me brave", well you knew what was coming lol

    6. B, I am open to ciriticism, so thank you for taking the time to read my article and share your views. :)
      a) I am sorry, what I wrote came accross to any of my readers as in any way disrespecting people who wear the Niqab. I guess, I am not showing great respect for the practice itself, which I am struggling with. My question is, can people respect each other deeply without agreeing about certain practices? as long as they don't ridicule these pracitces?
      b) I had no intention of suggesting that women wearing the Niqab are not civilized. I don't think that is true, and in fact I have not lost respect for the person in the article. I don't agree that I am saying that indirectly in my article. What I say is that I am not personally comfortable with the practice, I was surprised because she had never worn it before and that I think there could be some sacrifices in terms of her contribution to society. She is a very capable public speaker and part of communication is non-verbal, the expression in your face which will not be an option for her in the case of mixed male-female audiences. There is a trade off, and I respect the integrity and wisdom of the person making the decision, even if I am sad about the cost.
      c) In the case of Tawkul, you are making an assumption that I meant she was being absurd. What I actually meant was that I agree with her and I think she is making a very sensible and strong argument against knocking people for wearing more clothes, because it is absurd and stupid to suggest that wearing more clothes is primitive.
      d) I agree with you that there is something primitive about some of the images in popular culture.

    7. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:26 PM

      A) I guess so, in some instances

      B) she's capable or achieving anything she wishes with her niqab, it doesn't diminish her capability at all.. If she is passionate about what she wants, she will be able to make a deaf person hear.. (you know what I mean)

      C) oops! My bad lol, forgive me.

      D) :)

    8. a) I think this is one of those instances. Hope my defence of my article did not discourage you from challenging me in the future. I don't think real respect is about never saying anything the other person doesn't want to hear. It's about civility, openness, and willingness to reflect.
      b) Inshallah you will be proven right. She is an outstanding human being and I hope she is rewarded in this life and the next for her courage and integrity.
      c) Forgiven.
      d) :( a lot of the stuff out there is really destructive to men and women.
      Thank you for helping me in my quest to be honest with myself and respectful toward all,
      Not all who praise you are your friends, not all who point out your faults are your enemies :)

    9. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:27 PM

      Well said and thank you also. The last sentence is very wise, I liked it :)

    10. Comment by B on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:27 PM

      As a matter of fact, I would like to use that sentence on my Facebook wall, I also made reference to you :)

    11. thanks B, it is actually a Chasidic saying, thanks for passing in on

  7. Comment by D on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    As always a very insightful article Zalman!!

  8. Comment by E on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    Thank you for sharing your honesty Zalman.

  9. Comment by F on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    The niqab does not cover the whole face; you can still see the eyes. The burka covers the entire face.

    1. thanks F, the person in question will be covering her eyes. I thought there were other differences between Niqab and Burka apart from the eyes, in terms of style. Happy to be guided.

    2. Comment by F on FBApril 9, 2012 at 5:02 PM

      Yes, there are other differences as you mentioned, but the main one is that burqa covers the eyes and whole body, not the niqab.

  10. Comment by G on FBApril 9, 2012 at 4:59 PM

    The niqab also is not a requirement. The idea behind modesty is to not draw attention. In the west the niqab has the opposite effect invalidating the reasoning for covering in the first place.

    1. thanks for that. was talking to an Imam about it, he agreed with your first point. I doubt he would accept your 2nd argument.

    2. Actually G, the idea of modesty in Islam is to not draw inappropriate attention. For example the attention a person showing cleavage would get. The niqab does the opposite of that in general. However, as humans there are crazed individuals out there that are tempted and wouldn't stop at anything to get what they desire. But that wouldn't mean niqab doesn't serve it's purpose

      O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e.screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allâh is Ever Oft¬Forgiving, Most Merciful[] (33:59)

  11. Comment by H on FBApril 9, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    Zalman, which Rabbi are you talking about when you say "One extremely pious Rabbi who recently passed away, went so far as to walk down the street with his eyes closed, guided by an attendant."?

    1. the Rabbi was the Vishnitzer Rebbe O"H (Alav Hashalom), who recently passed away. Story about it in Hamodia newspaper.

  12. Comment by H on FBApril 9, 2012 at 5:11 PM

    Zalman, a very interesting article, thankyou for sharing (and writing!) it. My question is this - how can we be certain that the standards for modesty in Judaism and Islam are not a result of "male domination", as you call it? And my suggested answer is this (I would love to hear other's answers!): When young people have access to respected role models who model a variety of interpretations of "modest dress", then will we know they are making an informed personal choice rather then responding to unfair, "dominated" pressure. This would require all Jews to respect and accept Jews who choose to interpret the guidelines for modesty in a multitude of ways. This requires Jewish adults to start modelling respect and acceptance in a new way - a good start would be different sections of our community respectfully learning from each other, then accepting parts of that learning into their own lives.

    1. If you were to ask everyone to tell you their definition of modesty, you will receive many interpretations. This is because we are all different and have different understandings. And yes having different opinions outside of religion does cause many problems. People just like to use religion as a scapegoat to why there's no peace in the world, when it may just be there own fault. Murders, robberies, & other crimes that happen daily are not usually about religion.
      In Islam, Prophet Muhammad was like a "living Quraan" as in he showed us exactly what was meant by the verses sent down. Just like you could read about something, for example construction. However, if you're just reading it and never done this trade before, you may end up doing something way off. Maybe if someone were to demonstrate, it'll be a lot easier to understand, though necessarily easy to copy, but you get the point.
      The same way with life. Only the One who created us knows exactly what benefits us as well as harms us. Sometimes we just don't get it, sometimes we do, but in the end Allaah knows best.
      Maybe if you looked at the history of clothing, you'll see that women's dress just become more provocative throughout the years. I can only blame it on lusts, though people like to say it's "equality". A man and a woman are two different beings. They have different roles, strengths, & weaknesses. Rape is generally known to be done to women & there's a reason for that.
      Women were like property for the longest while. However, when Islam came, this tradition was abhorred.
      Due to ignorance and blind following this tradition, and many others like it, are still being practiced in some cultures & some seem Islamic. Women are not meat on the market, but they themselves fail to realize it.
      Also, I know this is quite long, but I'd like to add that with all these models & celebrities walking around half naked and usually in premarital relationships, women around the world look at these individuals as if their lives are perfect. From dark skinned women bleaching their skin, to already skinny girls becoming anorexic. Inappropriately flaunting your beauty to people who don't DESERVE to see it is bad for the same sex too. Man or Women. Just a reminder : Let's not forget these actors & actresses on T.V. are playing a role, it's suppose to go according to the script. Life is not written by some guy/girl looking to make loads of money to make people lie. The results are different off screen than it is on screen. Hope this helps.

  13. Comment by I on FBApril 9, 2012 at 5:14 PM

    I believe there is a tradition in many Jewish communities (particularly sefardi) that the clothing aspect of tzniut (remembering that tzniut is about so much more than clothing) was a concept of one being required to dress more modestly than one's neighbours.

    In this day and age, perhaps it could be argued that in a society where people where tank tops and short shorts, Jews would be modest by wearing a bit more than that.

    Furthermore, is the extent of covering up regulated by halacha or is it minhag as I cited in my first paragraph? For example, there is a mitzvah d'orayta that men and women may not cross-dress in each other's clothes. However, Rav Ovadia Yosef rules that women may wear pants (even to shule!) if they do not show the full body shape (eg jeans) and are designed specifically for women.

    I also understand that, for example, the minimum cover up required by a man in order to recite a bracha/daven is to wear shorts and a singlet. What is the minimum standard for a woman?