All of us have seen them.  Veiled women.  The calling card of Islam.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  Almost every religion has women within it that chose to wear a head covering of some sort.  Read 1 Corinthians 7 and it is clear that was even an accepted practice in the early church.

Still, in our world where women seem to be wearing less and less, a woman who would choose to cover up her body or even her face is a bit out of the ordinary.

Maybe that’s the point.

In fact, as we come to today’s reading we find that this is exactly the point.

Tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should draw their coverings over their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, . . . [etc.] . . . such men who attend them who have no such desire. (24:31)

First, some definitions.  There are two main head coverings in Islam with different names used in different places.  First, the hijab is a veil that covers the head, and then is loosely draped around the neck.  The face is fully visible.  This is the covering most common in western countries.  Non-Muslim women will sometimes don the hijab when in predominantly Islamic countries out of respect for that culture.

Second, the niqab is a veil that not only covers the head and neck but also the face.  Some have an uncovered slit that exposes only the eyes, while others have a modest lace screen in this area so sight is possible but so that the appearance of the woman’s eyes is still obscured.  It is the niqab that has become so controversial in western countries, even having been outlawed in France recently because of the fear that it obscures the identity of the wearer so much so that national security is at risk.

The hijab is usually worn with any outfit deemed to be modest.  The niqab is usually paired with a black or blue cloak known as a burqah that extends almost to the ground and generally obscures the figure of the woman as well.

Many non-Muslims view the veil as a symbol of subjugation and oppression.  No doubt that may be the case in some situations, especially where women are forced to dress in this manner.  Some Muslim women who reject the veil object that the veil places upon the woman the responsibility to curb the male propensity toward lust; really this is a problem inside the man so he should deal with it and not make the woman a slave to his inappropriate passions.

In the West, though, the Muslim culture is such that the decision to wear the veil is given to the girl or woman.  It is a sign of acceptance of Islam and a code of modesty and submission to Allah, not a symbol of slavery.  As a former student of mine who began wearing a hijab when she left high school and began attending a respected Midwestern college said, the veil can be seen as a symbol of empowerment.  The woman now has control over who seems all of her beauty.  She is not a physical object out there in the world to be leered at and lusted over by every man with weak morals.  Her beauty is hers and her future husband’s.

That is precisely the spirit of the passage we come to today.  Modesty in dress — whether a veil or loose-fitting clothes or something else entirely — is becoming of godly women.  All of us are creatures of desire (24:31b), especially men it seems, so be mindful of this in how one dresses and carries oneself (which is probably what the “stamping of the feet” part is all about at the end of ayah 31, a plea to be looked at).

A Christian man and theologian that I know and respect, well versed in the world’s religions, asked this question recently to Christians about dress.  Why are we trying to dress more and more like the fashion models of Paris or Milan?  Why must our children sport the fashion of Justice for Girls or Aeropostale?  If Style magazine says this is the new “must-have,” why do we run like lemmings to buy it?  Should there be something distinctive about the dress of a person of God?  Maybe the full burqah or even a hijab is too much, but could it be that Islam has something to teach us here?

Do you see a bit of a difference?