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Why do so many religions have rules about hair?
This question came from one of our fans on Instagram, Jodie_Dodie, and it got me thinking
about the deep roots of this complex question.
Religious rules about hair are widespread.
Some groups dictate how followers must wear their hair — like Orthodox Judaism and Sikhism.
Others incorporate hair-cutting rituals into coming of age ceremonies, like the Mongolian
hair cutting ceremonies for toddlers.
But today we’re going to turn our attention to one aspect of this question: religious
rules about hair covering.
Even though today there’s the intense media coverage on the head covering worn by Muslim
women, there’s actually a wide range of religions that have their own rules related
to headgear that isn’t focused on one gender.
Consider these six objects: The kippah and the sheitel.
The hijab and the taqiyah.
The habit and the dastaar.
They’re all head coverings worn by different religious groups, namely those who follow Judaism, Christianity,
Islam, and Sikhism.
So today we’re going to walk through not only these individual objects but the underpinnings
of how they’ve been implemented in these religions throughout history.
By unpacking the histories of these objects and others like them, we can start to see
what the connections and differences are in the hair-covering practices of each faith,
and we can explore some of the origin stories surrounding these customs.
But we can also see that these practices have often varied over time.
Because religious rules about hair are often linked back to specific sacred texts or events.
And the way those texts are interpreted has often changed, as cultural contexts have changed
alongside them.
So, even though these customs are thousands of years old, they haven’t remained static.
And that’s because the hair coverings themselves are meant to signify certain religious attitudes
and ideals.
The sacred texts of these four faiths all refer to ideals like modesty, equality, or
changes in status or age, which the practice of covering your hair or head are supposed
to manifest.
And as the followers and leaders of faiths have changed throughout history, the implementation
and practice of wearing religious head coverings have evolved right alongside them.
As a result, at different points in time, many of these rules have gained or lost popularity,
often due to shifts in the socio-political climate surrounding the practitioners of each
faith.
Which is why interpretation plays a key role in these narratives.
To take it back to our original 4 examples, let’s start with Judaism, which has a wide
range of hair covering customs.
For example, it’s common for married Orthodox Jewish women to wear some form of hair covering,
whether it’s a scarf, a hat, or a wig called a sheitel.
Some of the origins of this lies in a description of the Sotah ritual that’s described in
the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible.
The ritual was meant to test the fidelity of a wife accused of adultery.
And a portion of the ritual describes accused wives having their hair unbraided or uncovered.
So then it’s then inferred that, if unbraiding and uncovering the hair was considered a punishment,
then /covered/ hair would have been the preferred style for wives.
But some of the variance in the performance of this custom comes from the fact that while
it draws its origins from the Hebrew Bible, it’s still interpreted differently by religious
leaders and followers.
So, some women wear head coverings to mark a change in status from unmarried to married.
But for Reform or Conservative Jewish women, hair covering varies, from wearing something
on their heads during prayer or religious services (but not during their daily lives),
to never covering their heads at all.
So the interpretation of the hair-covering rule for women isn’t unidimensional.
Likewise, for Jewish men, there’s also a wide range of rules that relate to ideas,
such as respect and deference that is tied to head covering.
In some instances, Jewish men cover their hair with kippot (which encompasses a number of
religious skull caps), or tallit (a prayer shawl), or hats.
And this too has its origins in sacred texts.
For example, there are references in the Talmud that point to covering your head for Jewish
men as a sign of recognizing the supremacy of God above them.
But just like with Jewish women, how this is interpreted and implemented is left up
to the followers of the faith — say, when it comes to which type of coverage is necessary
to wear all day, or only when you’re entering into a synagogue or engaging in prayer.
Christianity also has some pretty well known and iconic examples of head covering practices,
which centers mostly on women.
And just like in Judaism, there are some variations among individual sects.
Perhaps the most iconic headwear that comes to mind is a nun’s habit, which is specifically
worn by Catholic nuns or sisters (and not all women who are followers of Catholicism).
But not all nuns and sisters wear habits since the rules of dress are left up to the
discretion of particular orders.
The tradition of wearing a habit was commonplace from at least the 12th century.
For nuns who spent their lives in prayer and reflection, separated from the rest of society,
the habit was sometimes a symbol of their vows to live modest and simple lives.
In other instances, for sisters who were working with orders that were integrated into the
community, the habit was a symbol of distinguishing sisters from laypeople.
But in the latter half of the 20th century, as societies’ views around women’s roles
shifted to be less conservative, many orders of nuns and sisters opted to wear modest clothes
that was more like what laypeople wore.
So the 1960s were not only a time of mod fashion and psychedelic patterns but also a time
when nun’s attire got modernized as well.
Although some orders still wear various types of religious habits today, you’re probably
more likely to see nuns and sisters wearing lay clothing when you’re on the street.
As for rules governing women /followers/ of Christianity, some denominations call for
hair-coverings during prayer or when women are receiving certain sacraments, like the
Eucharist.
This is the case for Orthodox Christianity, as well as in Spain, where mantillas are often
worn, or in historically black churches throughout the US, where bonnets and hats are favored
on Sundays.
But as in Judaism, this is more of a matter of accepted practice than direct Biblical
law.
As for men, it’s the accepted standard that, during their official duties, men who are
priests or hold leadership roles in the Catholic Church wear ceremonial hats.
And these hair coverings serve a couple of different purposes for clergy: namely to show
deference to their faith and the vows they took, and to distinguish their role within
the community.
Now, Islam’s rules related to women and hair covering are often widely discussed,
even though they’re part of a broader spectrum of practices within the world of religion
and hair.
In her book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America,
Professor Leila Ahmed traces the patterns of veil-wearing among Muslim women from the
19th century onwards.
She notes that there was a distinct period of “unveiling,” or a decline in the wearing
of head coverings among Muslim women around the world.
Ahmed notes that during her childhood in the 1940s and 50s, in both her home country of
Egypt and throughout other Muslim-majority nations, it was exceedingly rare for women
to wear headscarves.
This is in part due to social movements within these countries, as well as influences from
Western Europe and the US that sought to increase secularization, or the separation of church
and state up, until the 1950s.
But that doesn’t mean that veils for women’s hair (or sometimes their faces) disappeared
entirely.
As Ahmed notes, by the 1980s and 1990s with the resurgence of more conservative Islamic
denominations and political conflict both internally and externally, there was an increase
in women wearing veils again, sometimes as a sign of modesty or as an outward statement
of faith.
But during those same decades, there were also attempts by the Egyptian government specifically
to /limit/ the wearing of hijabs and niqabs, (or face coverings,) in public schools and
universities.
And some observant Muslim women do not choose to cover their hair, or only wear a form of
hair covering in certain situations (like when leaving home or when praying).
Muslim men can also wear a taqiyah (or cap) during prayer and religious ceremonies.
So although the practice of modesty for both men and women is traced back to the Quran,
there are have been periods when the practice of wearing a head covering for women, in particular,
has waxed and waned.
Sikhs also have a highly symbolic and recognizable form of head covering, namely the turban.
Although there’s a slight reversal in our expectations related to gender here.
When Sikhism was first emerging in India in the 15th century, the dastar (or turban) was
more exclusively worn by wealthy and higher class men.
But as the adoption of the turban became more widespread, use of this covering came to signify
equality for all men who adhered to the faith, regardless of class.
This was coupled with other rules related to hair, namely that all followers (regardless
of gender) should not cut or alter any of their body hair.
But in 1907 a more radical Sikh leader, Babu Teja Singh, put forward that women should
also wear turbans, to publicly distinguish themselves as Sikhs.
So we can see from these four examples that hair and religion are often linked.
So, what do they have in common?
Well at least for these religions, it seems like the centrality of hair rules falls into
2 major (but not exclusive) categories: status and modesty.
First up: status.
Religious hair covering is a way to mark your status within a certain faith that’s easily
identifiable.
If you see someone wearing a certain hat or head covering, you immediately know that they’re
a follower of a specific religious group.
And (depending on the rules) you may even know their status and rank within that group.
It’s also more easily distinguishable than markers that appear lower down on the body.
Because I don’t know about you, but when I address someone, I’m usually looking at
their faces and not their feet or elbows.
Changes in hair covering can also note a change in someone’s status, like an Orthodox Jewish
woman who goes from being single to married, or a hijab worn by a Muslim girl after puberty.
Because coming of age or being considered a full adult in religion is also a change
in status.
This can also be seen in Sikhism’s rasam pagṛī or rasam dastār, the turban tying
the ceremony that takes place when the eldest son is elevated to the head of the household, after
the death of his father.
But in addition to status, /modesty/ is an oft-cited reason for the focus on hair.
And that may be because hair is seen as a source of pride or hubris.
Which isn’t completely off base.
People place a lot of emotional weight on our tresses.
If you’ve ever been disgruntled after a particularly bad haircut, then you probably
know what I’m talking about here.
Hair draws strong emotional and psychological responses from us because it’s a way that
we can express our individuality and our own ideas around beauty.
By choosing to cover it, or limit it from view, folks from these religions are potentially
showing deference to higher ideals of modesty.
So you can see how social factors and cultural climates have played a big role in how religious
followers chose to cover (or uncover) their hair.
And how these rules have been implemented and interpreted has fluctuated over time.
At certain times (like in the history of women wearing hijabs) certain hair coverings were
suppressed and discouraged by governments.
At others (like in Sikhism until 1907) it was only enforced for certain followers and
not others according to gender.
And in others still (like in Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism) it’s been a matter of
laws that govern a specific sect or group, or a marker of status (married vs. single
or layperson vs clergy) rather than a hard and fast rule for every follower.
Also, the practice of covering hair (or not) can have vastly different significances, even
for followers of the same faith.
And there’s lots of writing and personal blogs out there (a bunch of which I’ve cited
down in the description) in which adherents of certain faiths discuss what it means to
cover their hair or to leave it bare.
So be sure to check those out as well.
So what do you think?

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