Reading the Corinthian Veils through Hijabs and Habits
When considering Paul‟s instruction on feminine veils in 1 Corinthians 11, scholars rely on crosscultural evidence that depicts veils as universal tools of patriarchal control over women. Recently, however, scholars like Saba Mahmood have suggested different models of agency, which place more emphasis on the possibility of accretion of cultural capital through conformance with social norms. Intellectuals like Frantz Fanon and Margaret Atwood have construed both the hijabi and the nun whose habit includes a veil as symbols of resistance in certain oppressive regimes. Such a reading resists the temptation to see all instances of veils in male-dominated societies as oppressive of women. Moreover, many religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Greek Orthodox) retain customs of male head-covering. This paper therefore seeks to gather interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11:1-19 from two groups practicing modern feminine veiling in American society: Muslim women and Roman Catholic nuns.
Crosscultural evidence is often adduced in relation to the veiling that was taking place at Corinth. Following the currents of feminist scholarship, Dale Martin followed Gail Paterson Corrington in suggesting that the Corinthian women exposed themselves to potential invasion by angels by unveiling their heads (244). Thus, in order to somewhat paternalistically protect the women, Paul instructs them to wear veils. Martin demonstrates that this conception of disease exists crossculturally in Chinese, Japanese, Papua New Guinean, and Nigerian cultures (144). However, though he notes Nigerian Tuareg men also veil themselves to protect themselves from evil spirits, he never fully explicates why Corinthian men do not need to veil themselves since even the Roman emperor veiled himself in worship contexts (297). Readings like this focus on women and often try to liberate women from what seem to be the oppression of the historical text and its context.
Saba Mahmood, however, has called attention to the secular-leftist agenda we scholars hold as we expect our subject to conform to our own conception of what constitutes “egalitarianism.” We would prefer our subjects to live like us. She points out an underlying problem in assuming that all veiled women have always been held under patriarchal control and would believe differently if they were presented with the opportunity to participate in a social construction. As she adroitly observes:
Even those analysts who are skeptical of the false-consciousness thesis underpinning this approach nonetheless continue to frame the issue in terms of a fundamental contradiction: why would such a large number of women across the Muslim world actively support a movement that seems inimical to their “own interests and agendas,” especially at a historical moment when these women appear to have more emancipatory possibilities available to them? (2)
Mahmood specifically engages this question in the context of an ethnography of Islamic practice in modern Egypt. In an analysis sympathetic to the theory of Bourdieu, Mahmood finds that women can accrue cultural capital through the practice of veiling and are not necessarily behaving irrationally. Kate Wilkinson has recently applied Mahmood‟s theoretical framework to the ascetic practice of veiling that occurred with Christian religious women in late antiquity. Women in late antiquity accreted honor to themselves, but, more importantly, they were not participating with modern understandings of the agency of the individual subject. Using the framework of Bourdieu, Rebecca Krawiec likewise decides that “clothing, for both male and female monks, indicates paradoxically both the monks‟ humility and their religious authority” (131). They did not have to conform to our contemporary American standards of liberation replete with bra-burning.
The lack of sexism in the 1 Corinthians 11 veils passage in the history of reception is helpful to my own thesis that the passage contains many egalitarian impulses. Three points will serve to illustrate the point. First of all, in the hierarchy established by the initial verses, the line that places man as the head of woman immediately follows with “God is the head of Christ” (11:3). Women logically are to man what Christ is to God. Second, veiling during a religious ceremony was honorific and customary for both men and women, and the Roman emperor himself was ensconced with his head veiled in the Corinth agora at the time Paul was writing the Corinthians. Third, the veil is supposed to be necessary for women “because of the angels” (11:10). Angels are related to women while men are related to God in Jewish texts talking about the use of the cohortative (“Let us create man in his image”) in the Genesis creation account (cf. 4QInstruction).
Accordingly, I decided to investigate the universality implied in the invocations of crosscultural parallels in which the veil was uniformly a measure of patriarchal control and protection of the “weaker sex.” The approach of Mahmood in modern Egypt seemed to me to be a perspicacious one that would work well with the contexualized biblical interpretative approach of having ordinary readers engage the text. Muslim women and Roman Catholic nuns have been wearing veils in the United States, and yet they do not conform to American secular values. Both are comparing themselves not only on a vertical axis but on extended geographical horizons that include Rome and Mecca. In this way, they have as much viability as anthropological comparisons as the African Muslim tribes adduced by Martin. Furthermore, I have the advantage of having been raised in and being a current practitioner of Roman Catholicism with a familiarity with both nuns and pre-Vatican II chapel veils. This enables me to have more of an
insight into the cultural capital that might be accrued by veil wearing than an outsider, since I actually perceive the cultural capital as real and valuable in my non-scholarly life.
For this study, I interviewed a small sample of Roman Catholic nuns and Islamic community leaders from across the country by phone and email. Though I conceptualized the project through my personal relationships with nuns and hijabis, all of my contacts through this project were made through internet searches for people previously unknown to me. These included urban communities on the West Coast (California), in the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, and Texas), and on the East Coast (Pennsylvania and New York). Initially, I had wanted to include Georgia, the state in which Emory University is located. However, I soon discovered that the presence of women religious whose habits included veils was not well-developed enough to support much inquiry for interaction and dialogue. (This may help to explain the excessive scrutiny received by Muslim women who wear the hijab in Georgia, where a case in which a woman was jailed for refusing to take off her hijab recently made the national news.)
Roman Catholic women religious are differentiated between cloistered nuns and sisters who have apostolates in the community. I wanted to include both. Both are colloquially referred to as a homogenous group as “nuns” by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Both have dress regulations specific to their congregations. However, each group has its own connection with Muslim women who wears the hijab and lives in community. Veils are most strongly associated with cloistered nuns in Catholic tradition. Despite the importance of Vatican II to many Catholic women religious and laypeople, some sisters out in the community have not worn habits for a much longer time than the 1960s. In the seventeenth century, St. Vincent de Paul instructed the Daughters of Charity to avoid the habit in order to blend in with the community. The object was to not be a visible sign and witness to Christ but to perform acts of charity inconspicuously and anonymously. The Congregation of Joseph of Medaille originally dressed in the garb of ordinary French peasants. During the early nineteenth century, St. Elizabeth Seton and the American Sisters of Charity wore the simple black attire of widows in the United States (Beal 838). In many respects, the cloistered nun has the authority of the veil also found in Islam, but the sister whose habit includes a veil has to occupy a contested space like Muslim women who choose to veil.
A notable difference in the selection of interlocutors between the two groups involved the hierarchical structuring of the two groups. In terms of Roman Catholic women religious, it was possible for me to consult with mother superiors and women religious who might be able to substitute if the mother superior did not speak sufficient English. However, Muslim‟s women‟s organizations often directed me to male leadership voices in mosques and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). They did not mean this as a silencing of their own voices; they were trying to conform with the overall goal of American Muslims to present themselves as a model minority and with Islamic tradition that puts veils in a system of modesty expectations for both genders. Therefore, some of my Muslim interviews included men.
Another notable difference in representation occurs in terms of the ages of my readers. The Muslim readers ranged from ages 18 to 40. The Roman Catholic women religious were middle-aged. Younger women were present in their communities, but they had not reached positions of communal outreach yet. In this way, there was a similar ethic to presentation that occurred in the Muslim communities. Both exhibited anxiety on the part of members perceived as vulnerable, which we might speculate occurs because of the intense scrutiny placed on both groups.
Instead of giving the Catholic women religious and Muslim women and mosque leaders scholarly interpretations of Paul‟s instructions on veiling, I asked them to read the passage and identify the parts that resonated with their own experience. Given the current Apostolic Visitation of American women‟s religious orders by the Vatican and the ongoing media and societal pressures felt by the Muslim community, I promised near anonymity to my interlocutors. It was important to me not to make any one individual or community bear the weight of interpretation on such a contentious issue. Moreover, nuns‟ emails were being forwarded around communities and to venerable media institutions like The New York Times this summer. The blogosphere decided that liberal nuns who claimed “post-Christ” were not Christian and therefore not Catholic. As a mere Catholic layperson striving to emulate St. Catherine of Siena in not formally being part of the church hierarchy nor leading to schisms, my questions were formulated as openly as possible:
1. What stands out to you in the text?
2. How does it or does it not speak to your modern experience with headcoverings?
3. Are there any formative experiences that might influence your interpretative choices?
From there, I responded to each vision of the text on its own terms. These typically developed into follow-up conversations and unrelated conversations on blogs and social networking sites. As my research period extended over six months, I came to develop emotional attachments to my “ordinary readers.” I had knowledge of their social contexts, and they had access to mine. This was helpful to me because all of my analysis occurred in connection with (and correction by!) the communities.
The text that we were all reading was delimited by me through my understanding of Margaret M. Mitchell‟s work on 1 Corinthians as a letter on the singular topic of unity. I therefore chose to extend the passage that I gave to everyone through to verse 19, which serves as a bridge into Paul‟s next topic of discussion and mentions the infighting of the Corinthian community. The version was the New American Standard Version approved by the USCCB (the council of Roman Catholic bishops in the United States):
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. But any woman
who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved. For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man; for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord. For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given (her) for a covering? But if anyone is inclined to be argumentative, we do not have such a custom, nor do the churches of God. In giving this instruction, I do not praise the fact that your meetings are doing more harm than good. First of all, I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, and to a degree I believe it; there have to be factions among you in order that (also) those who are approved among you may become known.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the construction of the project was the elusiveness of women wearing veils. Initially, I started by contacting the vocational directors listed on the Archdiocese websites of cities in which I have lived and have an ongoing connection, namely Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. This was the advice that had been given to me by a female religious on staff at Emory University. Though most orders‟ websites depict at least one nun in a veil among their community, very few of these orders have a veiled nun among them. Both laity and religious vocational directors instructed me to go to the cloistered Carmelites. One Californian order simply wrote that their order had not had a habit since the 1970s. At a loss, I contacted Sister Anne Flanagan, a Daughters of St. Paul “media nun” who instructed me to use the lists on the website of the Institute on Religious Life. I only became acquainted with her through her administration of the Facebook group for the Pauline Year.
Thus, the approachability of veiled nuns, even those working in hospitals and the community, is extremely circumscribed. The virtual veiled nun in film and blogs is likely to be a more accessible figure to most Catholic and non-Catholic laity than the physical veiled one in the digital age. However, even once I thought I had located them in discursive space, my interlocutors tended to refer to not only themselves and their community members but also to female religious in communities in the orders who did not wear veils. The “penguin,” a sobriquet for the black-and-white habited nun in the film Blues Brothers, seemed to be nothing more than a celluloid construct that I would never be able to locate in real life. Veiled nuns outside of the secular film world and the popular imagination do not represent themselves as having the same heightened consciousness of their veils as the people with whom they interact. It is not the most significant part of their identities.
Likewise, the hijabi has a forbidding subculture and is easier to locate in the blogosphere and internet than in person. Prior to this project, I participated in the Emory Muslim Student Association‟s “Wear A Hijab” Day. I learned about the basic requirements for wearing a hijab and experienced some of the stares associated with being veiled in modern spaces, but my interaction with actual hijabis was extremely limited. There has been a cultural shift from the traditions of the 1960s when everyone from writer Frantz Fanon to Latin American artists used the hijabi as a visual trope to advocate for the sovereignty of the Muslim colonized in French Algeria. Today‟s American hijabi is a well-rounded, educated woman who respects herself. Muslim television youth programs like On the Map, for example, feature a hijabi for main roles and young women in all types of dress in supporting roles. Plays like the Hijab Monologues emphasize that the hijab does not produce uniformity in women. In a fashion similar to Roman Catholic women religious, women who wear the hijab are resisting having the veil essentialized as the most important part of their identities. They want us to see women and not women wearing veils… or as a keeper of “the veil.”
3. Responses From Communities Who Use Veils
Almost all of the Roman Catholic women religious had never thought of 1 Corinthians 11 in connection to their veils. Canon law stipulates that the veil is a sign of consecration and poverty, and responses tended to run in perfect conformity with canon law. Moreover, each order has the right to modify its habit and thus the process of traditio and traditum (essentially “changing continuity”) is seen as the norm rather than a particular iteration of the habit. Changing habits does not make an order less conservative in its theology. This is in stark contrast with the claims of some Roman Catholic traditionalists who interpret Paul‟s exhortation for Corinthian women to wear the veil as justification for a contemporary veiling of women (e.g., Traditionalists in Action and various movements “to bring back the mantilla”). The nuns‟ understanding of veiling is more in keeping with the September 10, 2009 post on the blog of “The Anchoress” on the online and print journal First Thoughts on the desire of Roman Catholic laywomen to wear the veil at Mass. More than 100 unique responses resoundingly agreed with the lay Roman Catholic female author‟s desire to wear a veil at Mass in order to feel consecrated. This affirmation occurred despite the article‟s being posted on the day before the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The recurring sentiment was that women wanted a way to feel pious without being perceived as overly zealous.
Most of the Muslim women had never seriously considered a connection between Christian headcovering traditions and Islamic tradition. Christian veils in both Paul and modern culture are understood to be a marker of femininity, which indicate a Christian perspective on gender differences sympathetic to the Muslim one.
The three Roman Catholic religious congregations I contacted had never thought about the text before in conjunction with their veils. One Carmelite cloistered congregation describes the veil as the “sign of our consecration to the Lord.” The apostle Paul “was living in his own time and it seems to correspond with his advice.” They did not wish to speculate further about the ramifications of their veils.
In another Carmelite cloistered congregation, the veil is seen as a sign of consecration, specifically being a Bride of Christ. Paul had his own situation, but their roots were in 16th century Spain. The rite of giving the veil says, "Receive this veil as a sign of your consecration, and keep unbroken faith with your heavenly Bridegroom. It proclaims that you belong entirely to Christ and to his Mystical Body, the Church." Though the veil mostly had significance within community, the veil had been a witness when out among the public.
Since not all Carmelites wear the traditional habit, the congregation did not see the veil as “a sign of being conservative or otherwise.” They underscored the unity among all Carmels, “with or without habits and/or veils.” They pointed to the maxim “the habit does not make the monk (or nun).” Veils and habits are superficial evidence for a spiritual life, but only God knows the true intentions of everyone.
Some overlap between the Carmelite habit and traditional Muslim female attire had been observed prior to my project. The traditional Carmelite habit dates back to St. Teresa of Avila in 16th century Spain. The nuns noted that there are “some modifications of course but it basically looks the same as then.” They were certain that there was a Muslim influence in the culture that may have contributed to the similarity between their habits and Muslim costumes. In airports, they had been approached by Muslim women and asked why they were dressed alike. (Beal 838)
In the third community, whose order is involved in hospital work, the veil was described as an opportunity to witness for Christ that involves little effort. Walking in Los Angeles in a habit was not a noteworthy ordeal or experience. No sacrifice was involved in the decision to witness, which paralleled the pride I heard some priests express in personal conversations after Mass in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Nonetheless, support for sisters whose habits do not include veils was expressed:
However, if my superiors had decided that we not wear a veil after Vatican II, I suppose I would not be too disturbed. Now that I have been wearing a veil for the past 50 years I appreciate why some Sisters do not wear veils and I respect their choice.
In light of 1 Corinthians 11, the veil also functioned as an instrument of unity. Its presence affirms those who are “deeply religious.” While there are “many other more valuable ways of witnessing when it comes to justice and peace and other not so popular issues with the „law‟ or „conservative‟ Church members,” the veil produces positive reactions in them as well as
in less conservative Catholics. The price of the veil is perceived as much easier to afford than other types of witnessing situations.
Overall, it seems that 1 Corinthians 11 has little detailed application for the practice of religious dress in Californian Congregations of women religious (nuns and sisters). The specifics of the intention of the veil arise from the decisions of superiors about the habit and canon law. Notably, however, while canon law states that the habit is a sign of consecration and poverty, the women religious did not emphasis or even mention the poverty of the veil. Only the veil‟s consecrated valences were held up. In this way, the honorific aspect of the veil in Roman culture and 1 Corinthians 11 continues to permeate modern practice. Moreover, the religious uniformly did not view the veil as an ascetic practice making them spiritually better than their non-veiled sisters. Like 1 Corinthians 11 through the scholarly lens of Margaret Mitchell, who sees 1 Corinthians 11 as a unified letter on the theme of unity, the veil impels these women religious to unity with the other religious in the congregation, with religious around the world in their order, and with the people in their own communities.
In the vast Muslim community in Southern California, I talked to a half dozen Muslim women and the leader of a prominent mosque in Los Angeles. The angels of 1 Corinthians 11 do not have a direct correlation in Islamic thought, because angels have very specific functions like causing death and are always obedient to the divine will. Unlike Muslim responses elsewhere in the country, the gender differences of 1 Corinthians 11 were not noticed. While all women wear the veil in worship, there was no particular esteem placed by the mosque leader on wearing the hijab. It was simply something some women chose to do. The most important factor was that the niqab, which covers the face, was not given much approbation along with other customs found in Saudi Arabia like a belief in jinn (demons who attack men and women). Basically, there appeared to be none of the acute consciousness of 1 Corinthians 11 of supernatural beings inhabiting the worship space—physically or through prayer—with the worshipper.
In terms of comparison of themselves with Christian and Roman Catholic traditions, there had not been any serious thought in terms of the New Testament. Many of the Muslim hijabis attended Catholic school, though, and some compared their veils to those of Roman Catholic nuns. There was a widely circulated joke that the hijab was a “bad habit.” While this joke obviously displays gracious deference to Catholicism, it also demonstrates the more secular understanding of the habit of Muslims in the Los Angeles area.
In Chicago, a woman religious associated with the Daughters of St. Paul had reflected significantly upon the passage while praying in chapel. Upon receiving my request, she returned to chapel, picked up her Jerusalem Bible, and found some penciled notes: “Nobody seems to notice the last phrase [“the head of Christ is God”] and it is the one that determines and defines all the rest; a Trinitarian model.” She compared this with Hebrews in which Christ is the
“reflection/refulgence of the Father‟s glory.” Thus, her construal matched my own scholarly understanding of the work that this passage might have egalitarian impulses. Her reading also took the cult of Thecla into account when reckoning the reception history of the text. This exegetical move matched my own understanding and, more importantly, the history of her order, whose foundress took the name Mother Thecla.
Despite her sustained reflection on 1 Corinthians 11 and her extremely Trinitarian reading of the passage, though, she at no time mentioned the text with respect to the veil. This is possibly because she has repeatedly blogged about head-coverings in all social contexts and has advocated for the study of Muslim and Christian veils as a point of dialogue. She has also taken an interest in movements among less conservative Catholics—often converts—to wear the veil during Mass as a reminder to themselves that they are in a space different from the outside world. Her own veil was in a separate room from the rest of her habit when she took her vows, so it does not have the same association for her with her vows. It is more of an opportunity for her to witness to her faith because others associate the veil with faith. Like the sister working in the hospital in Los Angeles, we might see an association with the Corinthian community in which the strong (the veiled) support the weak (those who want to see others in veils). She herself sees it as a sign that she is not “running with the culture.” However, that does not mean it is an essential part of her faith or that it should be the means through which others find faith.
The metric for the difference in attitudes toward veiling between Roman Catholic nuns and Muslim women might be seen in their responses to the Vagina Monologues. The Vitae Monologues were the Catholic response. These were a pro-life production premiering at the University of St. Thomas. A Chicago nun noted that it was “about time someone took on the V monopoly on college campuses!” Here the emphasis is on the currents in the feminist movement that promulgate sexual freedom, which is often achieved through birth control and without consideration to marriage.
By contrast, Muslim young women who wore the hijab at the University of Chicago responded to Vagina Monologues in a very different way. They developed a dramatic performance called the Hijab Monologues. Unlike the Catholics, they did not link the play with sexuality but with their experience of being a woman. This play emphasizes the divergent experiences of united hijabis and the stress of constant surveillance by the dominant culture. Here, the veil is not a protection but a visible sign, a marker of an identity as spectacle and Other.
In Indiana, the hijabi with whom I spoke said that “Islam has a special philosophy of its own which differs from what happened 1400 years ago and what is happening now.” The anthropology in Islam assigns certain rights and obligations to be similar for men and women and certain rights and obligations to be dissimilar. Unlike 1 Corinthians 11, men and women are not given a gender arrangement based in the creation account. Thus, “women in Islam have to
cover their hair, not because we are inferior or submitted, but men also just as women have some clothing rules to respect.” The veils do not originate from Catholic gender difference but from modesty precepts. The lack of gender difference was underscored by reference to verses from the Qur‟an in Surah al-Hujurat (49:13):
People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other. The most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. God is All-knowing and All-aware.
In Austin, I talked to one of the teachers of a mosque‟s class for prospective converts. She had worn hijab for over 15 years. In her estimation, 1 Corinthians 11 was not relevant to the practice of wearing hijab because it is not shameful for Muslims to cut their hair or to style it as they wish. Hijab is also not restricted to the hair, but “all areas of beauty except for what appears naturally —hands and face.” The reason to cover is not that men will be tempted by a woman‟s beauty but that the ascetic practice encourages a woman to present in a non-sexually provocative manner. In an argument not unlike that used for children‟s school uniforms, she found “when a women is dressed modestly, she feels modest, behaves modestly and people will treat her differently.”
A sister in New York City wrote that she thought that “there must have been some disagreement within the Corinthian community regarding the suitability of women appearing with veils in the worshipping Christian assembly.” Drawing upon crosscultural comparisons, the sister proceeded to point out that the veiling of women in some cultural contexts is still “a matter of importance, and in some cases a matter of life and death.” The sister noted that women‟s dress historically has served to indicate a woman‟s sexual reality (virgin, wife, widow) while men‟s dress has typically communicated a man‟s occupation. This has been because a recurring occupation permitted to women has been wife/domestic servant, a structure even occasionally manifesting itself in spiritual marriages among monastic men and women (Elm 163).
She did not identify with the possibility of visualized faith through the veil. The sexual connotations of a woman‟s hair and beauty were perceived as unfortunate. She deemed shallow judgments made about the “authenticity of one‟s religious life” by traditional Catholics based upon the veil. Of particular concern was the refusal of a prominent Catholic Television Network to air a vocational video because a sister “from Columbia was interviewed and she, as the rest of the sisters [in that order] in that province, do not wear a veil.”
Her geographic location played a significant role in the reactions to her veil in secular society. As she lived in New York City, she had often been mistaken for a Muslim woman.
However, her intended signification had nothing to do with being a Muslim. This state of perpetual confusion and mistaken identity is somewhat akin to Roman culture in which male headcovering was valorous. While scholars have argued that Paul‟s headcoverings might have been successfully shielded from external understandings and so been singularly sexist, the conceptual overlap creates a blurred space that exhibits properties of both constructions of veils.
At Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, there is not a competing Muslim culture. Instead, African sisters leave Muslim areas for a period of study in the United States. The ones at Mercyhurst have habits that include the veil. They do not appear to have any strong attachment to Paul or 1 Corinthians 11 because of their veil wearing. Their intimidating presence nonetheless serves as a visible sign to their instructors, including my non-Catholic colleague Robert von Thaden who assisted me with this part of my research. We appear to have the exact same reaction in the presence of these women religious who wear veils, believing them to be Other and spiritually superior to ourselves. This feeling of numinous dread is facilitated by the African sisters‟ participation in AIDS ministries in their home nations. Here, I believe that veils are acting in manners analogous to the ones described by Mahmood and Wilkinson. Veils are means by which women religious may accrue cultural capital and thus act towards agency. They are not behaving in the crosscultural associations often assumed by New Testament scholars.
In New York, I talked with Muslim young women who interpreted 1 Corinthians 11:1-19 through the lens of gender differences. They felt strongly that Paul was telling the Corinthians that men and women were equal but not the same. They related this to their practice of modesty in Islam. At least one of my contacts regularly reminded men through social networking channels that if they wanted women in conservative clothing, they need to grow out their beards and maintain appropriate male modesty standards.
Perhaps the most singular observation of this study is that head-coverings among nuns have a greater variability of meaning than head-coverings among Muslims. Both religious conceptions of veils indicate that it is impossible to assign a “universal meaning” to the veil. In Islam, the veils serve as feminine forms of modesty that have male correspondents. The only aspect of 1 Corinthians 11 with which Muslims found affinity was the notion of gendered difference, and this was a frequently articulated observation. American Muslims expect that women who maintain codes of modesty will be able to expect the same modesty out of their husbands. The veils do occasionally protect women from lascivious men, but they more often remind the women to act appropriately. My individual conversations were in perfect alignment with the anonymous daily messages from the Facebook “Hijabi”
group that castigated men and women equally, even in hip-hop videos that screamed at offenders of both genders “That‟s not hijab!” Quite possibly, the reason that the word “unity” is not mentioned with respect to the hijab in Islam is because it is implicitly understood.
With Roman Catholic women religious, the only men wearing head-coverings are bishops and the Pope. In conjunction with general notions of power derived from ascetic practice, this seems to make the veil function as a visible sign to laity of multiple political and religious persuasions. The veil is a powerful tool for unity and witness, two themes which have been found in scholarly conceptions of 1 Corinthians 11. The veil does not necessarily assist the faith life of the nuns and sisters implicated, though, unless it was included with the habit at the time of consecration and so may be remembered as a “sign of consecration.” The lack of a reference to the “poverty” in the canon law stipulation of the habit as “a sign of consecration and poverty” might also have sympathy with 1 Corinthians 11, which relates the veils to angels and not with fiduciary duties. All of the women religious in this study were more impoverished than any priest of my acquaintance.
None of the myriad so-called “conservative” religious congregations (whose habits include a veil) I contacted would supply me with a reading of 1 Corinthians 11 in which they identified with the text and placed themselves beneath men. This should provide comfort to the so-called “liberal” religious orders (who may or may not have a habit) in the present atmosphere of the Apostolic Visitation that is inquiring into the orthodoxy of U.S. women religious. No women religious affiliated with the more traditional Institute of Religious Life (and habits including veils) responded to me that 1 Corinthians 11 in any way impeded her right to equality, whether the text was circumvented through canon law or embraced through a Trinitarian reading.
In terms of scholarly anthropological comparisons for 1 Corinthians 11:1-19, it appears that there are a wide range of possible meanings that might be profitably applied to the text. It is necessary not only to map out the parallels in ideas about disease, as Dale Martin has admirably done, but also to map out the crosscultural parallels in terms of veiling. American Roman Catholic women religious and Muslim women are interacting with their veils in conjunction with, in indifference to, and in spite of their understanding of Paul‟s teaching on this matter. However, the conceptual overlap between the meanings created by their own veil wearing practices suggests that it probably would not have been possible for the Corinthian women to wear veils during religious services without the entire community thinking of the application those veils had in the larger Roman culture.
5. Short Bibliography
Beal, John P., James A. Coridan, and Thomas J. Green, eds.
2002 New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law. Mahwah, N.J.,: Paulist.
1996 Virgins of God: The Making of the Asceticism in Late Antiquity. New York: Oxford University.
2009 “„Garments of Salvation:‟ Representations of Monastic Clothing in Late Antiquity.” JECS 17:125-151.
2005 The Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University.
1999 The Corinthian Body. New Haven: Yale University.
Mitchell, Margaret M.
1991 Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation. Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck.