WEST HARTFORD – What traditions are shared by many observant Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women? The students and faculty at University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies in West Hartford set out to explore a highly visible and, of late, highly debated practice in many parts of the world: women’s head-coverings.
The place of women in Israeli society and across the Middle East is a “hot” topic; at the center of the debate is the question of religion’s role in 21st-century society. For the past two years, the Greenberg Center has looked at how and why Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women cover their hair as part of religious traditions that originated some 2,000 years ago.
Over the summers of 2010 and 2011, students from the Greenberg Center’s summer study-abroad program in Israel worked together with Arabic language and culture professor Maha Darawsha and Hartford-area award-winning photographer Lena Stein to study this trend among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women.
The resulting photography exhibition, “Veiled Women: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Women in Israel,” will kick off the Greenberg Center’s spring-semester focus on the Middle East.
“While many media reports about women in the Middle East and Europe feature photographs of women wearing veils and other face- and head-coverings, these stories explain little about the origins of this ancient tradition shared by many religions,” says Greenberg Center director, Prof. Richard Freund, who initiated the project.
The exhibition will be complemented by a lecture series, a workshop, and Middle Eastern cultural programs, all providing opportunities to explore how cultures and religions intersect in the Middle East and in Hartford.
At the heart of the exhibition is the artist’s attempt to understand how the women of Israel – Jews, Christians and Muslim; natives and tourists – experienced the act of head- covering or veiling. The show and accompanying guide are intended to give students, staff, faculty, and community-members an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of this act and to consider its significance in the context of history and modern society.
Freund wrote the exhibition guide, aided by Greenberg Center students who participated in the project.
“While the Hebrew Bible may not be clear about the veiling of women and the reasoning behind it, rabbinic literature presents veiling as a question of modesty,” he says. “Modesty became an important rabbinic virtue in the early Roman period, perhaps as a reaction to Greco-Roman life — and later, in Babylonian society, [signaling] the need to differentiate Jewish women from non-Jewish women.”
In the modern period, Freund says, the range of head-coverings among some observant Jewish women runs the gamut, from those that completely cover the hair (or even replace natural hair) at all times, to those only worn in a synagogue or other ritual setting. These traditions have also evolved differently in Diaspora Jewish communities, often influenced by the host culture. For example, unmarried Jewish women in Yemen covered their heads as their Muslim counterparts did, while women in other Muslim countries did not do so.
In modern Israel, the spectrum of Jewish women’s head-coverings has taken on political, cultural, and ethnic identity markers beyond the religious, indicating allegiance to specific ideological tendencies.
In the Christian religion, the earliest mention of the veiling of women is cited in I Corinthians. Paul writes, “Every man who prays or prophesies, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, inasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man.”
In Islam, the Quran is the most-quoted source regarding the tradition of veiling, which is attributed to “hijab,” or “modesty and privacy.” The Quran states:
“O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the women of the faithful, to draw their wraps [Jalabib] over them. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them. God is all forgiving and most merciful.” (Sura 33:59). But earlier in the chapter (Sura 33:53), this directive is related specifically to the wives of Muhammad: “If you have to ask his [the Prophet’s] wives for something, ask them from behind a barrier [Hijab]. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts.”
The dictate has long been understood to be directed to all Muslim girls and women, regardless of age or marital status.
The photography project is the latest of many by Stein, a painter and portrait photographer who has worked in Israel, India, Nepal, and Poland.
“I always look for an image that shows something interesting – light, colors, and most of all, emotion,” she says. “With ‘Veiled Women,’ my first goal was to get the artistic photograph, and secondly, to show the variety of head-covers and the beauty of the women’s faces. I see the beauty in the wrinkled face of an old woman, as well as in the face of a young woman.”
Stein says that she found her subjects in a variety of ways. A friend connected her with a painter living in the Old City of Jerusalem, who introduced her to friends in the same neighborhood. On a trip to Tzfat, Stein met a woman working in an art gallery who agreed to be photographed. While the students were working on an excavation site in Akko, Stein came upon an outdoor market in the Old City, and asked to photograph several Muslim women.
While Stein took some candid group photos, she says she prefers having direct contact with her subjects. “The moment you want to take a real portrait, you have to ask,” she says. Most women responded favorably: the nuns in the Old City of Jerusalem and at Tabgha on Lake Kinneret; the Holocaust survivor and her daughter on a Jerusalem street.
“The best part of the project was meeting amazing, interesting women,” Stein says.“Once they got to know me, they opened up to me and enjoyed the experience.”
“Veiled Women: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Women in Israel” will run from Feb. 12-Sept. 1, 2012 at the Museum of Jewish Civilization, University of Hartford. The exhibition opening is on Monday, Feb. 13, 3-5 p.m. For complete program information: www.hartford.edu/greenberg (860) 768-5729 firstname.lastname@example.org