A common misconception is that Muslim women are the only ones who cover their hair. It may be true that Islam is the only religion in which most women follow its directives to cover the hair, but it is not the only religion to have such directives.
It is particularly interesting to look at the case of Christianity, since Christianity is the predominant religion in the West, and it is Westerners, including observant Christians, who are often the first to criticize Islam because of the hijab (modest dress, including head covering).
Additionally the idea behind modest dress does not only pertain to females, but to males also. Modesty is encouraged for both genders in Islam and is seen as a sign of piety. Indeed, even Mary, the mother of Jesus wore the hijab. Also, today nuns virtually practice hijab for the same fundamental reason as the devout Muslim woman; to express piety as an individual who chooses to surrender their will to God and God’s Sacred Law.
Is Covering the Hair a Religious Commandment for Christian Women?
There can be only one answer to this: yes, it is! Simply open the Bible to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 11. Read verses 3-10:
“But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying with his head covered, disgraces his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is the same as if she were shaven.
For if a woman is not covered, let her be shaven. But if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. A man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God. But woman is the glory of man. For man was not created for woman, but woman for man. This is why the woman ought to have a sign of authority over her head, because of the angels.” - New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:3-10)
The meaning of this passage is plain enough. We can make the following syllogisms:
Praying with an uncovered head is a disgrace
Having a shaved head is the same as praying with an uncovered head
Therefore, having a shaved head is a disgrace
If it is a disgrace for a woman to have a shaved head, she should cover her head
It is a disgrace for a woman to have a shaved head - see syllogism 1
Therefore, a woman should cover her head
In other words, the passage means what it says. Have you ever wondered why Catholic nuns dress like they're wearing hijab (Muslim hijabi women, have you ever been mistaken for a nun?).
Have you ever wondered why Mary the mother of Jesus (peace be upon them both) is always depicted in Christian art with her hair covered? Did you know that until the 1960s, it was obligatory for Catholic women to cover their heads in church (then they "modernized" the service)?
There are some interesting points that can be made about the Christian directive:
1) The explicit purpose of the Christian woman's head covering, as stated by Paul, is that it is a sign of man's authority over woman. The explicit purpose of Islamic hijab is modesty. Strange how so many Westerners think that the purpose of hijab is a symbol of male authority. Maybe they know that that's what it is in their own religion (Christianity) so they assume that Islam must be the same!
2) The Christian woman is to cover her head whenever she is praying, whether it be at the church service or just personal prayer at home. This may mean that if she is not praying at home, she is uncovered around male guests who are not related to her; or if she is praying at home, that she is covered around her own husband and family. If any more proof were needed than Paul's own words that the Christian head covering is not about modesty, this must certainly be it!
This puts hijab in a whole new perspective, doesn't it! To my non-hijabi Muslim sister who feels that hijab is a sign of oppression for the Muslim female, please do read the above and then read the Quran. Believe me, if Allah SWT meant for hijab to be a sign of male authority, the Qur'an would be as unambiguous about it as Paul is in the Bible.
References in the Qur’an in favor of the use of Hijab
And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their head coverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband's fathers, or their sons, or their husband's sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments. And turn in repentance to Allah together, O you the faithful, in order that you are successful.” - Qur’an English Translation [25:31]
“O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their outer garments (jilbabs) close around themselves; that is better that they will be recognized and not annoyed. And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle.” - Qur’an English Translation [33:59]
For more on why Muslim women should practice modesty and Hijab:
Men are also encouraged to be modest
Like I previously alluded to, modesty is not only a call to women, but to men too.
“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.” - Qur’an English Translation [24:30]
So according to Matthew's account what did Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) have to say about men “lowering their gaze” for greater purity? Let’s take a look at the Bible’s account of his Sermon on the Mount:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. - New Testament (Matthew 5:27-28)
So you see, Jesus’ statement is very clear about why men should lower their gaze. He even equates the mere act of looking in lust with committing adultery. So what does Jesus recommend to do if a man can’t control himself from visually lusting after women? Well his following statement seems to really underline the importance of not committing these acts in which we often write off as “minor sins.”
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. - New Testament (Matthew 5:29)
Now we don't know for certain that Prophet Jesus really recommended gouging one's eyes out but we can conclude with relative certainty that this is a warning to the believers to first save their soul, rather then succumbing to the temptations of mundane desires.
Often people follow their own passions and lusts to a detriment, further straying from the straight path of understanding and guidance.
"Hast thou seen him who chooseth for his god his own lust? Wouldst thou then be guardian over him? Or deemest thou that most of them hear or understand? They are but as the cattle - nay, but they are farther astray?" - Qur’an English Translation [25:43-44]
"But if they hearken not to thee, know that they only follow their own lusts: and who is more astray than one who follow his own lusts, devoid of guidance from Allah. for Allah guides not people given to wrong-doing." - Qur’an English Translation [28:50]
So now let’s be reasonable here, God knows man and woman’s natural inclinations and desires. So these rules of modesty are not to take away from our individual freedom but rather they serve as loving guidance for us to avoid self destruction.
Furthermore, what kind of society fosters a more conducive moral environment to avoid such sins? A society where men and women guard their modesty and lower their gaze as such in a true Islamic society or of that from which we see in many countries today where men and women walk around practically nude?
Obviously God is all loving and wouldn’t make a law for man to follow without facilitating the proper environment to help him/her follow those laws with comfort. Remember, God is All-Loving and does not want to see man destroy himself. So in conclusion, the moral environment of the ideal Islamic society described in the Qur’an is the same exact model society that Jesus professed.
Indeed, God knows man's nature can often be weak, therefore we are not expected to be perfect all the time. In light of this reality, God shows us an immeasurable amount of mercy towards anyone whom is willing to humbly turn to Him in sincere repentance:
"Allah (God) doth wish to lighten your (difficulties): For man was created Weak (in flesh)." – Qur’an English Translation [4:28]"On no soul do We place a burden greater than it can bear: before Us is a record which clearly shows the truth: they will never be wronged." – Qur’an English Translation [23:62]