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The Hijab and Women’s Ordination

This past week the dean of al-Azhar University in Cairo made news by banning students in this all female institution from wearing the niqub, a full-face veil. The reasons given for this ban were political and religious. The custom of wearing a full face veil is imposed by a fundamentalist sect of Islam that has political aspirations in Egypt and is growing in adherents. In mitigation of his ban, Dean Sheikh Tantawi pointed out that the Quran only urges modesty, it does not require a face covering.

I found the reactions of the women interviewed regarding this ban interesting. The female students were quoted as saying that they felt safer in their burqas, hijabs and niqubs. Some said by being covered they felt “closer to God.” They questioned the right of others to decide for them what they should or should not wear feeling that clothing styles should be their own decision. Of course the counter argument is that the wearing of the burqas and hijabs is not really a personal decision at all but one imposed by men who desire to keep women in subjection.

Also this past week Time magazine ran a feature article on the veiling of women in Saudi Arabia. While the women in Egypt enjoy freedom of movement and of dress, Saudi women are still required to fully veil themselves in public. Not only can they not vote, they cannot drive nor even leave home without a male family member’s permission.

The Times report indicated women themselves are reluctant to change. For instance, a 2006 poll found that up to 86% of Saudi women agree that they should not drive or work in a mixed-gender environment. But change is coming. Three years ago, the first domestic violence laws were enacted in Saudi Arabia making it illegal for husbands to beat their wives and children.

We in the west may be tempted to look at such repressive societies and strange customs with wonder and incredulity. Nevertheless the same factors at play in Islamic cultures are quite evident in our own faith community. The same rational used to maintain the status quo in Islamic countries is used to deny ordination to women. This rational says that women’s assigned role is under man and this position is according to God’s ordained will.

When women (and men) of faith, be it in Adventism or in Islam are taught by their religious leaders that God has willed women be in subjection to men and that it is the duty of men to exercise authority over women, then any attempt to deviate or change this pattern is tantamount to disobedience to the proclaimed will of God.

In Islam, women are taught to cover their bodies, because their bodies belong to their husbands and by exposing any part of their body, men can be tempted to sin. In order to please God, Islamic women of faith are taught it is their spiritual responsibility to act and behave as God wills.

In Adventism men and women are taught that when a woman seeks a position of administration or authority over men this ambition places them in direct conflict with the plan of God for their lives and they are replicating both Lucifer and Eve in their attempts to rise above their allotted sphere. For faithful Adventists who have been taught to believe in this fashion, to change their attitude on ordination is impossible.

In my pre-retirement life, I served as a trainer for the Florida Department of Corrections. One of my assignments was to educate staff and administration on the issue of sexual harassment. I learned that one cannot require or make people change what they have been taught to think or believe in terms of equality or respect, but one can under law and under terms of employment require how people will act and behave on the job.

Change in behaviors can be legislated and change in actions can be enforced. It is OK to do this. In addition, lawsuits are great motivators to change behaviors. Sexual harassment policies in the workplace didn’t happen until large money settlements occurred and both private and public entities saw their bottom line threatened.

It would be nice if people just did the right thing because it is right, but that’s not how the world works. Equal pay for equal work had to be legislated. The Seventh-day Adventist church did not change its pay scale until it was sued. Equal pay for equal work did not happen within the church because it was the right thing to do, it happened because it was mandated by the court.

But the interesting thing is and it is a documented fact that once behaviors and actions are required to change, attitudes and thinking patterns follow. Make the change and then – once that is done – attitudes change – not before.

Yes, it would be nice if people did what is right because it is right but that is not going to happen any time soon. It’s not going to happen in the SDA church. There will never come a time in the foreseeable future when the world church will vote to change the rules on ordination and allow women full rights as human beings. A change of attitudes and beliefs will come only come after rules and practices have changed.

So how can change occur? How can women achieve ordination status within our church without having a floor vote at a General Conference session? I suggest there is a way and there is a precedent for doing so. It involves reframing the issue into an employment issue not a theological issue.

The Annual Council of the Adventist church which meets each fall has both the power and the authority to make changes in the working policy of the church. It can change and regulate the issuance of licenses and ministerial credentials. It can establish the criteria for ordination. There is sufficient precedent from actions taken by this body in the past to allow it to pass policy changes.

The theological issue of equality of men and women was settled in 1980 in Dallas when the church accepted the 27 statements of belief. Statements 7 and 16 clearly express the fact that the Adventist church does not discriminate on the basis of sex. Both man and woman are equal before God and both men and women are recipients of his spiritual gifts. These doctrinal positions of the church should be all that the Annual Council would need to instruct the General Conference Human Resources Department to issue a ruling that all women working in a pastoral position be considered for ordination on the same basis and with the same standards required for men.

The Annual Council has the authority and it has by its past actions set the precedent to make this happen. Once the employment rule on women pastors has changed, it will be amazing how quickly the theological rational for doing so will become accepted worldwide.

Our current president can talk a good talk – but he needs to know that it’s ok to walk the walk. If the highest Muslim cleric in Egypt can unilaterally mandate college women remove the nijab, then our President can ask his executive council to change a discriminatory employment practice.

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