5 things you didn't know about religious veils

Story highlights

  • Although closely associated with Muslim women, religious veils have a long and varied history
  • St. Paul, for example, instructed women to cover their heads

Abed Awad is an attorney, a national Islamic law expert and an adjunct law professor at Rutgers School of Law and Pace Law School.

(CNN)Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a Muslim woman who applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch to wear a head covering. Although veils have become strongly identified with Muslims, as an article of faith -- and clothing -- they have a long and surprising history across cultural traditions.

Here are five things you might not know about religious head coverings.

1. In Mediterranean societies, rich and classy women wore veils.

Assyrian law required free women to cover their heads in public. Prostitutes and slave women were prohibited from veiling. Greek and Persian society had similar requirements. Zoroastrian free women, for example, wore full body coverings and headdresses.

2. Some Jewish traditions consider a woman's hair too sexy

Veiling in Jewish law is related to modesty. The veil in today's Jewish communities depends on the religious denomination. Some Hasidic women, for example, shave their heads after their wedding and repeat the shaving monthly, wearing a wig in lieu of hair. Other Jewish women wear a scarf to cover their hair. More liberal branches of Judaism reject veiling altogether.

3. Apostle Paul said Christian women should wear veils.

Consistent with the cultural perceptions at the time, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, explained:
"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."
Later, Tertullian, an early father of Christianity, wrote a detailed code for women's head coverings called "On the Veiling of Virgins." Head coverings are still common in conservative Catholic communities, as well as Anabaptists such as the Amish and some Mennonite Christians.

4. Quran never mentions the word "veil"

In verse 24:31, the Quran says:
"Tell he believing women to avert their eyes, and safeguard their private parts, and not to expose their attractions except what is visible. And let them wrap their shawls (khimar) around their breast lines, and reveal their attractions only before their husbands ..."
Many Muslim scholars have interpreted the shawl to mean "veil." But the verse clearly directs women to use the shawl to cover their cleavage, not their head.
In the Quran, the word "hijab" refers to the screen that separated the Prophet Mohammed's wives from other people.

5. Not all Muslims agree about veils.

Many Islamic traditions require the head to be covered during prayer. But two traditions passed down from Aisha -- the Prophet Mohammed's wife -- seem to offer some wiggle room. One provides that when a girl reaches puberty she is required to cover everything except for her hands, feet and face. The second tradition says ought to wear a veil, but not have to.
Based largely on these two traditions, the majority of mainstream Muslim scholars hold that the hijab is an obligatory religious practice. But many modern Muslim scholars say the subject is still up for debate, and millions of Muslim women do not accept any restrictions on their dress.