Why it makes a difference which sex wears the distinctive headgear

It can mean assuming a protective role, or an off-limits status.


Sikhi and Judaism have several things in common. They are both scriptural religions with a line of religious teachers: the prophets of the Torah and the Tanakh and the gurus of Sikh tradition. They are both minority religions who have suffered a long history of persecution. In both religions, it is the men who wear the publicly distinctive clothing, specifically head gear: turbans in the case of Sikh men, various hats and caps for Jewish men.

The last two similarities go together. By wearing publicly distinctive clothing, Sikh men and Jewish men become the first line of defence of their communities. They stand, clearly labelled as men of their community, and so ready to be the first to take whatever crap comes their community’s way. They thereby form a protective line around the women and children of their community.

If one is not prepared to embrace this role of publicly-marked protector, one is not fit to be a husband and father within that community. The distinctive garb is a test of character and commitment.

Dominion rules

In Islam, the pattern is rather different. There, it is the women who wear the most publicly distinctive clothing (also headgear). The garb of Muslim men can be somewhat distinctive, but that is also often about minority status. Even so, the publicly distinctive headgear of Muslim women is a very obvious feature of Islam, even if the adherence to such practices have varied widely across time and place.

Ever since Muhammad became ruler of Medina in 622, mainstream Islam has been a religion of domination. Much of the Quran, the hadiths and Sharia are concerned with how to behave towards non-believers, and with the regulation of non-believers under Muslim rule (the dhimmis), all based on the presumption of rightful Muslim dominion. The famous concept of people of the Book expresses this presumption of Muslim dominion and of its rightful expansion. Muslim dominion flows from, and is justified by, submission to the rules of the Sovereign of the universe.

What makes the various minority forms of Islam (Ibadis, the third version of Islam, Alevis, Ismailis, Ahmadis, etc.) much less problematic to deal with is that, as permanent minorities, their versions of Islam have had to eschew the outlooks of presumptive dominion. This is not the case with mainstream Sunni Islam, which retains the traditions and outlooks of the religion of domination it has been since 622 (so almost 1400 years).

Dynamics of polygyny

From it origins Islam was a polygynous religion. A Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man. A Muslim man can have up to four wives, though he is also permitted sexual access to, as the phrase in the Quran goes, those that your right (i.e. sword) hand possesses. If 5 per cent of Muslim men have four wives each, that means that 15 per cent of Muslim men do not have possible wives from within the Muslim community.

This problem of substantial numbers of Muslim men having no marriage prospects within the community is one that all polygynous societies have to deal with. There are four possible patterns of response.

(1) Do nothing and so have a bandit problem. This is the pattern of Chinese history, where a polygynous elite left an underclass of males with no marriage prospects that turned to predatory behaviours. This is why bandits are such a feature of Chinese history and literature. Indeed, as more wealth and income inequality meant more polygyny, so more excluded underclass males, and as peace and stability (such as from the rule of a long-established dynasty) tends to lead to rising wealth and income inequality, the bandit problem tended to worsen as each Chinese dynasty aged.

The reason why peace and stability leads to rising economic inequality is, first, there is some tendency for the sorting processes of commerce to lead to the accumulation of property and, second, that all societies tend to form self-serving interest coalitions that impede the operation of the society and advantage their (generally well-connected) members. Both processes lead to rising inequality. Prolonged peace and stability gets in the way of the removal of such interest coalitions. Hence, prolonged peace and stability tends to lead to increased economic inequality.

(2) Also permit polyandry. Some polygynous societies have also permitted wives to have more than one husband. A low-status male might not be able to afford a whole wife, but he might be able to afford a half, a third, or a quarter of one. In such cases, brothers would often marry the same woman. That way, the children who weren’t their sons and daughters were their nieces and nephews. (China was too patriarchal a society, and Islam too patriarchal a religion, to accept polyandry as an acceptable social pattern.)

(3) Some version of wait-your-turn. This was generally a pattern of hoe-farming societies, where women did most of the farming, so wives were not dependant on their husband’s income. In such societies, a man who survived long enough had a good chance of entering the marriage ladder. Such societies could also have some version of the boy-wife phenomena, where a as-yet-unmarried male would enter into a relationship with a younger male. This relationship was typically formally acknowledged and involved some equivalent of bride-price, such as a gift of the spear. The expectation was that the relationship would end once the older male got married (to a woman). (There is some evidence of an analogous practice in Southern China.)

(4) Those people over there have women, steal their’s. This was the pattern of every pastoralist raiding society ever and of other raiding folk, such as the pagan Norse. Going a-Viking was the seafaring equivalent of pastoralist raiding on horseback. The various Great Walls of China had a range of purposes, but impeding the stealing of Chinese women by pastoralist raiders was one of them.

Arabia at the time of Muhammad was, of course, a few towns scattered among a pastoralist raiding society. From 622 onwards, Islam sanctified the stealing of women who had not accepted Muslim dominion. This sanctification appears in the Quran (the phrase those your right hand possesses occurs 15 times), in the hadiths, in the sira, the life of the Prophet (such as killing all the men of the two Jewish tribes of Medina and distributing their women and children as slaves), and in Sharia, where the marriage of any woman seized by a Muslim man is immediately annulled (so, of course, she becomes sexually available).

Islam never had any difficulty recruiting ghazis, holy warriors, precisely because (1) there were Muslim men without good marriage prospects due to Muslim polygyny and (2) Islam sanctifies stealing women who were outside the protection of the umma, the Muslim community. The virgins a Muslim martyr — someone who was killed fighting for the umma — is supposed to receive as his heavenly reward is just the after-life apex of an entire system of sanctified sexual predation.

The two great drivers of Islamic expansion were conquest, significantly driven by the pattern of polygyny and sanctified sexual predation, and trade (as Sharia also provided a generally superior commercial law system and network).

Hence, in Islam, it is women who wore the most publicly distinctive clothing. There were two main reasons for this. First, in a multi-wife household where the husband controls the wealth and income, wives compete for the prospects for their children. So elite Muslim women needed to protect their reputations and veiling signalled their “respectable woman” status. Second, in societies where sexual predation was religiously sanctioned, Muslim women wearing distinctive clothing made it very clear who was off-limits.

This is a very different dynamic than that of Sikh men and Jewish men wearing the publicly distinctive headgear.

Since the 1970s, a third reason has been added. Under Sharia, to convict a man of sexual assault generally required a confession or four male witnesses. This generated societies with a high level of segregation by sex that therefore generally did not evolve norms for dealing with women wandering around in public away from their neighbourhoods.

Muslim jurists actually discussed the issue of when it was permissible for women to go out in public. Up until the C19th, Muslim visitors to Christian countries would express their surprise and disorientation at how busy the streets of Christian cities were, because there were all these women going about in public. They would also express their surprise (and at times their contempt) for how deferential Christian men were to Christian women: the Muslim (male) observers sometimes describing it as the Christian men being unmanly.

During the C20th, there was a shift away from veiling by Muslim women, due to the influence of a westernising understanding of modernisation. This trend reversed in the 1970s among middle class Muslim women as they began to go outside their neighbourhoods for education and then employment. Wearing the headscarf, and even more the veil, broadcast their commitment to Islamic norms, thereby providing protection and self-commitment in societies with a long history of sexual segregation.

This massive increase in religious signalling by Muslim women presumably helped along the Islamic religious revival of recent decades. In the West, it sharpened the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim women.

The underlying point remained to identify those women who had accepted the norms of Islam and so were off-limits. Thirteen centuries of sanctified sexual predation against women who had not accepted the norms of Islam deeply embedded within mainstream Muslim society social schemata (patterns of belief) and social scripts (patterns of action) of sanctified sexual predation against women not under the protection of the umma.

So, what happens if millions of Muslim men get imported into non-Muslim countries so that there are critical masses of men who accept such schemata and such scrips? You might well get mass sexual assaults and systematic sexual predation against (unveiled) women.

Oh look, we did.

With survivors reporting their attackers used religious justifications. The same ones used by Islamic State adherents in raping Yazidi women.

A problem cannot be dealt with if it is not acknowledged. And it really does matter which sex wears the distinctive clothing.