Vashti is married to Aheurus, King of Persia, and refuses to come out of the women's quarters to reveal her beauty to the KIing's guests. Worried that this insubordination might be copied by other women the King is persuaded to put her away and choose another Queen who turns out to be Esther and the heroine in the story. What I like about Vashti is her freedom not to conform or display herself at her husband's whim. Here's a woman who exercised her freedom and independence by staying in purdah, something more associated with oppression than liberation. Interesting that it shows veiling and purdah as far pre-dating Islam.
The question of the veil came up at a recent scriptural reasoning session on Women and Equality. The Jewish text was from Genesis 38 and tells the story of Tamar who had been more or less abandoned by her father-in-law and had to resort to subterfuge to be sure she had future security. We're told she took off her widow's garb and "covered her face with a veil" and, wrapping herself up, sat down by the roadside, knowing that Judah, her father -in law would pass that way. And so he did but seeing her veiled took her for a prostitute or harlot and wanted to sleep with her. As a result she became pregnant and when Judah discovered this he was ready to have her burned until he realised the child she was carrying was his. At first glance it looks as though Tamar is the immoral one even though it's Judah who asks to sleep with her. It's not a culture in which equality was even in human consciousness but it was a culture in which women needed the protection of men and Tamar wasn't given it by her husband's family as was the custom for widows at the time. To survive she had to take things into her own hands and ensure her safety and security by veiling and being taken for a prostitute. Here veiling is not a sign of religion or respectability - the opposite of Vashti.
The Christian text was taken from the story of the woman caught in adultery as told in John's Gospel. It actually spoke more about inequality than equality as there must have been a man involved in the act and he wasn't brought before the crowd to be stoned as the woman was. The point of the story is that Jesus refused to condemn the woman and acknowledged that sinners should not judge other sinners as we are all in the same position. The Islamic text also underscored the inequality of women as it was the story of the conception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, held in high regard in Islam. What revealed the position of women was that Hannah, the mother of Mary, was taken aback when her child was a girl and not the expected boy. According to the story this didn't matter to God who favoured Mary and had a plan for her.
It's not possible for religious scriptures to have any concept of the equality of women and men as we understand it today as they all grew out of a patriarchal society and reflect that society. Even if the scriptures are seen as the Word of God, the truth of this word has to be discerned within the cultural expressions of it. There is truth in it, no doubt, but that truth can only be expressed in the language available to it. So much of religion is cultural and finding the truth can be difficult. I often wonder about this with regard to the veil in Islam. For some Muslim women it 's seen as integral to their Islamic identity but there are others who look upon it differently. Culturally the veil has had different meanings - a sign of respectability or the opposite as in the story of Tamar. It's we who impose meaning on it and in so far as that meaning helps us live a good and upright life and is an expression of genuine faith then it's good. But it might be that for some women not wearing the veil does exactly the same and that's good too.