Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Held Back

I started writing on this topic years ago. Years, something like 10 years ago if I were to guess. It was initially to be exploring my first really deep research into the practice of veiling - in this case, the doctrine of some religions to encourage their followers to cover their head and hair. When my research began, all those years ago, I had only a vague understanding of head covering (and the closely related modest and plain dressing) for religious reasons. The blog post I started to write back then was prompted by an article that included a word I had never heard or seen before: hijab. Being the research-obsessed soul that I am, I looked up this word, and found other things; articles, accounts, scholarly explorations of the Western opinion of veiling. This one word led me to months of research on various religion's guidelines on modest dress. For someone who once seriously considered a cloistered life (and when I say seriously, I mean not a fleeting thought, but a long period starting in my childhood where I was certain that's where my life would take me), this was quite the interesting subject. Sadly, because my research started so long ago, all of the links to relevant articles that I managed to save are no longer active.

My first thought about modest dress was probably the same as most people in the Western world: it's just another way for a male-dominated society to repress females. Sometimes it is. But to most of the proponents of the practice it is far from it. One of the articles I found was of a journalist taking accounts of Muslim women and what wearing a hijab meant to them. At the time, a woman at my place of employment wore a full hijab and I had several opportunities to speak with her about the practice as well. What I found across the board was that most women felt empowered, not oppressed. They felt like they were being judged by colleagues on their abilities not on their bodies. It became my understanding that the guidelines for veiling in the Qur'an are written for just that purpose - to bring women to an equal playing field with men, so to speak. (Yes, it's true that in practice sometimes it is used for female oppression and control, but I'll get to that another time. That is actually not the norm.) Christianity and Judaism have guidelines for modest dress as well. For most of them, they are not hard and fast rules depending on one's denomination. Modest dress and veiling are a choice, more often than not. One of the more touching stories about making the choice to wear modest dress I have heard is from a friend of mine. She is a plain Quaker and one of her feelings of being called to plain dress was because she wanted people to know at a glance that she was trustworthy and helpful and decent. 

Frankly, I've always found a veiled woman to be extremely beautiful. I like the aesthetic of it. Maybe it's because I'm seeing a woman's face without distractions of hairstyle. Maybe it's the confidence that just radiates from these women, it is so much more than a power suit and pumps. I really can't explain it, I just find it beautiful. Maybe that look, wanting to be beautiful like those women in veils with bright, intelligent eyes and a confident, assured manner is one of the reasons I wanted to be a nun. Even when I left the Catholic church and started on my pagan path as a teenager, the thought of joining a convent never really left me. I used to say "I'd be a nun except I'd have to be Catholic." In many ways, that's still largely true. A lot of people who choose to follow their faith's doctrine for modest dress say they do so because they felt called to do so. Some part of their faith - God, angels, something - told them that was their path. And they felt more like themselves once they accepted it. At this point in my life, I have come to the understanding that I have been called to veil for most of my life.

This leads me to an interesting place. Having been firmly committed to my pagan spirituality for near 20 years, I know the drive to veil has been nagging at me for longer than that. There are always excuses for making the change. I have a rather narrow-minded, power suit and pumps wearing, Christian boss, and a "no hats other than for religious reasons" policy in the company. I tried seven or eight years ago to cover my hair at work with something like a prayer cap. My manager asked about it, I said it was a spiritual choice. She tolerated it on the day to day, but when clients came to tour the office, I was told to remove it. So I gave up. Why do I let my boss, who has zero understanding of my spiritual drives, dictate when my choice of dress is not appropriate? I don't know. A lack of confidence, maybe. The trouble I've found is that there really is no pagan equivalent to veiling or modest dress. There is no passage like I Timothy or I Corinthians or the tzniut in paganism with guidelines and rules. In fact, many pagans take that Western approach and think the practice is exactly the opposite of what paganism is. I've even spoken to other pagans, one a former Quaker, who have run into the same problems I have. We would veil, except that we don't want to be mistaken for following some religious doctrine that we don't actually follow. This is mostly out of respect for those doctrines and why those women veil, and additionally to avoid the notion that veiling is oppression. As pagans, we wouldn't have the "for religious reasons" fall back when someone says that way of dress is against the rules (as in my office).

I brought up this topic that I started and left unfinished years ago because I've recently been led to do some more research  and I found that there actually are a good deal of pagans out there who veil. Everyone who makes the choice does so for their own reasons, of course, but the basis for most seems to be that they feel called to do it. That there is no pagan equivalent to veiling isn't entirely true. Hestia is a veiled goddess. As is Vesta, her Roman counterpart, and Frigga, and Persephone, and Brigid, and Isis, and many others. One article I came across led me to another and another and another and I am very encouraged to be finding so much information and accounts on pagan veiling. I know now I've been called to it for years, and the more I resist, the louder it gets. The sensei who taught me Reiki recommended covering my head because, as a Reiki master, my crown chakra is always open to accept the energy of the universe, and thus the energy of everyone around me. That was the reason for the spiritual choice to wear a cap at work that I have already mentioned. I gave up on it then and it's been nagging at my mind ever since. Within the last year or so, I started wearing a hood I made in ritual celebrations, and I feel a resonance within my practice when I do. I have worn a skirt to work every day for more than a year as my own little mini modest dress. But a veil or head covering, that's what I really feel drawn to, at least in certain situations. One of the main ones is work, and I still think I'd need to get permission somehow. Would they need a letter from my ministers? Is it enough to just say it is required of my faith (my own, personal faith, of which no one in the world has ever followed or would ever follow after me)? I feel encouraged by my recent research. Encouraged, but still resisting. I'm still letting others control this thing that I've needed to do for most of my life.    

My thoughts on this subject do not end here. Over the next few posts, I want to look at the practice of modest dress as a whole, which in this context will include veiling, and also the many reasons people might choose it. Modesty means different things to different people. I also want to look at the negative side. A friend of mine coincidentally shared someone's blog entry just today related to this, but I will save sharing that until I get to that part of the topic.  

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