Thursday, November 01, 2012

Perception and Controversy

One of the things about living in a society is that people want to conform to the standards of that society. Even people who claim to be non-conformists still conform in a lot of ways (bet they pay taxes, wear clothes, maybe even have jobs - all of that is conforming to what society expects of you). Conformity in fashion has its own special word, it's called a trend. And it's often the fashion industry that tells us what styles we are to conform to in any season, but that's another topic altogether.

Fashion in this society does include a variety of options, but they are still relatively limited. Just walk through a department store. This season, you'll find jeans, long sleeve t-shirts, denim, sweaters, and skirts that end above the knee are easier to find than ankle-length. The colors available are pretty much from the same palette. When you're looking for something to fit as modest dress, you're going to have trouble finding it on the rack at your local clothing store. For example, the heavy cotton skirts I wear to work during the colder months came from Greentree Weaving at the Renaissance festival.

What I'm getting at is there is an idea and an ideal of what people in this society think that people and the clothing they wear are supposed to look like. Anything that does not fit into this idea gets instant attention. It's not always a good thing, often you're believed to be an outsider, you're abnormal and you don't belong. I see this all the time when I'm wearing my Renaissance festival uniform and I have to get gas or run into a drug store for something. Most of them are positive reactions, but I do get the occasional "what the hell is she wearing" reaction too. Some of the reasons a group might advise or require covering is to protect the wearer from unwanted attention. Most modest dress is meant to be simple and unremarkable. In many societies, it is exactly the opposite. Especially if you are a member of a small group with such rules in a larger group that does not have them.

No one would think twice about someone wearing a beret (which could serve the purpose of a veil) but almost everyone notices a woman in a hijab and abaya, or even a woman in a sari (though a sari is more a garment of showing off a woman's beauty rather than obscuring it). The clothing that is meant to protect you only serves to show how different you are. This blog is a fantastic account of how people react to a hijab. It was just an experiment that she did; she wore a scarf in a hijab style for no other purpose than to see how people would react to her. Some people reacted by trying really hard to ignore her altogether. And when one little girl asked her mom if the people wearing scarves were terrorists, mom failed to say "no, honey, those women follow a religion that calls them to wear those scarves as a sign of devotion." Instead, she glared and walked away.

On this blog is an account of a pagan woman wearing a hijab style veil on her way to an appointment and another woman spat in her path. This story from the same blog (I really wish there were more than two stories on that blog, really) talks of another who witnessed two women in hijabs being harassed by a man and she stepped in to defend them. Being so obviously different, and in a way that a lot of people in this country don't take the time to understand, is met with prejudice and hostility.

This is a fantastic article about the double standards of veiling. A Catholic nun in her habit is seen as pious and devoted. Even a Mennonite in prayer cap and simple dress, who is wearing that kind of clothing for the same reason as a Muslim in hijab and abaya, does not encounter prejudice at the same level. (I am not going to say that these women in non-Islamic veils don't encounter prejudice - everyone does - but Islam gets more negative press than any of these others combined.) Really, oppression about veiling seems to come mostly from the prejudice of people who don't take the time to understand.

From a pagan standpoint, this blogger covered it, "pagan women suddenly found themselves exposed to prejudices aimed towards a religious group they themselves did not even belong to." And why is that? Perception. A person sees a woman in a veil and they make a judgement, and often they make that judgement based on misconceptions.

Additionally, many pagans feel like veiling is taking a step backwards in the feminist movement. That comes entirely from thinking that a woman wearing a veil is oppressed. This forum topic has a couple people commenting on the veil as a symbol of oppression. I would argue that it can't be oppression if it's my choice. One of the administrators of that forum said something wonderful that I would urge everyone to keep in mind, "We all do or wear things that make us feel more confident, and many of us wear things that make us feel more connected to our Gods (jewelry, tattoos, etc.) that others may not understand or would not choose for themselves." I love this statement. Maybe my scarves and veils serve the same purpose as the pentacle pendant that average Diana Pagan dangles from her neck. I wear pentacles too, as a matter of fact. A pair of small earrings  always in the middle of my three ear piercings, and I have worn them every day since I bought them over ten years ago, except on days when I don't wear earrings at all. I wear two rings that are pieces of religious jewelry; one has "Harm None" inscribed on it and the other is a ring of glass beads that a friend made for me in 1993 (that I have worn every day since except for seven days. And yes, I can tell you about those seven days and why I didn't put my ring on those days). The friend who gave me that ring got me started on this path all those years ago. No one forces me to wear these symbols of my faith. Additionally, no one tells me that they are or should be symbols of my faith. They have meaning because I give them that meaning.

I've mentioned a thread on the Noble Pagan forum, that requires membership to read. One of the staff there mentioned she was in a conversation with a pro-choice woman who was stating her opposition to Muslim women veiling and asked "what happened to 'my body, my choice'?" What a great question! If you believe your body is your own, why can't you wear what you want? To those who think these women are embracing a symbol of oppression and dominance need to realize that it actually supports the feminist movement - women are wearing what they want.

I did so much research on this topic that I seem to have lost one of the links I really wanted to point you towards. It was a comment on a forum (not either of the two I have linked/mentioned previously - that I can tell) of a pagan woman who was so vehemently against veiling that she actually had some rather nasty things to say about the people who choose it. It is, perhaps, best that I managed to lose that link as it was rather shocking coming from someone who, essentially in the same breath, said that being pagan was about being in control of one's own faith and practice and life. I was really taken aback that a stranger's clothing choice could conjure such a negatively fierce reaction from someone who should already know what it's like to be so judged for doing something different.

But that's part of it too. As pagans, we've already chosen to follow our hearts and practice a faith that many do not understand and do not bother to look beyond the stereotypes and learn what we're really about. I've been told that my exposure to the pagan world at large has really been rather limited and that the elitist attitude that one pagan's ways or path is better than another's is actually quite common. I did know this, while I've only experienced a small fraction of it directly. Remember when I stated above that everyone encounters prejudice? Sometimes it comes from within, too.  

We're getting to the end of my research on this topic, though I'm sure that doesn't mean I'll stop talking about it. Next time, we'll look at types of veils and ways they are worn, what shows under the veil, a little bit about pagans 'borrowing' styles, and I'll share some shops I've found for buying veils and other modest dress.

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