Veiling: Three challenges to the practice

The western world is very secular and views the only appropriate time for veiling is for a wedding. On occasion, the secular world will tolerate a widow wearing a birdcage veil but only if it is small. The people that the western world view as appropriate to wear veils on regular basis are nuns. There is grudging tolerance given to Muslim women and their hijab. Additionally, it is tolerated in a restricted fashion for women who are of African-American descent, if they do so in a fashion that is appropriately ‘ethnic’.

The Mennonites and the Amish are tolerated in much the same fashion as women of color. The wearing of bandannas and charity style veils are becoming accepted in conservative Christian communities. It is, however, viewed as a sign of their status as ‘other’ within the more protestant Christian oriented society at large. Because the conservative Christians are similar in their beliefs to the protestant Christians that society at large considers to be mainstream, the people who come from these sects are given something of a blind eye to their increasingly distinctive manner of dress.

The ingrained attitude that veiling is for specific people and should be done in certain ways for the groups in question is the first challenge to people who wish to wear a veil and do not fall into those categories. A white woman who is non-Christian is viewed with suspicion when she chooses to wear her veil in a manner that resembles the styles of hijab worn by Muslim women. Especially if in the midst of it all, she does not conform to the appearance expected to accompany that style. Accusations of cultural appropriation are an extension of the tendency of society at large to pigeonhole people as being a certain way on the basis of their appearances.

When one wears a veil and does not conform to the expected appearances for the fashion of veiling that is worn, they find themselves on the receiving end of a great deal of vitriol from people who are attempting to keep societal norms within the ‘commonly accepted’ parameters. This body policing brings people who stand outside of those norms a great deal of difficulty and can contribute to problems in how these people view themselves. This is the first major challenge that people who veil encounter, especially at the beginning of the practice.

The second major challenge that is encountered is a direct outgrowth from the attitudes that give rise to the first. When a person begins to veil, they will inevitably have someone comment on their new appearance with statements to the effect that they should show their hair/body because it is so ‘pretty’. This is partly body policing and partly a continuation of an attitude that is problematic for women in general. The idea that one’s appearance and body is some how communal property is one that we consciously reject when we choose to dress in a modest manner (including but not limited to dressing in ‘traditional’ clothing styles, ie: dresses and skirts for women).

It is very difficult and very uncomfortable to have people tell you that what you are doing in dressing in this fashion is selfish. It sends the message that this is improper behavior and that we are not permitted autonomy with respect to our appearances. It also sends the message that we do not have the authority to make decisions with respect to our bodies. Veiling brings out the ‘wistful’ body police almost as much as when a woman chooses a shorter hair style after having long locks. Sending the message that one is some how less for making these decisions is reprehensible.

The third major challenge that people who take up veiling encounter is the attitude that it is a mere fashion statement. Veiling for spiritual reasons or other purposes is a legitimate thing. The person who veils as an expression of their spirituality and in accordance with their professed faith is not doing so because it is stylish. Unfortunately, the secular aspect of Western society fails to consider the spiritual aspect of doing so. It is bitterly ironic considering how it accepts that one wearing jewelry in accordance with their faith is appropriate. One is no less important to the person wearing it then the other. Indeed, a garment may be considered to possibly be of greater importance then jewelry in some cases.

This failure to consider veiling as a legitimate form of expression of one’s faith has lead to many people being troubled by their employers, coworkers, and officials in the community over their headcovering. It is the attitude that one’s manner of dress is dictated by the trends of the day rather then one’s deeply held religious beliefs that creates situations where it is considered appropriate to ask someone who is wearing a veil to remove it. The outward expression of one’s faith is not limited to their speech. It can also be expressed by their clothing choices, hence veiling. It is difficult for people who veil to do so because of the intolerant attitudes they encounter.

Next veiling post, I will propose arguments to present when these challenges arise and one must handle an intolerant person.

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