A wise (and pithy) person I knew once said that diplomacy is the fine art of telling someone to go to Hell in such a manner that they look forward to the trip. It is tempting to very directly tell the people who have decided to harass us over our decisions to veil exactly where to go and what method to take to get there. It is very tempting when you have a short temper (which I confess, I do). The real question that faces any person who chooses to dress outside the culturally accepted norm is how to deal with people who oppose them.
In my last post specifically on veiling, I noted three major challenges to people who choose to veil within our culture. We encounter problems with people who take umbrage at our standing outside of the cultural stereotypes that get assigned to us on the basis of our gender presentation, skin color, and economic standing. We find ourselves confronted by people who dare to engage in body policing and a campaign to shame us into meeting their ideal norms. And we find ourselves dealing with people and institutions that look at the choice to veil or otherwise dress modestly as a fashion statement and therefore frivolous. Taken as a whole, this trio of problems can make a person fearful of engaging society whilst dressed in the manner that conforms with their sense of identity, comfort, and religious inclinations when it deviates even slightly from what is assumed about them.
There is cases where the persons who make these arguments are well intentioned but ignorant. In these cases, it is best to gently correct them and, if you are comfortable doing so, explaining a little bit about your reasoning for how you are dressed. It can be something as simple as “I cover my hair because of my faith”. In many cases, this is enough of an explanation to give. There is also the option of redirecting the conversation into other matters or ignoring their comments entirely whilst pursuing an earlier subject of conversation from the discussion. Most people will get the hint that you don’t want to talk about it when you reject their overtures of discussing fodder.
It is important to remember, however you wish to respond, that you do not owe anyone an explanation for your appearance. You are the sovereign of your body and all decisions that you make with respect to your body should be respected. Those who would scorn or disrespect you on the basis of your presentation and matters as superficial as how you appear are most likely people who you are not going to wish to associate with in any sense of confidence about your innermost thoughts because you can tell already that they do not respect you. The age old maxim “the clothes makes the man” is a lie that we must all reject because our clothes are secondary to the person who wears them. If one is dressed in high couture fashion, they are as much the same person as they are in blue jeans and a t-shirt. Our clothes are a means of expression and a necessary protection against the elements in certain climes. Any additional meaning that they may have is opinion and we know that all people have opinions. This does not make them any more fact then opining that blue is a terrible color. Just as the color blue is morally neutral, so too are clothes.1
The problems arise when people decide to imply that you do not have the right to make all decisions with respect to your body and welfare. The arguments that one does not look ‘right’ for their cultural situation and gender presentation are subtle implications that one’s appearance and mannerisms are not their personal property and within their rights to determine what happens with them. In this case, the argument is made that ‘society’ has the right/duty to dictate how one must dress and carry themselves. Society argues that certain subcultures are acceptable and others are not, failing to recognize that these people are part of society as a whole and that they have the right to participate in it.
Presently, people who are from a Arabic or Asiatic (generally from the Indian subcontinent region) background are one of the largest groups considered to be unacceptable within society. One of the reasons that is put forth by society is that it is because they practice the religion of Islam. A given image of the person who practices Islam is a caricature of what the people from these regions are like and of the people who practice Islam. This image is a highly sensationalized and very negative one that is used to encourage fear in the population at large2. When women choose to veil themselves, it is assumed that they are practitioners of Islam and they frequently find themselves to be target of the same harassment and negative assumptions that are made with respect to this group.
This is a situation that is difficult to handle on a good day. We must keep in mind that the person pushing confrontation over this matter is fearful on some level of what we represent, in their mind’s eye. We can possibly attempt to disentangle the assumptions that they have been programmed to have from our personal identity, but this is only successful with people who are willing to attempt the process. When we encounter people who are decidedly hostile and actively seeking confrontation, the best approach is to diffuse the situation. Perhaps the simplest thing that can be done is to do not return their efforts to interact. It can range from ignoring their comments to leaving the location.3 If this is not an option, redirecting the conversation into more neutral territory or bringing a third party into the conversation may be successful in halting the offender’s behavior. For some reason, people get uncomfortable continuing their poor behavior when there is an audience.4
We also encounter people who would accuse us of cultural appropriation. This is based in the assumption that certain manners of dress are the cultural property of one ethnic/social group. The assumption is false and can be countered with information. Educating the person who dares to accuse you of stealing from another culture not only shifts the conversation back into more neutral waters, it exposes them to the idea that there are alternate reasons for things then what they assumed. This can lead to an eventual change of behavior. At the simplest, one can state that there are only so many ways to manipulate a piece of fabric and no one has the patent on all of them. If you choose to go the route of education in a deeper sense, learn the history of your practice of veiling and the origins of it. It is possible to find arguments and historical examples of veiling from every culture around the world, though veiling will take different guises due to cultural and environmental differences. This is a tactic that not only allows you to demonstrate how you are a nonthreatening figure (because people tend to assume that one who teaches something is not a threat to them within our culture) but gives you greater depth in your own practice. (This is a tactic that I use and I have found to be very successful and rewarding for many reasons.)
The most insidious of people who argue that we should not veil or dress in a manner they don’t approve of are the ones who are the self declared body police. They don’t usually come out and say directly that they don’t approve of what you are wearing or how you look. Instead, it is back handed little comments like “Your hair is so pretty, you should show it more often.” and “You have great legs. You oughta show them off, you’re so lucky.” Part of the body police nonsense comes out of a measure of envy. Yes, I did just say that and I’ll say it again. One of the root causes of body police behavior is the fact that the speaker is envious of the target for some reason. As such, they’ll try to cut the other person down in some way to make themselves feel better even as they deny that there is any envy. Another major cause of body policing is fear.
The ones who body police from a position of fear are the ones who warn women not to go out wearing revealing clothing and tells the person veiling that they’re in danger for doing so, regardless of the actual threat that may be present. The body police of fear are harder to deal with because in some fashion, their expression is truly rooted in a concern for the target’s welfare and a desire to see them remain safe. It is good to remind the person who is body policing out of fear that you have the means and ability to protect yourself in the event of something they fear happening. Instead of letting them focus on the body policing behavior, redirect the focus back to their fear and address it.
The envious body police are a thorny problem to deal with. On one hand, we can not magically fix another person’s emotional insecurities (which is the root of 99% of envy 99% of the time). At the same time, we must not make excuses for their unacceptable behavior. When someone who is body policing from a position of envy declares that people who dress modestly are selfish (this seems to be the most popular arguments from what I can tell), they are telling the target of their behavior that they do not have the right to decide their appearance. It is perfectly reasonable to retort with one of the following (tailored to suit your circumstances):
- I am sorry that you feel it necessary to say that. It must be very difficult to see the world that way.
- We don’t expose our (breast or other body part commonly covered) because it is private. So is the rest of me.
- I don’t appreciate your remarks about my person. Please stop and discuss something else. I am not here for your amusement or approval.
There is a laundry list of variations on those themes. It is possible to take the statement and make it sound very innocuous or a blatant challenge to the person. I trust that you all have the discretion to pick which battles are truly worthy of fighting.
Finally, we have the group that assumes that our manner of dress is dictated by fashion sense. While it is possible to be both modest in your manner of dress and fashionable, fashion is not the primary motivator. In these circumstances, it is important to be forthright and direct about the fact that you are covering for reasons aside from fashion. When in a position where one’s covering is being argued to be driven by the dictates of fashion, maintain your argument that it is from deeply held beliefs. The law in the United States allows for freedom of religious expression. This includes head coverings.
There may be some circumstances where allowances must be made. Check, however, if these allowances are required of everyone. If a Catholic nun is permitted to wear her wimpel and veil, you are permitted your head covering as well. Some places may require documentation that you are expression sincerely held religious beliefs (ie: a note from your pastor or spiritual adviser). In the event of this circumstance, go to the members of your religious community and get their assistance. It may be that someone in your local community has the ability to sign said documentation as an ordained minister. If you want to be extra careful, get it notarized and keep a copy of it on hand.
Next veiling post will talk about how to navigate the world of veiling from a beginner’s perspective. I’ll be focusing on immediate family and household matters first.
1. While garments may have different connotations in different settings due to cultural and social mores, it does not change the fact that they are merely pieces of fabric upon our body. This is a stance that I hold with respect to all forms of clothing and whomever is wearing it. It may not be pleasing in a matter of aesthetics or be appropriate for the situation, but this is not a matter to shame someone over. Any and all aspects of clothing having meaning is assigned by the person wearing it. Assumptions as to what that meaning is by others is pure foolishness and results in the problems that we are discussing.
2.I could devote a small novella to my opinions upon the matter of propaganda and how it influences culture. The perpetuation of the ‘dangerous Muslim’ stereotype is among the ones that I find repellant because it dehumanizes a vast swath of people with out any regard for the individuals. I object to this on more levels then I can coherently express right now.
3. If you have any reason to be concerned for your safety or welfare, vacate the area immediately and seek out assistance. No one has the right to assault or harass you. This is a crime and you have a legitimate cause to seek out the assistance of law enforcement if it comes to be necessary.
4. If in a situation where all about you are considered hostile and a potential threat to your welfare, exit the location immediately. Don’t get yourself into a dangerous situation on the basis of pride.