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Putting my two cents in.

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Location: Belmont, New Hampshire, United States

Born and bred in a small New England town, I am convinced that I know something about everything, and that my opinion matters. If only to me. Well, you'll see what I mean. And I love to knit, so you'll see what kind of things I'm doing when I should be vacuuming the living room.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Covering Our Heads

I speak of people--women mostly, but certainly many men as well--who cover their heads for prayer. Though the more I think about it, that is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Lately I am fascinated by ritual garb of all denominations. Of course those faiths who routinely adopt ritual garb is far more fascinating to me than those who don't, so don't feel slighted if I don't mention your particular faith. But I'm just more interested in those religions who have specific instructions on how to dress for prayer and in everyday life. And the "why" of it. And how the faithful feel about it.

It started when I was half-watching the TV, as I sometimes do, and a Muslim man was wearing a lovely white crocheted hat. I immediately abandoned my knitting and CNN and Googled "Muslim headwear." I found out that it is called a kufi, and it was indeed crocheted cotton. The site that I found it on was a Muslim clothing site and I was captivated by the array of lovely clothing that they wear for both everyday life and for their worship as well. The scarves that the women wear, called hijab, are truly exquisite. Of course they can be very plain and utilitarian, but most of the ones I've seen are of luxurious fabrics and are available in every color of the rainbow.

Of course from there I segued right into traditional Jewish clothing and was again ensnared with the variety of kippot (yarmulke), prayer shawls and the like that are available to the faithful sons and daughters of Abraham. Again, amazing needlework, exquisite fabrics, and a dizzying amount to choose from. I was most taken with the information regarding Orthodox Jewish clothing, and how married Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair completely, not unlike orthodox Muslim women. The scarf tying is different, but the fabrics are equally lovely in a different way. I think the Muslim scarves have more of an exotic, Eastern feel, while the Jewish scarves have a more folksy, Western or European feel. I was also surprised to find that the rules about modesty were so strict. The Jewish folks I know don't follow any clothing restrictions, so to find out that in Orthodox circles the women are nearly completely covered from head to toe and don't wear pants was surprising. (My recent discovery of modest swimwear was truly enlightening, though not as enlightening as the feminist backlash against it.)

I also found it interesting that modesty and style were not mutually exclusive. And that while I originally was intrigued by the "what", I found myself drawn into the "why" even more deeply.

And while I hadn't really thought about it much before, Christianity also seems to take to extremes as far as modesty and fashion are concerned. On the most modest end of the scale, the Mennonites come immediately to mind, and the Amish. Their dress eschews any adornment, believing that true modesty of dress means not making oneself "showy" in any way. No doubt they would consider a modern Muslim woman's cobalt blue silk scarf with gold embroidery immodest!

My church falls more on the "wear-whatever-you-want" end of the scale. We are instructed to "dress modestly" for mass, but left largely to our own devices to decide what we deem modest. We don't have a dress code of any sort. The underlying theology being that the mass is an offering to God and we should give him our best. Which means you should look nice. You don't see a lot of shirts with ties in mass anymore, and there are way more dresses and skirts in the summer, but most everyone looks neat and presentable, even in shorts and t-shirts, and sandals. Though there is the occasional sweaty soccer uniform or two on a kid coming right from practice. Better to be at mass on time in play clothes than to miss mass altogether!

But by and large, I sometimes feel like Christians got a bit gypped in the costume department. I'm too young to remember a time when Catholic women covered their heads in mass, if only with a tissue in case of emergency, though there was usually a lace mantilla in every good Catholic woman's purse for just such occasions, right there next to her rosary beads. And it is the Church's position that if you want to cover your head in mass, well, knock yourself out. And if you want to cover your body from head to toe, good for you. But you don't HAVE to. God doesn't love you any less if you don't. (And in truth, if you're the only one in mass wearing a veil and you're not a nun, you're probably making yourself conspicuous. Which is decidedly not modest.)

Having said that, there's a woman in our church who wears a hat to mass every Sunday. I wonder if she feels closer to God because of it. And where she gets her hats, for that matter. We also have a couple of women who wear their hair long because it says to do so somewhere in the Bible, even though the Catholic church doesn't require it. I wonder too if that act makes them feel more spiritually in tune with what God wants from her. And while the church makes no specification on how to fold your hands for prayer, or even that you have to fold your hands at all, one mother presses her palms flat, fingers up, and makes sure her kids do the same. One of these days I'm going to screw up the courage to ask her "why?" I'm sure there's a reason. Then again, maybe there is no reason, she just likes the aesthetics of it.

I've been to a Christian church where cut-off shorts and a bikini top was acceptable clothing for prayer. I'm thinking those congregations that take the "God loves my mostly naked body, even in church" line of thinking are few and far between. Even in the OC.

As a Christian, I believe it's the message of Christianity that is important, not so much what you're wearing, but I wonder if a Muslim or Jewish woman feels that much closer to her God every morning when she covers her head. Or if it's just one more thing she does quite mindlessly, like brushing her teeth. I'd like to know.

Now, as much as I loathe politics, I know there are people reading this who feel very strongly about the issue. (It seems lately that everyone feels strongly about everything, but again, that's for another post. Stay tuned.) I am well aware that there are parts of the world, even in this Bastion of Religious Freedom that is the USA, where women are forced to conform to a standard of dress, and to not do so would mean at best her ostracision from her community and at worst her death. In matters of religion (and a lot of other things) I don't consider myself a feminist, but a humanist. If a person of any sex feels encumbered or oppressed by the demands put on them by their religion, they should be free to find a community/congregation/sect of like-believing folks where they can be comfortable and worship in a manner that lifts them up and brings them closer to God as they understand him. I believe God would rather have us worship with joy than out of some sense of burden. But I know that that kind of freedom is not always possible or feasible, and that makes me sad.

So I'd rather not discuss it. Not here, and not right now. I'm not about to argue about burkas and public executions, or what exactly constitutes a creepy cult of glassy-eyed women and children and the men who dominate them. There are evils done in the name of religion. Always have been. And probably always will be. I refer you to my previous comment about politics and my loathing thereof.

But, if you wear something special to worship, or daily as a sign that you belong to a particular community of believers, I'd like to hear about it. Even if it is something as small as a piece of jewelry. I'd like to know what you wear, when you wear it, and what it means to you to do so. And I make a solemn promise as Blogmaster that if you do decide to comment that I won't let anyone get up in your face about your religion or your choices.

So take note: I would like to make it clear that I respect everyone's faith. I believe that all faith, and even complete lack thereof, is a gift from God. We all have faith in varying degrees from abundant to none, and we all believe in different things. I would love comments on this post, but I will delete any comments that I deem inflammatory. I would like to think that we can talk openly about our religious traditions and convictions without denegrating someone else's.

It's my blog, and I'd like to keep it a friendly blog, so that's the rule.

4 Comments:

Blogger Kathy S. said...

Well, I wear a Star of David necklace just so people won't assume I'm not Jewish. I'm not religious at all and had a strange non-observant Christian and non-observant Jewish, but with Christmas and Hanukkah and Passover and Easter, childhood. I don't like when Americans of whom I am one, assume everyone is
Christian. So I wear my star. Plus it's pretty. It's got an amethyst in the center. As a teenager I had a tiny silver cross with a turquoise stone in the center. I loved that, too.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Libi said...

I wear a cross all the time. Not because I worship it, but as a reminder of who I belong to. When I'm tempted to have something not so nice come out of my mouth, I usually put my hand up to my neck, feel my cross, and remember who it is that I represent.

I am alot like you. I get sucked into things and have to learn all about them. I've been on a kick lately on learning about the Amish. I feel as you, that we, as Christians, were gypped.

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm old school Catholic. Grew up wearing veils or hats to Mass. I still cover my head. Not to be conspicuous, but without thinking. Dresses or skirts only. Always a Miraculous medal, St. Patrick/St. Brid medal, and crucifix. I feel I am less conspicuous than the tee shirt and shorts people, and far less conspicuous than the young ladies with bare shoulders, no bra, and their belly buttons uncovered. Yes, better to attend Mass in casual wear than to miss it, but why not be prepared? For all this, it's not that I feel holier or nearer God with the modest approach, but that it is natural for me to respect the Mass in the Lord's house in this fashion. At Mass no one should be distracted by others' apparel anyway. So no one should be bothered by my apparel, and I should not be bothered by anyone else's.

9:39 PM  
Anonymous Artsygal said...

Interesting topic! I am indian and though as an adult I am no longer a believer, I was raised Sikh. No cutting of hair, and head is supposed to be covered at all times. Most people however take that to mean head covered while in a place of worship. I no longer attend services of any sort, but on occasion find myself in a place of worship - and find something to cover my head with. For me it's not about the belief so much as a respect thing. Just as I would expect any non-indian to cover their head in a sikh temple too. The sikh religion has some intersting beliefs on clothing etc, if you still need another religion to read about.

5:37 PM  

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