This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Veiled and free

People in various cultures/religions still wear head coverings and should be respected in spite of the reality that many deny the relevance of this practice.

The young woman washing her hands beside me in the rest stop bathroom asked,
“Do you know Jesus?” Her abrupt question surprised me …

The young woman washing her hands beside me in the rest stop bathroom asked, “Do you know Jesus?” Her abrupt question surprised me. She continued, “Are you born again?” and barely listened as I found my voice and assured her I did and I was. She continued pressing me with questions as I searched my mind for the reason she zeroed in on me like that. Evidently the fact that I was wearing a veiling symbolized “Amish” and spiritual darkness to her.

I forced myself not to laugh in her face. What signified good “Christian” behavior in my community of birth represented something “other” to her in her cultural ignorance.

Another time, I was riding a crowded ferry across Hong Kong harbor when I was approached by a sharp-looking young man who pressed a flyer into my hand. I suspected he was selling something, but I found it strange that he should target me alone and not the other expatriate English teachers on the seat beside me. After he retreated, I glanced at the print only to find a lengthy argument against the worship of Mary. Suddenly I got it. I was the only one in the group wearing a veiling and obviously looked Catholic to some observers, although I am Mennonite.

I grew up, like most Amish Mennonites, believing the wearing of a veiling a nonnegotiable command in Scripture (1 Corinthians 11) that is somehow disconnected from cultural context. Since the Bible teaches the practice, women should do it—no questions permitted. Church authorities interpreted women’s wearing of a veiling as a requirement for coming into God’s presence in prayer and a sign of acceptance of God’s order of creation (in terms of gender). Additionally, the idea that women were to have a symbol of authority on our heads “because of the angels” (v. 10) meant that if we wanted their protection, we’d better be veiled.

Although I was taught when I was growing up in the 1960s that the veiling provided protection for young Christian women, that assertion was blown to bits when an acquaintance of mine, a conservative Mennonite who always wore a veiling, was followed home from work by a stranger and raped. This upstanding young woman from a small rural Mennonite community had not knowingly put herself in harm’s way but was simply taken advantage of when she was alone and in a vulnerable position. While this is one example that is contrary to the myth, I cannot say that other young women were not spared being raped because they were wearing a veiling. Those stories are also a part of the mythology I grew up with.

So why am I resurrecting this issue of the veil when many Mennonites have given up the practice and rarely talk about it anymore except in reference to the Mennonite dark ages? I do so because I still live in a world between the veiled and unveiled. Not only do my mother, sister and other family members still value the wearing of a veil but I teach Muslim students in my university classes, some of whom are veiled. I still wear the veiling selectively, and some observers may think I am a religious schizophrenic.

I ask myself what the veiling symbolizes for me now. For one, I disagree with those who assert that veilings are nothing but symbols of bondage and subservience. I have known plenty of veiled Mennonites who are every bit as happy and free within their domains as are those who are not veiled and must operate within the confines of difficult work situations. Going outside the Mennonite tradition, let me give further illustrations of those who happily wear a head covering.

A young Muslim woman in my class says wearing her hijab gives her a feeling of freedom and rightness with God—especially when she prays. She feels more comfortable and at ease within the given structure of her religious practice than were she to discard her veiling and live without boundaries. She also finds freedom in not having to worry or think about how to fix her hair. Protection from unwanted male harassment is another positive aspect she notes for wearing a veiling. These justifications are not unlike those given traditionally among Mennonites.

Zainab Chami, a Lebanese American woman, says: “if I decided not to wear [the hijab] because of society, that would be oppression. … It makes me think of who I am, it reminds me of God, and it keeps me rooted. … For me the hijab is not a constraint; it’s the ultimate sign of liberation.”

Similarly, Rajdeep Singh Jolly, writing in the Washington Post (April 5, 2009) in response to a critic, states: “For observant Sikhs, tying a turban is neither a ritual nor a sign of extremism; it is a declaration of Sikh identity and signifies commitment to the Sikh principles of justice and universal equality. The turban distinguishes a Sikh as an ambassador of his or her faith and is a source of strength and pride for millions.” He further makes the point that tying a turban is no more bothersome or time-consuming than many American cultural rituals such as shaving a beard or waxing one’s legs.

Here we have examples of individuals of other cultures or religions who have a commitment to and respect for their religious practices. These folks are not a small minority in the world and, like some veil-wearing Mennonites, are often maligned and misunderstood within secular settings, both in this country and in other places. Like Mennonites, they sometimes find intolerance among “outsiders” as well as among variants of their own primary religion.

Perhaps it is because I identify with some of the values these people hold that I am as yet unwilling to completely set aside my own practice of wearing the veiling. I recognize that as a state university instructor sprung from Amish Mennonite roots, I hold a liminal position in a world that is becoming increasingly secular and fragmented. I work with others who likewise have been uprooted and now live among people with values contrary to their own. Sometimes I, like them, experience feelings of being a cultural refugee, and sometimes I also want to be reminded of where I came from—from roots that are as valid and good as any.

I do not know if I will always continue my irregular habit of wearing the veiling, but I believe that whatever significance a person gives this symbol within a given cultural context is what makes the practice either meaningful or not. I hope that at least I will always extend my respect to those who wear a veiling, or don’t wear it, for whatever reason or whatever occasion—that I will extend to others the freedom God has so generously given to me.

Esther Stenson is a member of Community Mennonite in Harrisonburg, Va.

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