Friday, 20 July 2012

Covered In Controversy

There's a lengthy (and occasionally fractious) discussion going on over at the Wild Hunt blog  on the subject of pagan women who choose to "cover" or "veil" their hair. A group of such women have set up the web site Covered In Light, and planned a day of recognition of the practice for later in the year. This is not the first time I've heard of this phenomenon, but the amount of publicity and discourse that's rising around it is new to me.

Strictly from an anthropological and sociological standpoint, I've long been fascinated by things like veiling and modest dress, what those things mean both within the context of specific religious traditions and in the larger culture as well. They are problematic subjects for me, because questions of modest dress are invariably female concerns, and a woman with her hair (or her face, or her entire body) covered in a particular way are read in a particular way as well within western society. Religiously driven clothing and headgear decisions are typically seen as oppressive in the west, and protestations of free choice by the women themselves do little to alter that symbolism. That's the problem with symbols: they mean things, and altering those meanings to suit oneself is a more difficult process than one might think.

I like hats well enough, though I don't always like having things on my head. Being told I must wear a particular thing for someone else's reason chafes me severely. For example, I do a lot of historic reenactment, and for one of the eras I portray it was common for women to wear a cap covering their hair in addition to whatever hat they might choose. Well, I do not like said caps. They refuse to stay put on my head, and I find them terribly unflattering: call me vain, but I think I look like someone's hideous grandmother with a doily on my head, and I avoid them as much as possible. Did every woman at all times wear such a thing on her head during the era in question? The evidence is inconclusive, therefore I tend to wear rakish and amusing hats sans doily, and take on a more iconoclastic personality. There are symbolic associations with compulsory cap-wearing, many of which are rooted in religious traditions that I do not follow and gender roles to which I do not subscribe. Symbols mean things, and I am sensitive to them.

I have no interest in trying to convince another woman what she should or should not do with her own personal head or body. Wear what you want when you want and ascribe whatever meaning to it you like, but be aware that the larger culture may read into your choices motivations that you may not intend. If you're wearing what looks to the general public like the uniform of a specific group, don't be shocked when you're mistaken for someone from that group. Maybe you can use that as a teaching moment. I don't know.

(What has kind of surprised me about the discussion so far is that I haven't heard anyone screaming "cultural appropriation" yet--and that's usually one of the first accusations to be hurled. Does it count as cultural appropriation to wear a style of head covering commonly worn by, say, Muslim or Jewish women? Why or why not?)

I don't hear gods in my head directing my sartorial decisions(1), and to be honest I don't really understand people who say they do. It is frankly hard for me to imagine deities that micromanage the minutiae of their devotees' lives. It seems more likely that we may sometimes use our perceptions of the gods' desires as justification for our own very human choices(2).

(1) I'm going to do a post on the subject of "hearing" the gods, and issues along the lines of what I briefly touch on in this paragraph, very soon.

(2) That, like everything else on this blog, is my personal opinion, to which I am entitled. Feel free to disagree, but if you're rude about it, I won't respond.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Mistaken Implications

The other day I had a brief conversation with Star Foster on Twitter, which led her to make this amusing graphic--a LOLcrowley, if you will:

And then, the more I thought about it, the more I came to the realization that the root of most all of my problems amongst my co-religionists could be traced to just that: I almost always think the bazinga is implied, and I'm almost always just gobstruck to find out that it isn't.

For example: years ago, I was (for a brief period) the moderator of a private email list for initiates of the tradition I then practiced. I didn't always scruple to hide my incredulity when people made what seemed to me to be preposterous claims, and I recall one instance when someone came right back on me and demanded "If you feel that way, then why are you here?" (My response? "Frankly, at this moment, I'm wondering that myself.") Very early in my internet pagan days I belonged to an open list and had a run-in with my first Sacred Whore; I thought that was a hilarious term and asked if that wasn't an oxymoron (bazinga!) and was very shocked when I was dogpiled as being the next best thing to Hitler or Phyllis Schafly or something. I always think I'm being trolled, always think there's a big elaborate joke, and even after nearly two decades of active practice I am still always surprised when I discover that no, in fact, people are deadly serious. Because I always think the bazinga is implied.

I'm a naturalistic pagan, a monolatrous animist type who relates to deity in ways that have led some people to mislabel me as an atheist. I'm a reality-based kind of person. When people come before me making what seem to be utterly absurd claims, my first reaction is always to think "you're testing me, you're trying to see how far you can go with me." I realize that this is probably an unusual response, but that's where my brain goes. I've encountered far too many fakers and fools to do otherwise. No, you're not a werewolf on the inside, and no, you're not possessed by demons and no, dammit, don't insult me by saying you're "aspecting the goddess" when the drivel you're spouting exactly echoes your mundane-world biases. The following gif set should illustrate:

Crushed again!

When I have these experiences, I'm a little bit insulted and a little bit crushed every time, even though it's happened time and again and probably will continue to happen for the rest of my life. Look, I can't sit here and pretend that I've never had any weird experiences--of course I have--and I also can't pretend that I have a solid explanation for every phenomenon I've ever encountered. There are mysteries I will never comprehend; I know that, and I'm OK with that--it's part of what makes life fascinating for me. But at the same time, there is just some shit that I cannot and will not swallow, and I won't betray myself in order to play along with people who may indeed be trolling for a reaction. My spiritual practice is a grounded one, earth-based, reality-based, intellectual--more Apollonian than Dionysian, one could say. I won't go so far as to say that every person making wild and unprovable claims is a flat-out liar or mentally ill, but since I have no way of knowing a person's motivations upfront, I'm inclined to be wary. If it walks like a duck and looks like a duck it might conceivably be a platypus, but 99.99% of the time it's a goddamn duck, and I'm going to treat it as such.