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.

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