My apologies for the very long delay since I’ve posted anything. The reality is my blog must always take a back seat to school work and family. But, there’s a slight lull in paper writing, and I feel it’s important to make my very tiny contribution to cross-cultural understanding. To that end, I’m posting a summary of a paper I will be presenting at the Toronto School of Theology in May at a conference. More details to follow!

The idea for this paper came predominantly from the despicable proposal in France to ban the Muslim veil. This was followed up by a case here in Canada this spring where a Muslim woman is lodging a Human Rights complaint against the province of Quebec for ordering her to remove her niqab for a french class. I could write a whole post on what I think about these two events (maybe I will!) but let me just say this: in what way is it possibly liberating to tell a woman how she has to dress? How does one reconcile saying the veil is an oppressive item, used to control women, and then tell those women that they are not allowed to dress how they want to?! That it is against democratic ideals? Isn’t it against those democratic ideals to impose a dress code?!

In any case, here’s my paper outline.

What Mennonites Can Learn from Veiled Feminist Muslims

The Muslim veil has become a key symbol of Christianity’s encounter with Islam, and has usually been misunderstood as exclusively representative of oppressive Islamic theology. Given the tensions between Muslims and Christians throughout the world, it is essential that Christians actively work toward mutuality with our Muslim neighbours. Mennonites, perhaps more than most other Christian denominations, can relate to Muslims. Both communities identify themselves outside of the mainstream, and both have earned the term “radical.” This is most visibly represented in their attire, in that both Mennonites and Muslims have a tradition of covering their women.

In this paper, I propose that Christian women (Mennonites in particular) can  learn a great deal from Muslim women on how to demonstrate their theologically based self-empowerment through their attire, without dismissing modesty or adopting legalistic and damaging mandates. In explaining this, I examine the feminist Muslim theology that insists upon being covered as a practice that is at once liberating and a sign of worship. I propose that this theology can significantly inform a feminist Christian perspective. It is important to remember that a history of oppressive theology is wrapped up in discussions of how Christian women “should” dress. It is precisely for this reason that feminist Muslim women, who are quite familiar with negative theology directed at themselves, can convey the possibility of seamlessly combining a self-empowering theology with a modest and particular one, as demonstrated through their attire.

In examining these issues, I consider the thoughts of Amina Wadud and Fatima Mernissi. I place their arguments within the context of feminist Christian theologians, such as Mary C. Grey and Linda Woodhead. James A. Reimer’s unpublished work on universal moral principles helps create the framework on which I structure this paper. I set these interpretations against the backdrop of more conventional interpretations, such as John Horsch’s Worldly Conformity in Dress, not to dismiss these earlier works, but to demonstrate how more progressive theologies can maintain what is most important in these concepts while embracing a more empowering theology.

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8 thoughts on “Bonnets and Burqas

    1. Thanks! No, the paper isn’t done yet. I’ll be presenting it in May in Toronto. But I’ll post it when it’s done – or you could always come to the conference!

  1. I am out in the West so it would be difficult to make the conference .

    One of my Muslim friends (female) does not wear a hijab but I get the impression that she might when she is older. I wonder what the average age for Muslim women in Canada to start to veil. Is it higher than in primarily Muslim countries?

    Forgive me ignorance, is there a culturally appropriate time for Mennonite women to start covering? Puberty, marriage, etc?

    1. It depends on denomination or sect, some head cover at puberty, others headcover at birth (Hutterites and some Old Order Amish/ Old Order Mennonites), others headcover at baptism. My church headcovers at baptism as well as Holdeman and Old Colony.

  2. “being MODEST” is in the eyes of the beholder.I do not believe my God thinks that covering up one hair on your head for “modesty” would “empower me EVER. You are being subjected to Male theological propaganda.No I would never condone banning what you would wish to wear however your choice of clothing cannot but make me wonder why we even bothered in the feminist struggle for equal rights, equal pay , better child care and the like when women CHOOSE to wear a sack for the sake of modesty.If we as women are such a threat to men why not make the men have a curfew, restrain the mens liberty, restrain the mens choice of clothing????????

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my blog. First of all, I get the impression from your reply that you’re under the impression I’m Muslim? I gather this from your choice of personal pronouns. While I hold great respect for Islam, no, I am a Mennonite (Christian). And so no, I do not choose to cover or veil. Likewise, if you check out some of my other posts (such as the “What Is Third Way Style” at the top of the page) you’ll see some striking examples of how covering does not require wearing a “sack”. Also, check out hijabstyle.blogspot.com.
      Also, as a student of systematic theology (which means when I graduate I will hold the job title of “Theologian”) I do not think I am being subjected to “male theological propaganda” as my theology is my own, and as a woman, it is “female” (and strongly feminist at that). I draw a great deal of influence from female theologians such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Lydia Harder. Although, of course, I have also learned a lot from many male theologians, such as Jeremy Bergen, A. James Reimer and Eugene F. Rogers.
      I completely agree that modesty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, that is a common theme on my blog – check out most of the posts under “Modesty” and you will find that very sentiment.
      What bugs me about your reply is this sentence: “No I would never condone banning what you would wish to wear however your choice of clothing cannot but make me wonder why we even bothered in the feminist struggle for equal rights, equal pay , better child care and the like when women CHOOSE to wear a sack for the sake of modesty.”
      1 – That is why we bothered with the feminist struggle, so that women could make choices for themselves without society telling them what they had to do (obviously we’re not there yet). You say you wouldn’t condone banning hijab, but then in the same breath you condemn women for choosing to wear it. There are many ways to ban things, not just legislative, and one of the most effective is subtle (or not so subtle) pressure. How can one advocate for feminism when she silences the very voices of the women themselves, refusing to hear what they will say about themselves and why they veil, belittling their choice and listening only to what they perceive as the “male voice”?
      2 – My acceptance of the niqab and hijab comes from personal relationships with women who choose to do so as theological self-empowerment. I realized I had to reassess my own views of the veil when over and over again I heard these women say, “I refuse to be judged by how I look. I want people to know me for who I am.”
      3 – This leads to my third and final point: the feminism to which you allude is undeniably a concept and movement steeped in Western culture and thought, and is in many ways neo-colonial – telling other women from radically different cultures that we know what is best for them. I don’t even mean the Muslim East, but it’s certainly true there. I learned this from an Innu elder (an indigenous group in Northern Canada) who taught me that when she came to university and took Women’s Studies, she was genuinely confused for the first three months because no one ever bothered to specify that they were talking about Western women. She had grown up on a Native Reserve, and her traditional culture had a completely different take on the roles of women. Once she understood what her professor and classmates were talking about she became angry, because they had absolutely no concept of how her culture worked, and were constantly telling her what she should think.
      If we’re going to move past the White Man’s Burden mentality of the 19th century colonialism, and if we’re going to be genuine advocates of the feminism we champion, then we must open ourselves to what *women* in other cultures have to say about themselves without dismissing it as “male propaganda.”

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