Figure Skating Hijabi

figure skates

Oh my word – I am in full swing geek-out here. I love figure skating. I was never really a skater myself, although I do love to skate. But I married a former competitive figure skater (ice dance), and my daughters skate. All in all, our family is often at the rink four or five times a week.

I also love the Olympics. I know that they’re far from perfect, and I’ve noticed that in my liberal-academic milieu it’s not really in vogue to be pro-Olympics. There’s plenty to analyze around gender/race/materialism/capitalism/nationalism/empire/human rights/etc. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some good social deconstruction. But when it comes to the Olympics, I just feel like, “Come on. Do we have to be angry about something all the time?” Because for all their faults, I really do support an endeavour where countries from all over the world come together in peaceful competition. Where athletes compete fiercely against each other, but come together and support each other too – across national boundaries. I was watching when the Russian cross-country skiier broke his pole and ski, and was impressed with his determination to finish the race regardless. And I was touched when the Canadian coach ran out and gave him a new ski. justin-wadsworthAnd no, I don’t think it was because he was “Canadian” and we’re all just so nice. Other coaches and other athletes from other countries have done similar things. The Norwegian coach that gave the Canadian skiier a new pole when hers broke during the Torino Olympics – costing his team a medal in the process. Or when Canadian sailor Larry Lemieux sailed off course in the 1988 Seoul Olympics to help the Singapore sailors who capsized, and would have drowned without Lemieux (who also gave up a medal to go see if they needed help).

But I digress. Let’s just say that Sochi isn’t helping with the comprehensive exams studying.

Here’s why I’m geeking-out. We watch a lot of figure skating in this house, and my husband coaches. It’s obvious that figure skating tends to be a very “white” or “Asian” sport. There are important exceptions – Surya Bonaly anyone? She kicks butt. But sitting through countless hours of kids’ figure skating lessons in a pretty culturally diverse city, I’ve often noted that every child on the ice is either “white” or “Asian-descent.” Among the “white” kids, there are new Canadians – and they’re all Russian (and tend to be very good). Seriously, it’s in the genes or something. The only exception to this is in some learn-to-skate classes my husband has coached. There, the majority of skaters were a bit older than “white Canadian” kids tend to start, and were almost all new Canadians (not from European countries). I have a theory about this. My oldest daughter is in an “elite” skating class, and all the parents there (including us) give the same reason for starting their kids in skating: “Canadian kids need to know how to skate. It’s part of a Canadian childhood.” Class field trips, friends’ birthday parties, skating parties, skating with friends on weekends, etc. In other words, while all these children have been selected by some of the best coaches in Canada as potentially gifted skaters, none of the parents put them in skating because they saw them as potential competitors, but because they(we) saw them as Canadian kids.

Immigrant communities — whether they’re coming to Canada in 2014, or came in 1914 — go through a similar process of adjustment. One part of that is second and third generations assuming the cultural norms of the host culture. So, in this case, while first generation parents are primarily concerned with getting life established (finding work, housing, navigating a new school system, health care, making sure their families are adjusting okay, etc. etc. etc.), as the community is here longer they begin to move on to secondary and tertiary concerns. So, there are plenty of second, third, and even first generation kids in our girls’ club. But their “communities” are established “Canadians” – even though some of the parents are themselves immigrants. Also, in some of their home countries figure skating is also a big deal (Russia, Japan, China).

So, what’s my point? Well, aside from enjoying the combination of migration theory and figure skating, I’ve been sort of watching the Canadian figure skating scene and wondering when we’ll have our first hijab wearing competitive skater. I haven’t seen one yet, and if she’s out there she hasn’t made it to Juniors and is still in lower level competitions. And when she comes (and I’m sure she will come) what will her costume look like? The ISU has pretty strict guideline about what a woman can wear in competition, and it’s well known that within those rules there are definite standards and expectations that can seriously affect a competitor’s mark. That’s right – if the judges don’t like what you’re wearing, it will probably show up in your marks. How would judges respond to what would have to be a modified costume? Is it allowable under current guidelines? I was idly thinking about this since the Sochi games began, and then I found THIS (or should I say HER):

Zahra Lari

Zahra Lari is a figure skater competing at the Olympics on behalf of the UAE. She’s not a medal contender, and didn’t begin skating until she was 11 (ancient for a girl by figure skating standards – none of the women on the Canadian team started after the age of 3, our daughters started when they were 2 – you get the idea). But she’s out there, and she’s doing it! And she’s still young. She should definitely have another Olympics or two in her career.

In the UAE they call her their “Ice Princess,” and she’s getting a lot of support. No wonder – she’s the first figure skater to compete at the Olympics from the region. Clearly yet another example where a woman in hijab is oppressed and can’t pursue her own dreams … oh wait.

A Satirical Look at Beards and Hijabs

Image A satirical look at women and hijabs – and their male counterparts – is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. A Man’s Hijab takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to real issues that face Muslim women and men. It uses male standards of dress to put a spotlight on how these matters tend to be argued almost exclusively over women’s bodies (and definitely not just from the Muslim side).

Plus, it’s fun!

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Catholic, Mennonite and Muslim Veiling Practices in Canada: Or What I Study

My last half year or so has largely been spent preparing for PhD studies next year. By “preparing,” I mean that I had to write a tonne of scholarship and program applications, all of which required me to specify my research plans. Since my proposed dissertation is (surprise surprise) closely connected to the interests I express on this blog, I decided my research proposal might be of interest to my readers.

Now, be forewarned, it is full of academic speak, which can be a bit dry. But, it does fairly succinctly summarize what I plan to do. Since I have been accepted into my PhD program of choice (it’s a Religious Studies program) and this proposal has been initially approved, it looks like in some way or another I will get to spend the next four (or five) years studying Catholic, Mennonite and Muslim veiling practices in Canada. And yes, that does sound like getting to eat cake all day to me (without the tummy ache … although footnotes are certainly a pain in the … never mind).

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Women praying with Catholic mantilla or chapel veil during Mass.

So, here is my research proposal (slightly edited):

My research concentrates on interreligious encounters in North America, particularly in the experience of minority women within the framework of material culture. I examine the intersection of religious ideology, gender, culture and historic factors, and the impact these have on women’s appearance. This material evidence, integrated with oral histories and conventional academic sources, provides unique insights into the role new Canadian Muslim women who veil navigate for themselves in a society which views such customs with suspicion. In my proposed dissertation, Blinded by the Veil: Mennonite, Catholic and Muslim Responses to the Hijab, I will use these two Christian groups and how they respond to this visible Muslim practice as a case study of how North Americans encounter the reality of multiculturalism, while considering Muslim responses to these perceptions.

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Part of the Haute Hijab Fall 2011 clothing line.

North American society values the separation of private convictions and public practice. In this culture, Canadians and Americans alike take pride in their tolerance of other’s beliefs. This creates tension, however, when private religious belief is demonstrated in a public way. The Muslim veil, in particular, is a source of fierce debate, extending to proposed legal banning. When Muslim women wear their hijabs or niqabs in public venues, some perceive this as a hostile practice that directly confronts “North American values,” such as equality and liberty, particularly for women. They understand the practice of veiling as a return to a framework of society their foremothers fought to move beyond. Many North Americans interpret hijab through the lens of “liberation,” where instead of promoting feminism’s true ideal (the ability to choose for oneself), “liberation” is turned into explicitly removing the veil. In this way, the veil becomes a solid onto which many North Americans project their own negative understandings of what the practice of hijab represents. In these perceptions, it is a short jump from a hair covering to male guardianship laws and female genital mutilation.

Conversely, these associations are not entirely unfounded. Groups such as the Taliban, Iranian morality police and Saudi Mutawas have used hijab as one of several methods to repress women’s rights. Tragic murders in Canada where hijab (often inaccurately) appears to be the impetus, such as Aqsa Parvez’s, spark heated debates about veiling and fears of further “honour killings” as inextricably linked with Muslim immigration. New Canadian Muslims for whom hijab is a familiar practice cannot reconcile these haram acts with their own veiling practices, and do not necessarily understand the objections Western feminist tradition motivates, are themselves blinded to what their veil has the potential to communicate. Therefore, Muslim responses to these concepts will make up a third smaller, but essential element of this study. Without engaging the internal Islamic theological debates, I will review Muslim women’s reasons for veiling, and how they use the hijab to assert their agency within both the Islamic and mainstream North American communities.

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Swiss Mennonites wearing the States Bonnet, a very contentious article of clothing, in 1920. Image from the Mabel Groh collection, Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Both Mennonites and Catholics present the perspective of people with histories of veiling and that are actively engaged in building relationships with their new Muslim neighbours. Both denominations present a large spectrum of beliefs regarding headcoverings and the role of women in society. Do the dynamics of the debate as these groups moved away from veiling in any way affect the way they respond to hijab? What does covering women’s hair represent to them? Does it relate to women’s sexuality, individuality or liberty?

In this study I seek to bring forth these cultural and religious misunderstandings, and the ways in which these three groups are working to move beyond them. This will provide both a case study of how North Americans are encountering religious diversity, and specific methods groups are employing to transcend contentious differences. To accomplish this I will use a primarily material culture based methodology while incorporating a traditional academic framework, and following the examples of scholars in the field. I will utilize oral histories (in the manner of Willa K. Baum, Thomas L. Charlton, and Robert F. Harney), religious fashion and textile inquiry (such as the works by Linda B. Arthur, Emma Tarlo, Fadwa El Guindi, Heather Marie Akou and Faegheh Shirazi), and previous work on Muslim women in North America (including Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, Sheila McDonough, Katherine Bullock, and Donna Gehrke-White).

The Style Underground

Luxe Silk Voile Scarf

It’s been a while since I profiled a funky fashion artisan, and I feel so inspired today. While researching a paper on the controversy over the proposed niqab (Muslim face veil) ban in Québec, I came across this web site: http://www.thestyleunderground.com/ Actually, I came across her YouTube videos first (researching hijab tying styles). Definitely well worth a watch! In fact, my husband is in love with them, too. He’s used to being surrounded by fabric loving (he gets it full force from his mother – and avid quilter – and me) and he works in media communications, so he’s all about how you present your message. And she presents it well (plus he likes her smile :)! Unlike most fashion how-tos on YouTube, she doesn’t blather on. In fact, she doesn’t speak at all, and it’s extremely effective. Instead she picks some fun music and simply shows you how to tie the scarves. And the results are fabulous! The scarves are gorgeous and the final effect is stunning – often simply and elegantly.

I don’t know what her guiding belief system is. None of her literature states it. I would be interested to know if she is part of this emerging trend of Western non-Muslim women who are choosing a modesty represented in hair covering and non-revealing clothing. On the other hand, she may very well be Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Greek Orthodox, or another religion entirely. Her site does have an “About” section which explains this much:

What we stand for: Luxury and Modesty.

Design philosophy: Innovative, classic, and well-crafted.

Our designs will make getting dressed the most artistic, exciting part of your day!

All accessories from The Style Underground are meticulously handcrafted from scratch on professional equipment. Go ahead and indulge yourself!

 

I don’t even know her name. But whatever her religious or personal identity, her sense of style is fabulous, and her videos make for hours of entertainment and inspiration (trust me, I know!)

Just to get you hooked 🙂

 

Niqabitches

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am not a fan of the ban of the niqab in France, or the similar proposed ban in Quebec. Every argument for it has been pretty effectively squished.

1) It’s a symbol of oppression — many women choose to wear it as a reflection of deeply held belief and identity. Who are you to tell a woman she’s oppressed? What, she needs someone to do that for her? She’s not capable of deciding for herself? Yes, that’s liberation.

2) We need to see your face, for both security and service — women who veil are perfectly willing to show their faces when necessary to an official. They prefer it be a woman official, but if that’s not a possibility that’s okay. They have images of themselves without their veil or coverings, and they’re okay with their id showing their faces. They just don’t want it on display for the public. Think breast exams, Western women. We’ll do it because we need to, but we’re not thrilled and we won’t let anyone who doesn’t need to do it do it!

It goes on and on. There’s more to say on this, of course, but for now, I wanted to share a headline that caught my eye.

In France, two students (one in poli sci, one in communications) has decided to create a tongue in cheek critique of the niqab ban. They’ve donned the niqab, leaving only their eyes visible from the waste up, but are wearing miniskirts with bare legs exposed down to their high heels. They’re strutting past ministerial offices and calling themselves the “niqabitches.” And they’re definitely getting people talking.

They’re clear that their aim is not to antagonize fundamentalist Muslims, but rather are poking at a political angle. They felt that wearing a full burqa would be too simple, and wanted to generate more conversation. They’ve created a video out of this, and all seem to agree that when it’s released it will be an internet sensation.

I for one can’t wait to see it!

By the way, does anyone else find it creepy that if a woman wears a niqab when the ban is in place, she could be sentenced to “a course of citizenship lessons”?

Bonnets and Burqas: What Mennonite Women can Learn from Veiled Feminist Muslims

I mentioned in a previous post that I would be presenting a paper on this topic. Sadly, I got a bad case of laryngitis and it never happened! However, I was asked to preach one Sunday, and so modified the paper to be appropriate for this setting. Here is the end result:

Mennonite Central Committee Interfaith Bridge Building Program

By Laura Stemp-Morlock

Preached May 30, 2010 at Rockway Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont.

Mennonites love dialogue. Along with borscht and quilts, it’s one of the things that we do best. We dialogue within our congregations, we facilitate dialogues between offenders and victims, and we dialogue with people of other religions. Today, I’m going to focus on dialogue with Muslims, because that is the group with whom I have the privilege of being closely connected.

Throughout the Bible, there is a strong theme that encourages us to dialogue with people who know God in radically different ways. The Book of Ruth, as well as passages in Micah and Isaiah, show people of other nations and religions to be righteous and God-fearing. In the passage just read from John 16:12-13 Jesus lets his followers know that there is truth outside of our knowledge parameters. This is one of the reasons that talking with other people who are connected to God – sometimes in very different ways – has the potential to reveal new truth to us.

Too often, though, I believe we limit the impetus for dialogue with Muslims to a better understanding of one another, in order to promote peace. While I certainly have no opposition to such dialogue, I believe that we have a great deal to learn from Muslims – not just about who they are, but about who we are. I propose that Muslim theology has the strong potential to inform our own.

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 attire, in that both Mennonites and Muslims have a tradition of covering their women. It is a talking point that is immediately identifiable with both communities. In fact, many Muslim women explain part of their rationale for wearing the hijab as representing their religion: “When I go out in hijab, everyone knows I’m Muslim.” The current debate over Quebec’s proposed ban on the niqab (the Muslim face veil) brings into sharp relief how visible and contentious religious attire can be, even within the Muslim community itself. That being said, it is important to remember that Mennonites need not wade into the internal debates of the Muslim community in order to learn from their theology.

Let me be clear about what this is not: I am not calling for a re-institution of conference dictates on hem length or head coverings. I am not admonishing “frivolous young women” to dress more “modestly”. And I am not saying that all is perfect with Muslim women and that the veil has never been used as an instrument of oppression. It’s important to remember that a history of oppressive theology is wrapped up in discussions of Christian women’s dress. What I am saying is that feminist Muslim women, who are quite familiar with negative theology directed at themselves, can convey to us that there is a possibility of combining a self-empowering theology with a modest and particular one, demonstrated through their attire.

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. This may seem like a conversation more suited for old order participants than the more mainstream churches, but in fact, that is my very point: engagement with Muslim women reminds us that this is an important issue.

But why? Why should we care? Why am I resurrecting this issue of “dress” when most Mennonites have given up dress codes, and only discuss the topic in reference to the Mennonite theological dark ages, where a skirt that hung above the knee was immodest, and therefore displeasing to God? Because, quite simply, how we dress and what we wear still has theological significance.

The subtle (and not so subtle) theological messages wrapped up in our clothing have the potential to shape our understanding of God. The old paradigm, that God wants us to look prim and proper, teaches us that God wants cleaned-up lives and happy masks. If, however, our church welcomes people in jeans, this message has the power to convey a God who wants us to “come as we are.” This theology teaches us that God wants us to come before our Creator in our brokenness, in all of our messiness, and that it is through broken vessels and not perfect people, that God works.

Yet is it not odd that a relationship with God would have no affect on our wardrobes? With all the time, money and energy that we invest in our clothing decisions, is there a way to honour our Creator in how we dress? Feminist Muslim women who veil often explain their choice as providing them with a sense of freedom and rightness with God. Is there a way for Christian women to have a similar experience through how we dress? This is a conversation that must walk a very fine line, for both Muslims and Christians. From the Christian perspective, it is very easy to slip into traditional concepts of “modest Christian dress,” that are in fact little more than attempts to control women’s bodies.

Within the Mennonite tradition, concern over beauty, and appearance in general, was considered vainglorious and sinful. “Fashion” was a worldly concept that contradicted Mennonite non-conformity. With the rejection of Conference determined dress codes in the 1950s and ‘60s, Mennonite women were free to shorten their hair and their hemlines. But what if fashion could be embraced as part of a non-conformist theology? As Mennonites, we have not yet accomplished this. While there is a somewhat particular style of dress that characterizes some Mennonite congregations – vests and beards on the men, and scarves and peasant blouses on the women (both genders wear Birkenstocks), this manner of dress is really more of a reflection of tradition and secular style than theology.

Many Muslims, on the other hand, have embraced their theological particularity in manners of dress and have created culturally based haute couture. Muslims refer to this as “fashionably faithful.” If you Google this term, this Islamic fashion is simply stunning.

I am by no means suggesting that Mennonites adopt the hijab. Instead, I seek to move beyond mandates of starched shirts and learn from Muslim women’s appreciation of their own beauty.

Muslim women veil not out of shame but because they wholeheartedly believe that this is what God asks of them. Veiling is an act of submission, and it is this concept that Mennonites need to resurrect. This is where Christian feminists become uncomfortable (and I include myself in this). The term “submission” carries an almost insurmountable negative connotation, no matter how it is defined. What I seek is for Christians to reclaim submissiveness and yieldedness, not to be “thrown down and run over”, as John Howard Yoder put it. This submission stands in contrast to the blind community obedience that dominates individuals. It goes beyond gender, and applies equally to men and women. While I do not suggest that Muslims have mastered this radical submissiveness, feminist Muslims feel no dischord in explaining wearing their hijabs as acts of submission to God, and as a means for being judged for who they are, rather than how they look. My hope is that through dialogue with Muslims

The believer’s baptism rejects the notion that as individuals we make choices that have no impact on others in our communities. We choose to be accountable to the community of believers, but we have a say in what those standards are.

Our community has embraced the “come as you are” theology I began this paper with. The problem with this is that it does not require much, if any, preparation. Our lives are frantic and focused on ourselves. In church we have an opportunity to be still and focused on God. Muslims have a strong sense of this, performing ritual cleansing before each prayer, and wearing specific attire for both men and women. When we wear our street clothes to church, we can fail to appreciate the transition. Author Steve Lansingh provides a strong analogy: “It’s kind of like the difference between dressing up for a big date and just hanging out with someone at home. The casual evening allows you to be yourself, but the formal event gives you time to anticipate and prepare and be ready to meet the other person.”

Worship is not supposed to be limited to what we do on Sunday mornings. This is hardly a new concept in Mennonite theology, and used to be part of our dress. Unfortunately, through dress, Mennonite women encountered a faith that justified their subjegation. I want to reclaim this notion, however, that getting dressed each morning has the potential to be an act of worship. Exodus 28 provides a detailed description of the sacred garments Aaron must wear as the High Priest of Israel. Through this mandate of physical ritual, God is reminding Aaron to make preparations to meet with the Almighty God. God is concerned with our hearts, not with our outward appearance, but the physical directly affects the spiritual.

1 Tim. 2:9-10: Jewish Women, Part 3 of 4

This is part three of my series on 1 Timothy 2:9-10. In order to understand this post, please see the previous one on Greco-Roman dress.

The Samaritan Woman - a modern rendition

Unlike for Roman styles, there are no contemporary images of first century Palestinian attire. In fact, there are very few sources that deal with ordinary Jewish women at all. With no statues or paintings to go on, reconstructing what Jewish women wore in the first century Mediterranean is piecemeal work. The only surviving material we have from that time was found in the Cave of Letters, located near En-Gedi in the Judean desert. This cave was occupied by the followers of Bar Kokhba during the second Jewish war against Rome. Therefore, assuming that the garments were brought to the cave, and not manufactured there, we have representative textiles for 100 to 135 C.E. We also have a great deal of Jewish literature that discusses clothing, particularly from the Mishnah.

Together, these sources tell us that Jewish dress was essentially the same as it was throughout the Roman Empire, but with some modifications to meet Jewish law. Most particularly, the laws of shaatnez and tzitzit. Shaatnez is from Deuteronomy 22:11: “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together” (TNIV). This meant that the Roman style tunics (which, incidentally, used the same colour coding to denote status) were woven exclusively of wool or linen. Likewise, the tzitzit came from Deut. 22:12: “Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear” (TNIV).1

The infancy of Moses, west wall of the synagogue of Dura-Europos. One of the earliest representations of Jewish clothing.

Head Coverings

Like Roman women, Jewish women covered their heads. A woman could be divorced without payment of her marriage contract if she went out in public showing her hair.2

Again, this would better suit a discussion of 1 Corinthians 11, but it is relevant to see the importance placed on women’s modesty. It is also interesting to note that the Mishnah allows for the differences in local customs: “Women of Arabia may go out veiled, and women of Medea with their cloaks looped over their shoulder.”3 This allowance for local custom will come back in a later post as we discuss the relevance of these texts for us today.

Braids

Likewise, it is somewhat ironic that the author of 1 Timothy tells women not to braid their hair, because as far as we can tell from the limited sources we have, respectable Jewish women wore their long hair braided and pinned up. Letting your hair down was associated with the orgiastic ecstatic worship in Hellenistic cults.4 Again, this is edging near the discussions around covering women’s hair and the role of women in worship. By the way, if this interests you, be sure to check out my bibliography. Several of the sources have excellent discussions on women in first century synagogues (see, for example, Women & Christian Origins). While undeniably connected, that conversation warrants its own study. Let’s get back to fashion.

So, in summary, Jewish women’s social attire was pretty much the same as it was for Roman women. That means that the admonition in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 would have sounded very familiar to both Hellenistic and Jewish believers.

1 Tim 2:9-10: Interpretation, Part 4 of 4

It is frustrating trying to research 1 Tim. 2:9-10. That’s because few people are writing about it, and those who do are talking about the next part – the role of women in the church. As I have already said, while that is an important discussion, it’s not what I’m after. I’m trying to ascertain what 1 Tim. 2:9-10 is really talking about, and how that affects Christian women today. Even go-to sources, such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza‘s In Memory of Her focus their discussion of this text on the role of women in worship and ministry.

What Schüssler Fiorenza, as well as other scholars such as Judith Plaskow, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Janice Capel Anderson, and Alison M. Cheek (among many others) have done for me (with regard to this study) is to create a lens through which I can examine 1 Tim. 2:9-10. In other words, I read their works to learn how to engage a biblical text in a critical (as in thoughtful, not cynical) way.

So, in order to get at the question I’m asking, I’ll have to go in through a back door, so to speak, by looking at how this passage has been used and interpreted in the past. And where else should I begin, but with Mennonites (seeing as how I am one, after all – but check out my Why Third Way page to understand that my branch of Mennonites dress like the general public).

Mennonite Interpretation

Most people, when they think of Mennonites, think of the Old Order or Amish: horses and buggies, prayer caps and plain clothes. While the majority of Mennonites actually dress “like everyone else,” clothing is inextricably linked to the Mennonite faith.

In 1943, John C. Wenger, Dean of the Bible School at Goshen College wrote:

“The Mennonite Church is today confronted with the question, Shall simplicity of dress be maintained? In the final test only one foundation is strong enough to guarantee the perpetuation of this distinctive Christian witness: that foundation is the personal conviction that Christian simplicity of dress is a Biblical truth.”1

This is very telling. He goes on to say that while,

“Ministers may plead, and conferences may pass resolutions … the battle against worldliness will not have been won until each believer has decided for himself to live the nonconformed life … and that this break finds application even in one’s dress.”2

So, according to Wenger, and many Mennonites of his day, simple attire was a biblical and essential aspect of the Christian witness against worldliness. Guess what Bible verse his book, Christianity and Dress, uses to support this thinking? That’s right – 1 Tim 2:9-10, in which (according to Wengel) “The Bible dares to be specific in giving instructions on the dress and appearance of the Christian.”3

(If you are interested to know how this discussion evolved, as well as a 1989 update, read this article on dress from GAMEO).

United Mennonite Church, Yarrow B.C. 1938

Biblical Commentaries

When I turned to Biblical Commentaries, I found (by this point, not surprisingly) that 1 Timothy 2:9-10 was only referenced in passing. However, some of these passing comments provide important puzzle pieces. The New Interpreter’s Bible and the New Century Bible Commentary on The Pastoral Epistles both point out that this text is part of a larger domestic code, seen in the larger society that surrounds the first century believers (think back to the similarities of rules regarding Hellenistic and Jewish dress). This means that each group in the community has conduct that is considered appropriate to them.4

In the Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, P.H. Towner notes that a wife whose husband was an unbeliever might “win him” to faith in Christ if her own behaviour was exemplary, and by extension connected to her own faith. “Outer adornment is the specific aspect of respectable conduct given to illustrate [this] teaching.”5

The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on 1 Timothy also points out a key piece to the puzzle:

“The warning presupposes the presence of some wealth in the congregations being addressed and a tendency on the part of well-to-do women (often severely limited in their freedom of action …) to find satisfaction in costly attire (the tendency illustrated in poems, paintings, and sculptures of the time). A religion that saw its end result in such terms would be no more than a club for social advancement.”6

While I’m not big on the hint that “girls like pretty things,” Dunn’s final point is crucial – the community of believers was not a club for social advancement. Where I disagree with Dunn is his next statement that this passage makes modern readers cringe (true) and does not apply to modern women.

A stark example of how 1 Tim. can be interpreted

Similarly, in her commentary on 1 Timothy in the Women’s Bible Commentary, Joanna Dewey simply points out that such a description of virtue is common to “Greco-Roman men’s rhetoric describing their ideal of a virtuous woman.”7 Her interpretation is, essentially, that this passage puts women in their place.

John Temple Bristow starts to get where I want to go in his book What Paul Really Said About Women. Not surprisingly, he proposes that the author “was not forbidding the wearing of gold nor the braiding of hair per se, but the practice of braiding gold items into one’s hair.”8 This, he argues, was the practice of prostitutes, and had been adopted by fashionable Roman women. Likewise, he notes that the arrangement of the wording urging women to avoid expensive clothing places the emphasis on “expensive”, or “costly.”9

Like in other commentaries, Temple Bristow says the author is advising women to wear clothing that is tasteful and attractive, not disheveled or ostentatious, and to avoid jewellery that is extravagantly expensive, or prostitute-like. He notes that these qualities can be divisive in the community, and that the author illustrates this with the previous passage.10 1 Tim 2:8 asks men to pray “without anger or disputing” (TNIV). Verse 9 begins with “likewise” or “also” indicating a continuation of his thought.

What I Think

This is, for me, where the rubber meets the road. I believe that 1 Tim. 9 is not so much a dress code as it is asking believers in the community to avoid division. Any study of Greco-Roman fashion shows pretty clearly that it was strongly class based, and that the fashions mentioned in verse 9 were those of the upper class. The author of 1 Timothy doesn’t want believers coming together in order to judge each other by what they’re wearing – isn’t it ironic that that is precisely how this verse has been interpreted in many cases?

Customs have changed, and styles no longer mean what they once did. Therefore, many people argue the author of 1 Timothy’s instructions are no longer relevant to modern Christians — that this is an obsolete passage. I completely agree that the Hellenistic context in which the passage was written is different from our context today. I also don’t think this passage should be used to restrict women and what they wear. I don’t even think there is a “should” to how Christian women dress.

Anne Hathaway in the Devil Wears Prada

But I think the passage still is relevant, and still is important for us. Verse 8 asks us to avoid divisions in the community, verse 9 asks us not to dress in a way that would isolate members of the community, and verse 10 tells us that what is most important in Christians is not how we look, but how we act. What if, instead of using this passage to restrict women from wearing specific items (which are part of an obsolete social context), it was used to remind Christians that in Christ there is to be no difference between believers (Gal. 3:28). What if, instead of using this passage to advocate for denim jumpers over “flashy” clothes as “befitting a Christian woman” we took verse 10 to heart. It’s true, a woman should not be defined by her clothes. This means that Prada shouldn’t define her. But it also means that preferring haute couture is not a sin. Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a woman by what she wears. Instead, look at the person and see how she treats others. How should she do that? Try James 2:14-18, 3:9, 13, and 18 for starters. And who knows, maybe to finish off we should read 1 Tim. 2:9-10 alongside James 4:12: “who are you to judge your neighbour?”

Bonnets and Burqas

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.

Christian Women’s Prayer Caps and Veiling

A lot of people are interested in why some Mennonite women (I’m not one of them) wear prayer caps, also known as “coverings” or “veiling”. So I thought I’d do a post on that.

To begin with, while those who cover their heads now are the exception, this was not always so. Women in European traditions wore head coverings up until very recently (think of ladies in the ’50s always going out with hat and gloves). It is really only within the last fifty years, or so, that this has gone out of fashion (much to my chagrin – I love hats).

 

Kelly Lynch as Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice doffs the Regencys married ladys bonnet.
Kelly Lynch as Mrs. Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" doffs the Regency's married lady's bonnet.

 

 

 In essence, women in modern plain and reform churches take the Biblical verse 1 Cor. 11:5 to heart when Paul asks women to cover their heads when they pray. They wear them at all times because they try to follow Jesus’ call to “pray always” (Luke 18:1).

The Quaker church in particular has a very beautiful concept of prayer. For them, prayer comes from a depth of quiet, and that the quiet of the heart is a state of listening for God’s voice. This is one way in which they pray.

This excerpt explains it very nicely:

“If I am tempted to be impatient with a store clerk, my prayer cap calls me to patience.  If I am tempted to judge the noisy teenager in the car pulsating with rock music, my prayer cap calls me to pray for this youngster.  When I feel hurt by a rude neighbor, my prayer cap reminds me that the word “neighbor” is a holy word and denotes someone I must love, even when the loving is hard.  And so I lift her up to Jesus.  The prayer cap is more than a symbol, it is more than a statement, it is more than a tradition, it is a way of life.  It is a way of life we are called to in Christ.” (http://www.michiganquakers.org/prayer_cap.oym.htm)

 

Mantilla
Mantilla

Prior to Vatican II, many Catholic women wore headcoverings – usually only in church, but some wore them always. The could be hats, a simple scarf, or a mantilla. Some traditionalist Catholics and Eastern Orthodox ladies still wear them.

I find the mantilla prayer coverings very reminiscent of what Jewish ladies wear when lighting the Shabbat candles. I would hazard a guess that there’s a link between them, going to the early history of the church and the Judaism is arose from, but I don’t know that for a fact. If anyone can shed some light on this, I would be interested to know.

 

Shabbos candles
Shabbos candles

Muslim women, of course, wear hijab because of this verse in the Quran:

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons…that they should be known and not molested.” [Chapter 33, verse 59]

See Naheed Mustafa’s (a Canadian Muslim) article in the Globe and Mail, My Body is My Business http://www.islam101.com/women/naheed.html

 

Sisters of St. Joseph
Sisters of St. Joseph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, it would never do to have a discussion of Christian women’s headcoverings without addressing the distinctive look of the traditional nun’s habit.

While there are variations, the general rule was a white coif (the garment’s head piece, a white cotton cap secured by a wimple or a guimpe of starched linen or cotton (sometimes covered by black crape). There is then a black veil pinned over the coif (sometimes with a white underveil). The Holy habit is the central piece of the garment and is a loose black dress. The habit is often secured with a woolen belt. Their rosary hangs from the belt, and a silver cross is traditionally worn around the neck. The outfit has two sets of sleeves, the larger ones can be rolled up to work, or rolled down for formal occasions and entering chapel. The complete outfit includes two underskirts, a top skirt of black serge and an underskirt of black cotton. All orders wear the scapular, the symbolic apron that hangs both in front and behind. The Benedictines wear it over the belt, whereas most others wear it under. A scapular comes with a set of promises for the one who wears it.