Don't Judge a Woman by her Cover (up)

When I was a little girl growing up in the Catholic Church during the post-war 1950’s, I viewed the nuns in their black veils with equal parts curiosity, fear and awe. Adjectives that came to mind to describe these women, their bodies covered in layers of black material, were: holy, mysterious, dedicated, prayerful, powerful. Okay, scary too.

Today I view young women choosing to veil themselves and I am conflicted. Adjectives to describe my own feelings at seeing these women in various stages of cover-up: confused, curious, judgmental, sad, and, if I’m honest, intolerant.

Whether it’s the retro-Catholic nuns returning to pre-Vatican II reform days, or modern-day Muslim women choosing to cover their heads and shoulders with the hijab, or their entire bodies with the burqu’ I struggle to understand their need to cover up. Is it conscious or unconscious yielding to the power of Patriarchy? Or are they making a free choice to live a veiled life?

I have good reason to feel such conflicting emotions: I was once covered up like them.

When I was an eighteen-year-old in 1960, I myself embraced that veiled culture by joining the very convent of the Catholic sisters who had taught me from grade school through high school. The dramatic reforms in the Catholic Church were still to come, and I wore with pride the medieval-styled habit, which left only my hands and my face exposed. Even in the recesses of the convent, we remained covered up, until Vatican II directed we change, modernize, reach out.

In 1967, the Order to which I belonged directed us to bare our necks, wrists, and our legs up to our mid-calves, though through shaded stockings. Within a few years we’d embraced ‘street dress,’ which in fact was what our Founders had worn centuries earlier, and which had morphed into a religious habit. Adjectives to describe the shedding of the old and embracing of the new: frightening, invigorating, freeing, risky.

Today, decades after leaving the convent, I encounter the various cover-ups designed to hide women’s bodies, and I react with a mixture of sympathy and disdain. I don’t understand. Still, it’s not my job to judge. The most obvious cover-ups can be seen in the Muslim tradition — the burqu’, hijab, khimar, niqab, chador — all designed to allow for a woman’s face to show while covering the rest of her body.

Why did I choose this cover up for myself way back then? The decision to ‘take the veil,’ as it was called in Catholic tradition, was my own free choice. I was embracing a new identity, rooted in my religious culture, and providing me with a social, i.e., communal and political alliance. I say political, because wearing the veil and the religious habit felt powerful. It gave me authority and recognition I could not have had in any other way. I say alliance, because we must not underestimate the importance of belonging, then and now. Belonging — and letting the world know it.

Why this cover up for Muslim women? They insist it is a free choice, not fear of Patriarchy’s rules or punishments, that motivates them. They explain it is part of their identity, rooted in their religious culture, providing them a certain level of alliance or belonging to both a social and political group.

It must be said that there are a small number of Muslim women who choose not to cover themselves. Those women without cover-ups say they are resisting what they judge has become an end in itself, rather than a meaningful practice. They choose instead to focus on their own spirituality as it relates to their relationship with God. More power to them.

Neo-conservative Catholic religious orders who are wearing a habit that covers them except for their faces, seem to be reacting to what they perceive as lost during the reform of the Church during the 1960’s and beyond. Re-covering (pun intended) is their way to retrieve treasured traditions, thus assuring a sense of security and identity with the past.

I believe it is also true that what women wear is inextricably woven into their search for power and control. This may sound contradictory. Why wouldn’t a Muslim woman demonstrate her power by rejecting all cover-ups? And while most modern Catholic nuns wear either a modified religious habit on no habit at all, there are orders of Catholic nuns springing up and taking root who are embracing the full-habit cover-up. Why?

Why is female dress, whether covering or un-covering, so important? It seems obvious that at the heart of all power and control is freedom of choice. And while we as women often feel dictated to by fashion, feminism, religion, Patriarchal power, or male chauvinism, in the final analysis, we as human beings find ourselves seeking meaningful alliances and fuller identity with ourselves and our culture of choice.

What we women do with our bodies and how we cover or un-cover them must be our own decision. Until those women covering up state otherwise, I am making a conscious effort to say, in the spirit of Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” But it isn’t easy.