[I apologize for the length of this post. You might want to save this for later if it's too long to read on a phone or on a lunch break.]
You can’t move an inch within Paganism without stumbling across paradoxes, anomalies, or just things that make you tilt your head to the side and ponder. We are a diverse and wonderfully strange people. Within our our small minority (in relation to world religions) there exist myriad majority/minority distinctions. It fascinates me when Paganism moves into surprising territory, and I want to talk about one of these minority movements within our larger movement today.
There is a tendency to place the practice over the spiritual in our communities. We care what you do, and not as much why you do it. We care that you walk the proper direction in circle, not why you do it. We care that you invoke the Gods, not what you believe regarding their nature and relationship to humanity. It is the practice we value, not the belief. Which makes this a difficult subject to introduce, because there will be a knee-jerk reaction to the practice. I ask you to listen to the beliefs and reserve judgement for a moment.
I was a weird kid, a religious nerd, and fascinated by the Amish and Mennonites. My reading literature as a teen was influenced by the Quiverfull movement, and what it meant to be a modest, virtuous Christian woman was my obsession. Essentially, what I wanted to know was “What do I have to do right to get out of these horrible circumstances?” You can imagine that wearing modest dress and reading St. Paul didn’t help me reach my practical goal. Paganism, along with feminism, helped me to do that.
Yet, for several months, but I believe less than a year, I covered my head as a sign of submission to God’s will, and the will of my parents. Nothing fancy. Just your average, cheap dollar store bandannas, but the experience was something I will never forget. There was an internal change that had nothing to do with my outward appearance. My family didn’t pay it much mind (they had come to realize I was an odd duck years ago) and neither did the folks at the grocery store. Internally it was like taking on a mantle of spiritual power, which was the opposite of it’s intended action, and it made me feel more confident in my own skin. To this day I still like a hat on my head.
When I rejected the Christian view of womanhood, I rejected the idea of covering my head for religious reasons as well. It was a symbol of all I had come to loathe about the Christian faith. So imagine my surprise the first time I heard about a Pagan woman covering her head for religious reasons.
Months passed, and I pretty much forgot all about Ria Morrison. Then I found another post on another blog about a Pagan woman veiling her hair. This time it was the intelligent and witty Pythia Theocritos from Daughters of Eve who was writing about it on her personal blog. I’m a bit ashamed to say I was taken aback because… Pythia is a smart woman. I had this preconception that women who veil are ignorant and oppressed. I was disturbed and confused. So I did what I always do when disturbed and confused: I googled.
Suddenly I found this small, but growing movement of Pagan women who are veiling their hair for religious reasons. They’ve even formed a private Facebook group. I’ve read their blogs and asked them questions, and they have surprised and confounded me. They’ve given me a perspective of Pagan womanhood that’s unique and fascinating.
I’ll let you hear them in their own words before I delve into analyzing the practice below.
And then, the move. What better time to start an outward change, when one wishes to avoid unnecessary attention over changes, then when everything is changing? Beth and I moved our household from Philadelphia, PA to Eugene, OR — to a place where almost nobody knew us. A perfect time for both of us to implement some desired lifestyle changes without having to worry about what others might think! It was settled: once we landed in Eugene, I would start covering, every day, whenever I left the house. This was made especially easy, as right away I found a number of beautiful square scarves from local stores that, when tied, stayed put on my head and did not produce any migraines. So, while the suggestion to cover had been planted nigh on three years ago, I’ve only been covering for two months shy of two years.
Covering also made me feel, silly as it may sound, more adult, more grown up. I’ve struggled with this throughout my adulthood. In my thoughts, in my speech, in my approach to life, I don’t think of myself as a woman. I think of myself as a girl. Perhaps that in and of itself is fine, but then comes my Marriage and I find I have a hard time seriously thinking of myself as a wife. Since I am one — perhaps not in a conventional sense, not in the way that most people use the word but then, I’m not trying to please convention here, I’m trying to please my gods — the fact that I do not think of myself as adult, as a woman, as a wife, is a problem. Such problems aren’t allowed to go unaddressed. So, yes, I enjoy that wearing the head coverings sort of mark me off, in a way.
Veiling has given me such a boost in confidence, knowing that I’m doing it for Her. I love the way I feel when I’m wearing my headcovering (I wear headscarves, wrapped into a bun, like the Tichel style. Colors: Deep Red, Lavender, Ivory, Deep Purple, and Teal). Protected, empowered, blessed.
Most women who veil also dress modestly, which is an practice that some are against as well. Many feel that women are being “forced” to cover up. Maybe some are (and yes some are), but in my experience–from the stories I’ve read on Covered in Light–it’s a choice. Once again another way to show devotion to your deity and it is symbolic for only allowing your spouse to see your body. Personally, I don’t, but that’s my choice. Hestia, though veiled and dressed modestly, hasn’t led me to it yet. It’s not all hanging out either, but the only thing that’s changed for me, is what’s on my head. Though the idea has appealed to me, being a large woman who is self-conscious about her appearance in a judgmental society.
So, why am I going the route of head covering? The most plain and simple answer is: I am being called to do it. Hestia wants it and I feel by answering Her call I’ll grow stronger/deeper in my little iconoclastic (non-conformist) journey. I won’t be able to fully answer this question until I can experience head covering for myself.
However, in veiling, I’ve noticed a significant change in me. I do have more confidence. Especially when I’m out and about. I don’t think about what I look like. My thinning hair. My facial hair. A missed day of plucking the eyebrows. My hunched back.
One may ask why I cover my hair, especially when some of the most famous liturgical texts of modern Wicca exhort us to be naked in our rites as a sign of our freedom. I cover my hair when in public not out of shame or some sense of modesty. Rather, as a sign of my obedience to my goddess. She has said to me that I am to veil myself as an outward sign to others that I am her chosen daughter and priestess.
Only family and a chosen few, those whom I know respect and love me, shall be permitted to see my tresses. When in the ritual circle, I will wear my hair free and unbound as a sign of my power. In keeping my hair hidden, I protect my power and ward off the envious eye of others, along with their potential ill wishes. I can see myself the way my husband sees me, as Beautiful and Strong. I carry myself differently–literally! I don’t hunch as much! And I feel always connected to Hestia.
Today the concept of veiling is most closely associated with Islam, and secondly with extremely conservative Christians, like the Mennonites. Yet the practice began before the rise of monotheism. As far as I can discern, the concept of women veiling themselves as a cultural norm comes from Assyria:
To be able to distinguish between their free honorable women from the slaves or concubines, laws were issued. Respectable women were forced to wear the veil while those who were considered unrespectable were forced to go with their heads uncovered. Thus veil became an exclusive symbol of respect; a privilege that slaves, prostitutes and concubines were denied off.
Another interesting tidbit of info comes from a Greek scholar named Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, on the blurb for a book he wrote on the subject:
Greek women routinely wore the veil. That is the unexpected finding of this meticulous study, one with interesting implications for the origins of Western civilisation. The Greeks, popularly (and rightly) credited with the invention of civic openness, are revealed as also part of a more Eastern tradition of seclusion. Llewellyn-Jones’ work proceeds from literary and, notably, from iconographic evidence. In sculpture and vase painting it demonstrates the presence of the veil, often covering the head, but also more unobtrusively folded back onto the shoulders. This discreet fashion not only gave a privileged view of the face to the ancient art consumer, but also, incidentally, allowed the veil to escape the notice of traditional modern scholarship. From Greek literary sources, the author shows that full veiling of the head and face was commonplace. He analyses the elaborate Greek vocabulary for veiling and explores what the veil meant to achieve. He shows that the veil was a conscious extension of the house and was often referred to as `tegidion’, literally `a little roof’. Veiling was thus an ingenious compromise; it allowed women to circulate in public while maintaining the ideal of a house-bound existence. Alert to the different types of veil used, the author uses Greek and more modern evidence (mostly from the Arab world) to show how women could exploit and subvert the veil as a means of eloquent, sometimes emotional, communication.
I had the opportunity to ask Pagan women who veil questions about their practice in a Facebook group. I couldn’t have been more surprised by the answers.
- The women who said their veil represented submission, either to a spouse or God, were in the minority. A few very strongly stated they submit to no one.
- Several women said that they covered because their Gods requested it of them, and Hestia was a God that was mentioned frequently. Request, and not require, was emphasized by a few women.
- Most of the women, but not all, seemed to follow some type of polytheistic reconstructionism. There were also Wiccans and women who feel the pull of atheism among the ladies who responded.
- I’d say the responses were split pretty evenly as to whether the veil symbolized marriage. Unsurprisingly, single women in the group were the most likely to respond negatively when asked about that.
- There was an overall sense that the veil represented maturity. My impression was that most women saw the veil as representing full-blown womanhood, with all the power and responsibility inherent in that concept.
- Most women said they felt more confident when wearing the veil. Several said they felt more pulled together, powerful and/or attractive in a veil. One woman said she felt is was a symbol of status, like a crown.
- The veil was not seen as “modest” in and of itself by a surprising number of women. Only a few women said modesty was a concern for them, and a few said that they aren’t concerned with modest dress in general. Roughly half of those who did prefer modest dress did so out of comfort, rather than morality.
- Surprisingly, a lot of women asserted that veiling made them feel sexy. Sexy was an adjective that came up far more often than I would have expected regarding veils. Over and over women told me that veiling made them feel sexy, and one that the confidence she felt from wearing the veil made her feel sexy.
- Most of the women who responded spent a significant amount of time each day wearing a veil. Those who only veiled at specific times, and those who veiled every waking hour, were in the minority. Some women only veiled during ritual, or when doing housework as a devotion to Hestia.
- Most women veiled when outside of their home. Some were willing to unveil at the homes of family or close friends.
- Most would take action to protect their religious right to wear a veil if needed.
- Only a minority of Pagan women who veil see it as a sort of energetic or psychic shield.
- Most wouldn’t encourage other women to wear a veil, but would support a woman who made that choice for themselves.
- Almost every married woman said their husband either supported or were ambivalent about the veil. A couple of woman said their husbands appreciated the gesture.
- Most of the women said they weren’t comfortable wearing the hijab, mainly because it tends to label them as part of a religion other than their own. The Jewish tichel was a popular choice.
The sexy comments took me by surprise. A lot of the responses took me by surprise. These were women of very different religious beliefs, different relationship statuses, different sexual orientations, different ages and different regions.
Somewhere amidst the many blogs I read a woman made a comment that she veiled because she didn’t have to share herself with everyone. She made the choice on who saw her hair. She deemed a part of herself sacred and set it apart from everyone else, to only share with a select few.
I find that concept interesting, that idea of reserved power. A woman may be showing cleavage, wearing a short skirt, and dancing in heels, but her covered hair would represent that she was fully in charge of her body and the decisions made over her body. As the birth control debate rages, it’s a rather empowering image to consider.
One surprising and interesting concept that was brought up was the idea that veiling conferred respect upon the husband. That this was a gift given freely that enhanced his image. Not something required or demanded by him, but rather a blessing of sorts bestowed by the wife. That concept of power balance in marriage is fascinating, particularly when you consider it alongside Goddesses granting power to their consorts, rather than the other way around. An example is that one of Zeus’ epithets is “Hera’s Consort.”
I also find it fascinating that this practice provides for some women a solution on how to mark the period when you’re no longer a girl, but not yet a crone. I know I’m not the only woman who has to remind themselves that they are not a girl, but a mature woman with all the power and responsibility that entails. Our culture may be producing a generation of man-boys, but it’s also extending the term girl far beyond it’s traditional expiration date. At some point being referred to as “the girls” becomes insulting to women. Wearing a headcovering gives a pretty clear signal that you are talking to a woman, not a girl. By basing this sort of milestone on adult maturity rather than on the start of menses, it removes the biological stigma related to women who for whatever reason cannot participate in “moonblood” rituals and rites of passage.
A lot of Pagans have strong opinions on headcovering in other religions. I’m sure there will be vocal critics of it in Paganism. But if you take one thing to ponder from this post, let it be this:
There may be Pagans whose practice seems almost identical to Abrahamic religious groups you dislike and find offensive, yet those Pagans may have religious, political and cultural views vastly different from the Abrahamic religions that share those practices. What if that woman at the grocery store you deem a Quiverfull, conservative Christian turns out to be a married, lesbian, liberal Witch?