Head Coverings and Patriarchy

“The whole thing about Judaism and Christianity,” Clair said, ” and just about every monotheistic religion, is that they’re all patriarchal. Men made these religions up. So guess who God is? A man.”
“Watch out, Clair,” Larry said. “Mitchell was a religious studies major.”
Clair grimaced and said, “Oh, my God.”
“I’ll tell you what I learned in religious studies,” Mitchell said with a slight smile. “If you read any of the mystics, or any decent theology – Catholic, Protestant, kabbalistic – the one thing they all agree on is that God is beyond any human concept or category. That’s why Moses can’t look at Yahweh. That’s why, in Judaism, you can’t spell out God’s name. The human mind can’t conceive what God is. God doesn’t have a sex or anything else.”
“Then why is he a man with a long white beard on the Sistine Chapel?”
“Because that’s what the masses like.”
“The masses?”
“Some people need a picture. Any great religion has to be inclusive. And to be inclusive you have to accommodate different levels of sophistication.”

-Jeffry Eugenides, The Marriage Plot


I was reminded of this passage yesterday morning, whilst reading the patriarchal theologizing of head coverings over at Energetic Procession.

When it comes to church, I am partial to head coverings, dresses and long skirts, or slacks, cardigans and vests for that matter. Which is not to say I can’t appreciate jeans or a short skirt, or the suitably eclectic jeans and headscarf combo, which my wife pulls off from time to time. I just have a special place in my heart for anachronisms and old things, generally, and frumpy old things, more specifically. However Stuff White People Like that may be.

Of course, there can easily arise a theological sexism out of these preferences, or more often, these sort of preferences can easily arise out of a dogmatic sexism. It is no coincidence that calls for broad use of head coverings are generally made by misogynists. The strange tend to dominate the margins.

Some years ago, I theologized my beard, first as a tounge-in-cheek exercise, for the purpose of religiously justifying my facial pubis, should an unlikely workplace dress code situation occur – which would not take place at my current place of employment, though the man whose name inhabits the letterhead jokingly accuses me of anarchism. Later, under the influence of some strange, and long excised enthusia, I began dogmatizing it seriously. As though there was some cosmic meaning behind the wiry hair that has inhabited my chin, near continuously, since I was a 15 year old Lutheran, because of some ancient musings on machismo fashion – perhaps with a dash of envy over pre-islamic burkas.

I wonder if there is a way to approach attire in a way that does not boil down to patriarchal gender roles and language of feminine submission, or just plain old aesthetic preference.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Head Coverings and Patriarchy

  1. Anna

    I’ll take aesthetic preference over gender roles.

  2. Agabus

    My beard long predates my current ecclesiastical alignment, but I admit I, too, have a tongue-in-cheek theological argument in my back pocket should my boss tell me my face bush needs to go. I have thus resisted theologizing in a serious nature about it.

  3. Leah

    “I wonder if there is a way to approach attire in a way that does not boil down to patriarchal gender roles and language of feminine submission, or just plain old aesthetic preference.”

    I’m inclined to say no, simply because discussions over modesty and clothing tend to be focused on women 99% of the time. Although men in religious communities tend to have their own “uniform,” discourse seems to be focused squarely on women’s clothing and mannerism. An extreme example is the situation in Israel, where the Haredi (i.e., ultra-Orthodox) population is effectively driving women from the public square; gender-segregated buses are the norm in religious neighborhoods, pictures of women – even little girls — are taboo in said areas, and secular women are physically and verbally taunted for not conforming to Haredi standards. I don’t see anything this extreme happening in American Christianity, but the “Theology of the Skirt” that lurks behind much of our discourse is absurd. Oddly enough, I saw a documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church and the women were shown to be wearing head coverings with tank tops, t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops.

  4. Wow. I hadn’t read EP in ages. Thanks for that.

    Right of the cuff – “man is the image and glory of God and woman is the glory of man. This iconic function is seen in the manner of the roles of each, the appearance of each and in the relationships between them. The purpose of the iconic function is to manifest the relationship of God to man and make this relationship tangible in our daily lives. The male iconic image is to portray the governance of God over man and the female is to portray the obedience of man to God.”

    Then “Head coverings are the principle iconic form in terms of establishing ourselves as icons.” As the kids say, are you fucking kidding me?

    I know pretty much all of these ideas are not original to this Monk Patrick fellow, but when I read theologizing like this I can’t help but be amazed at the daring overtness of such “make shit up as you go along” after-the-fact of things anachronisms. Especially with lines like “Obedience is not forced of man to God but freely given by man hence long hair in itself, as a natural aspect, is not sufficient but a head covering is asked to be added in addition to show the free submission of man to God.” But St. Paul also says not wearing a head covering is the same are cutting her hair or shaving her hair (1 Cor. 11), and that would seem to imply that there is “free will” and thus “free submission” with the hair style too, right?

    So if I want to play this game I say that I think these Orthodox should require their women to use 1st century AD feminine hygiene products. Because after careful study and prayer I’ve come to discern that the tampon is Satanic because it diminishes the woman’s awareness of her uncleanliness, and thus diminishes her self-consciousness of her role in the Fall. Besides, I’ve heard even some of these wanna-be traditionalist parishes have slacked up a bit and have a discipline now which, while forbidding bleeding women from taking the Eucharist, still allows them to enter the temple, which is an absolute sacrilege!

    OK, back to reality – I mean sure, if incense was originally used to keep flies away and you want to give some divine significance to it, fine, that works well enough. But the ‘development’ of thought here, and the potential ramifications in community and in the home, and the obvious desperation for a pre-modernity without any note of what life was like (in terms of social relations and being subject to various hierarchies) for women in those cultures when they had no choice but to cover their heads and no choice but to do a whole hell of a lot of other things we would consider commensurate with slavery today – it is all so damn crafty in a sort of dungeons and dragons game writing your own narrative way where the story is only concerned with what gives the teller’s character power. I also couldn’t help but think that this is another guy who tells his parishioners that it is “not iconic” and/or that it is sinful or whatever for the woman to be on top during sex. I wish I could be the fly on the wall sometime when “Monk Patrick” is explaining to a couple among his parishioners (apparently he has a parish according to the comments) how they should be having sex – what positions (oops, I mean position), what countenance, how it is to be initiated, how much of the bodies need to be covered, the sorts of noises and phrases that are acceptable and not acceptable, how much incense should be used in the room so as to cover the uniconic bodily smells of sex, how the female orgasm is uniconic and exemplary of satanic modernism and pointless lust, the clitoris of course being that little finger of Satan in the woman’s body which mockingly points to the authority of man in abject defiance, and so forth. Jesus H.

    All I can say for people who invest themselves in this nonsense is that I hope that at a certain point they get the intervention they need, or just get exhausted from all this play acting, and realize that the psychology of this type of religious milieu is not all that far removed from the psychology of the JWs or David Koresh, etc. The not so subtle manipulation and control measures going on here are just sick.

  5. Wearing a head-cover back home (Romania) only meant that woman was a peasant of some sort, it didn’t make them churchier or anything; plus they wore them everywhere. So, it was generally the old women that wore head scarves. But lately I have noticed a similar phenomenon-very small, yet visible in some places: young women or schooled women wearing head scarves as a sign of piety/churchiness . I once asked one out for an akathist.

  6. Atychi

    “I wonder if there is a way to approach attire in a way that does not boil down to patriarchal gender roles and language of feminine submission, or just plain old aesthetic preference.”

    I once asked my yia yia why some women wore head scarves (she and my thea did); when I was a kid it was much more common. She said, “You just do. It’s Church. Why do you wear pants? Shut up.” I was never allowed to wear jeans or shorts in Church. It’s just how it was. It sure as hell wasn’t a holiness thing in my house. Maybe a Greek thing? Maybe it was a way to differentiate those who came from Greece and those who were too Americanized?

    It’s an impossible thing for me to let my kids wear jeans or shorts to Church simply because it’s just how it was and now is. The girls wear scarves because that’s how it was. In other words, all the world is imitative until things become habituated (habit is not holiness). Consciously not to imitate (i.e., rebelling) is still imitative. Consciously imitating is obviously imitating, which is where the LARP thing comes in. Maybe it will become habituated. But at some point you still get drunk on Friday, eat a cheeseburger, have marital relations, put on your head scarf and refrain from communion.

    If my priest requested/demanded that women wear or not wear scarves, well, when in Rome, I suppose. This certainly isn’t one of those biblical passages one should live in a Kierkegaardian sort of way. I think there are more absurd things in Christianity to bring one to the abyss.

  7. Agreed, but given that Monk P in the comments says, “The point of the post is to argue that head coverings are part of Tradition and Christian culture and the only appropriate symbol for the theological meaning. The particular symbol derives from Christian principles and not from cultural norms of the time.” and this follows the “Head coverings are the principle iconic form in terms of establishing ourselves as icons,” it’s pretty clear that your yia yia’s explanation falls a little short – because “just doing it” falls to close to culture and too far away from theologizing about what is said to be the most important iconic affect. The “crisis,” to get all Kierkegaardian, to me is not whether or not the parish is a head covering parish, per se, but why the priest is requesting/demanding that women wear scarves. If you get one that tells you that a woman wearing a head covering is “the principle iconic form in terms of establishing herself as icon” and that the impulse which leads women to not completely and at all times cover their heads in the eastern fashion (stipulations made very clear in the post) is thus based upon (from the comments) “an ideological meaning that is almost specifically a rejection of the previous culture of nearly two thousand years” then you’ve got a priest who is just a couple straws short of taking you to the compound, and the poor parishioner has found herself at that point among these aficionados of that particular anti-modernism that takes glee in counting the ways the masses of modernity are paving their way to hell. We’re not just dealing with the absurdities of Christianity here, we’re dealing with the very easily cataloged and analyzed forms and structures of cult-like behavior and group psychosis.

  8. Atychi

    Hi, Owen. I hope all is well with you and yours.

    I wasn’t trying to engage Monk Patrick’s analysis of things; I suppose it’s fine as far as monastic analysis goes. Practice is, of course, something else entirely, especially in terms of priestly advice and/or lay praxis. I was simply trying to offer Lotar a non-gendered, non-aesthetic response to head scarves. I doubt my explanation holds much water in terms of any sort of argument; I was just offering a single woman’s (my yia yia’s) understanding of the head scarf.

    So the argument I put forward fails all sorts of tests: I’m arguing from tradition (it’s just what one does–Orthodox Nietzscheans must be cringing) and from a single anecdote, from a single place in time, from a single mixed culture (Greeks in America).

    “We’re not just dealing with the absurdities of Christianity here, we’re dealing with the very easily cataloged and analyzed forms and structures of cult-like behavior and group psychosis.”
    ***I hope my reference to Kierkegaard didn’t imply that the choice/ command to wear or not wear a head scarf approached the absurd. If that were the case, then we’re all in deep, deep shit.

    • Don’t get me wrong A, I think your yia yia is sane, and hers the only way to go about it if one is going to go about it. I wonder if she would have cared to listen to such bombastic and drawn out theologizing about the thing she just did.

  9. I agree that “that’s just what you do” mentality is the more “normal” explanation. Of course that is not the sort of justification that will perpetuate the practice in modernity, which likely explains why the only Byzantines that seem to make use of headscarves are either over 70, or under 20 influenced by Monk Patrick types.

    I think Leah is correct that there likely cannot be a gender specific dress code without some degree of sexism. Mandating long skirts and/or headscarves vastly exceeds realm modern female formalwear, and by necessity crosses over into misogyny.

  10. Pingback: Accommodating Different Levels of Sophistication | Salt of the Earth

  11. The “symbol of authority” in v.10 is for “her head” which as v.3 indicates is her…husband. She should crown his not-so-glorious head, not hide her own glorious covering of hair. https://www.facebook.com/notes/charles-franklin-bernard/head-covering-coronation-a-symbol-of-authority-a-wife-lays-on-her-husband/10150603632407506

  12. apophaticallyspeaking

    It’s getting weirder.

  13. Absurd doesn’t begin to describe it.

    Bernard,
    Obviously, the “head” is the wife’s head, as you say, but head is also figurative and refers to the manly appendage. The covering is, of course, a condom.

    Now, go forth and spread this gospel to your followers, and reproduce no more.

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