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Covered: the Pagan veiling controversy

This post is a bit of a tangent from my central focus of Frigga, fiber and wyrd--but, as I hope you'll see, it's only a bit of one, since it does concern, rather closely, the values around which I've built my own spirituality, especially the very Heathen themes of choice and responsibility.

As you can tell from my profile photo, I am a pagan woman who chooses to wear some type of head covering at least some of the time.  I've gone into detail on my own blog about my reasons for doing so, but just to recap a bit: I initially flirted with veiling a couple of years back, mostly as an extension of the semi-modest form of dress I had adopted.  My partner had already started veiling daily by then as a devotional act for her God (long before the practice became trendy), and I wanted to see whether I too could enjoy some of the practical benefits she reported, mainly protection for the crown chakra and an additional buffer against the thoughts and emotions of others--something invaluable for psychically sensitive people such as we both are.

I also liked the fact that wearing a veil sends a visual signal to others that you are somehow different, set apart from mainstream society.  This is in part a cultural signal; nuns wear veils, after all, and as the bride of a God I consider myself to be the pagan equivalent of a nun, more or less.  (The "less" part of that statement being because pagans unfortunately have no established system or architecture in place to support this path.) True, most people walking down the street would never mistake a woman wearing a colorful veil, or a hat, or a kerchief, for a nun, but for me it acted as a tangible reminder of my path.

 

Well, at that time my veiling experiment didn't stick for a number of reasons, but fast forward to this year and as of this writing I've been covering my head almost daily for several months now.  I resumed the practice at the urging of both Frigga and one of my personal spirits, a highborn Englishwoman who lived at a time when married women did not venture outside without covering their heads, period.  This time, the practice seems to be a better fit for my current circumstances and it is having all of the desired effects I described above, in addition to helping me maintain my composure, spiritual focus, and positive outlook while at my day job.

At about the same time I resumed covering my head, my partner joined an online forum for pagan women who veil.  I won't name this community because it has undergone something of an upheaval recently, and its founder is, as a result, understandably protective of the original name, but readers who keep up with the pagan online scene will know what group I'm referring to.  At the time the community began, pagan women who veiled were relatively rare, the practice being far more widespread within the Big Three Abrahamic religions.  Within months, however, pagan veiling seemingly went viral, and the membership had swelled to a couple of hundred women.

It is not my intention to discuss the history of the group here, since anyone interested can find that out easily enough by poking around online a little.  However, I will say that, due to the fact that many of the women adopted a form of covering, the hijab, that is traditional in the Muslim religion, misunderstandings arose when they wore these coverings out in public.  As a result, pagan women suddenly found themselves exposed to prejudices aimed towards a religious group they themselves did not even belong to, and the politics of veiling (including the rights of women who veil, regardless of their cultural or religious affinity) quickly became a dominant theme in the group.   As an added bonus, the group came under attack from other pagans who felt that pagan women were turning the clock back on feminism by adopting a symbol of oppression.  (Never mind the fact that the women in the Big Three religions who wear a veil do so by choice; some of them are in fact oppressed, but they see the veil as a means of protection from that, not as part of it.)

To be honest, I don't normally take much of an interest in political issues, even pagan political issues; trying to keep up with these kinds of controversies drains too much of my time and energy away from the quiet, devotional rhythms of my life and my attempts to balance a full time job with my crafting and entrepreneurial efforts.  However, I do feel compelled to respond to this one in some way, not only because I'm tangentially involved in that I too wear a veil, but because-- I mentioned earlier-- some of the aspects of this touch upon issues that are central to my own approach to spirituality.  My response is as follows:

1) I firmly support the right of anyone to wear whatever they please, either for religious reasons or just because they happen to feel like it.  However, I think there is a responsibility to recognize the fact that if you go out in public wearing garb traditionally assigned to a particular culture or religion, you will very likely be mistaken for a member of that group and subjected to any consequences arising from that association.  Thus, if you live in an area where anti-Muslim sentiment is high and you go outside looking like an Islamic woman, you should not be surprised when you are treated as such.  This is undeniably sad, both in terms of the fact that the anti-Muslim prejudice exists and in terms of the mistaken identity issue, but it also happens to be a matter of simple cause and effect.  

I do understand the attraction of wearing a full veil (all of the psychic and social shielding benefits of veiling magnified by several degrees), however the potential drawbacks of doing so should be carefully weighed.  It is partly for this reason--as well as the fact that the cultures that attract me are European and medieval rather than eastern--that I choose to wear simpler head coverings (mostly kerchiefs, wide headbands, and hats).  I'm veiling for my own religious and practical reasons, and am not really interested in being mistaken for a member of a group that I'm not actually part of.

2) Although many of the pagan women in the current "movement" are wearing a veil as a devotional act to a goddess (Hestia being the one mentioned most frequently), this is not always the case.  Some of us are veiling as an outward means of showing our status as God-spouses--and when I say "showing," I don't mean to imply that society as a whole, or even other pagans, will recognize this sign or know what it means.  But just as donning a special robe before ritual can send the needed signal to the brain that you are in a non-ordinary headspace and that something special is about to occur, when you are on a focused devotional path such as God-marriage you live your entire life in a non-ordinary headspace, and often find yourself wanting to adopt little rituals or modes of dress that serve as constant reminders to yourself of your path, which as I've mentioned can be a challenging one in a culture that offers no real support for it.  Even though I began veiling again partly at the instigation of Frigga, Her reasoning had to do with my status as Odin's wife and the need to project that more fully into my public persona.

3) This last point is probably the most controversial thing I have to say on the topic, as far as mainstream paganry is concerned.  One of the most widespread criticisms aimed at pagan women who veil is that we are somehow "turning the clock back" on feminism, and it is true that women who cover their heads, whatever their culture or religious affiliation, tend to be women who adhere to a more traditionally feminine role in life.  Even within the pagan headcovering group, many of the members are wives and mothers who are choosing the more traditional, "old fashioned" lifestyle of staying home to raise their children.  Now, I don't fit into this model at all.  Far from being a young woman, I am in my forties and divorced, with a grown daughter.  However, if my circumstances allowed for staying home and being a traditional housekeeper rather than going to work in an office five days a week, I would jump at the chance.  

Yes, I know some of you out there are cringing, and I realize that women such as my grandmother and my mother were very proud of their ability to earn an income at an outside job rather than being tied to the role of housewife.  Yet I've always been rather mystified by the notion that sitting behind a desk all day doing work that is more or less irrelevant to my real life is somehow an improvement over the things women have been doing for centuries: preparing and preserving food, keeping an attractive and welcoming home, and--especially relevant, in my case--spinning, weaving, sewing, and engaging in the creation of textiles and clothing for their families.  Thanks to the feminist movement, I was not taught to sew by my mother or grandmother, I only learned to spin last year, and I expect to be teaching myself to weave sometime in the next year or so. Thanks to the feminist movement, a whole generation or two of women suddenly and arbitrarily rejected these traditional arts that have been the mainstay of civilization for thousands of years, declaring them to be demeaning and not worth passing on to their daughters, who had "risen above" the need to practice them.  (After all, if you can buy a coat at the store, you don't need to know how to spin wool or weave it into fabric.  You can instead go to work for minimum wage eight to twelve hours per day at the factory that makes the coats, or the store where they're sold, while paying someone else to watch your children.  What an improvement!) 

In case you can't tell, I have a considerable amount of rancor towards the "feminist movement" and its "improvements."  (For example, at the office job I'm obliged to hold down in order to keep a roof over my head and pay my bills, I still don't make as much as the average man with my level of education and experience.)  Is my resentment influenced by my relationship with Frigga, who is firmly associated with the traditional arts of homemaking and textiles?  Almost certainly.  But it also has a great deal to do with my feeling that my right to choose such a lifestyle for myself was stolen away before I was even old enough to realize such a potential choice existed.

I'm sure I've rambled on long enough in this vein for now, but for me the bottom line here amounts to this: pagans are thinking people--or at any rate, we're supposed to be.  Pagans are, by and large, people who consciously and mindfully reject (at least to some extent) the religions we were born to and the boxes and pigeonholes society has tried to force us into; we reject these in favor of creating our own destinies, blazing our own trails.  From this perspective, the greatest benefit I can see from the pagan veiling movement is that it may encourage and invite pagans--especially pagan women--to re-examine some of the assumptions that have arisen within pagan culture itself.  What are our values?  What do we really stand for, and are those beliefs and convictions strong enough and important enough to risk the condemnation of other pagans and of the outside world?  And perhaps most tellingly, what role are we expecting pagan women to fulfill, and what pigeonholes are we--consciously or otherwise--trying to force them into?  If nudity, tattoos and piercings are acceptable and encouraged, why not modest dress and head coverings?  The pagan spectrum is far wider and more diverse than we think. 

EDITED TO ADD: 

Some of the comments to this post have made me realize that it's the entire current state of affairs in 21st century American society that disturbs me--in which most of us are consumers more so than creators, and in which many of us have grown up without the skills with which our ancestors navigated their worlds, not only the textile arts but also the traditionally "male" arts of hunting, swordplay, archery, and even, hey, navigation.  These are all dying arts because there is no pressing need for them in a society where we can buy food at the supermarket and sweaters at Walmart, and yet I would argue that without them we are losing part of our souls, and some of us feel this quite deeply.  Is feminism to blame?  Partly,  but not entirely; industrialization is probably a bigger culprit.  And so, to bring this back to the topic I began with, pagan veiling, I would have to say that the act of veiling, for me, hearkens back to an earlier age where things may not have been simpler but they were at least more authentic, more real.  I'd like to thank those who have commented so far for helping me to refine my own thoughts on this!

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Wife of Odin, spirit-taught seidhkona, artist, witch. I am a storyteller and urban shaman who uses fiber as one of the primary tools of my craft. I spin threads, read them, and weave them. I help people find their own stories, and connect with their gods and their personal magic, through some of the oldest arts known to humankind. Because a dream made manifest is a dream made real. I offer rune, Tarot and Lenormand readings, as well as custom made ritual cords--spun by hand, charged and consecrated--to connect you with the gods and spirits in your life.
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Comments

  • Jolene
    Jolene Monday, 30 July 2012

    Obviously, I support one's choice to veil or no veil. I'm a tad bemused to see pagan veiling taking off as it has, but the fact that it has tells me that there's a serious need for such a practice, within the community. (The fact that there's such a vehement opposition to the practice, too, suggests to me that there's a need for it). I'm rather at a loss for when it comes to folks telling others that it's not pagan, it should not be done, etc. I suspect that the idea of there being a right and wrong way is a by-product of having existed in a monotheistic-dominant culture for so long. As a polytheist who believes the gods are real, independent beings, I strongly believe that one's spiritual path is between one and one's spirits. Period. As such, what you do in your practice, while it may be nice to talk about and learn about, is ultimately none of my damned business.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 30 July 2012

    Thanks for your reasoned and well-articulated response to this topic; I'm a part-time veiler myself (something I never imagined I would do, and under Frigga's direction) and appreciate your thoughtful airing of the controversy. On the "feminist" thing: I'm about your age, and I consider myself a feminist but I've *never* understood the animosity to the "chaterlaine" (I'm probably misspelling here) domestic occupation. It hasn't been my path, but in no way do I denigrate your desire to embrace it. Gaia bless, sister.

  • Beth Lynch
    Beth Lynch Monday, 30 July 2012

    Thank you, Anne! After responding to a couple of the comments, I suspect that I didn't explain my animosity towards feminism quite well enough. Mostly I resent that it (in the fifties and sixties) set in motion a widespread rejection of the textile arts just in time for me to have lost the opportunity to learn them at an early age. The life of a "lady of the manor" (so to speak) would never have been an option for me in this lifetime (and isn't an option now, given my celibate Godspouse status)....but my efforts to live the life of a self-supporting artisan could only have been advanced by an earlier exposure to my chosen crafts.

  • Saidhbhin
    Saidhbhin Monday, 30 July 2012

    As a feminist who is actually for gender equality as opposed to just telling women that to be strong or self-sufficient she must do "x" I wholeheartedly agree with your final point. It's actually a conversation my boyfriend and I have regularly. Due to a mixture of chronic illness and an extremely motherly nature, I stay home and I take pride in it. My choice to take care of my home is a powerful one and I too am saddened to see these beautiful traditional arts be passed to the wayside to be forgotten. Not only are they full of history but they're practical too! If we as feminists want true gender equality then we must revive these arts and teach them to the men in our lives, and have them teach us traditional male arts. My father and my longtime boyfriend have both taken me on many occasions to learn such crafts as wilderness survival, sword fighting, and archery, while I've taught my boyfriend canning, cooking, sewing, and needlepoint (we're doing knitting next). Only in sharing these wonderful traditions with our children and loved ones of both genders can we have true equality in that sense.

  • Beth Lynch
    Beth Lynch Monday, 30 July 2012

    What a wonderful reciprocal arrangement you have with the men in your life, being able to learn the traditional "male" skills while they learn the more typical "female" ones. You're a lucky woman!

    The sad thing is that there probably aren't all that many men around these days who are skilled in hunting, archery, sword fighting and wilderness survival; I would have loved to be able to trade skills in this way with my ex, but just as with the more "feminine" arts, all of these skills are now endangered. I think that may be what I object to most of all: the fact that most of us--men and women alike--are working at jobs that have nothing to do with our real lives, or with the real skills that used to keep our ancestors alive. Not to sound like the Occupy movement here, but I suspect that perhaps the upper 10-20% of all Americans have jobs that they consider personally meaningful and fulfilling while the rest of us live our real lives outside of our day jobs. Maybe it's unfair of me to blame the feminist movement entirely for that, although I'm sure it has played a part. I'm sure industrialization has played a huge role too. It's that disconnect from reality as our ancestors knew it that I find so disturbing.

  • Kathleen Farmer
    Kathleen Farmer Monday, 30 July 2012

    I agree with you that in the past, feminists tended to devalue traditional feminine roles and the domestic skills that went along with them. I believe this has changed. I don't know any feminists who wouldn't support a woman's right to choose whatever lifestyle works for them and the crafts movement has brought about a resurgence of interest in traditionally female skills from cooking to needlework. I am confused that you seem to blame feminism for your need to work and the fact that you make less than a man would in the same job. Of course, I don't know your personal situation, but even before the feminist movement, a divorced woman with a child would still need to have a job to support herself, unless alimony or a new partner allowed her to work inside the home exclusively. And feminists are still working hard to ensure equal pay for equal work, so I'm unsure why you have this rancor towards us.

  • Beth Lynch
    Beth Lynch Monday, 30 July 2012

    Looking back over my post, I see that this is one area where I fell into sort of mental/verbal shorthand and did not explain myself quite as well as I might have done. I did not mean to imply that I blame feminism for my personal need to work in an office, given my current situation as it is now; clearly, that would be ludicrous. However, as an artisan, what I do blame feminism for is the fact that neither my mother nor my grandmother knew how to spin, knit or weave, or would have felt inclined to pass those skills on to me even if they had possessed them. Given the degree of skill I have now just in spinning alone and the short period of time in which I've had the time and resources to finally be able to develop it, do I dare to suggest that I'd be supporting myself as an artisan by this point in my life if I'd started earlier--say, in childhood? Yes, that is exactly what I'm suggesting. (Not to be immodest--but then Heathenry isn't a tradition that sets much store by false modesty anyway.) So yes, I absolutely do blame the feminist movement for the late start I got at these things, at least to some extent. Please note that I'm also not letting that stop me. :D

    I do recognize that some of feminism's "gains" were helpful to some women; my grandmother, for example, was very happy to be able to work as a nurse and thus free herself from my grandfather, who was a truly horrible man. What I resent is the climate feminism created in which the traditional feminine skills were no longer valued. Yes, the wheel has come round again and those skills are once again valued, thank the gods, but in my grandmother's time they were certainly rejected as a sign of female "oppression" (much as head coverings are seen now by some) and as a result I (as well as many others) was not able to have the early exposure to them that I wish I'd been given.

  • Sandra
    Sandra Tuesday, 31 July 2012

    "Traditional feminine skills" were not devalued by the feminist movement. Skills like weaving and spinning have been downgraded for centuries by an ever dominant male centric society, well before the advent of the feminist movement. One of the bigger goals of the feminist movement is to bring to light the deep importance, skill, time, and effort that is put into things like housekeeping. Do not blame feminism for the degradation of the domestic sphere, as feminists for many years have cast away the role of "homemaker" not because the job is beneith them, but because for too long women weren't given any other choices. By walking away from things like housework and the various skillful arts that come with it, women were saying "I DO have a choice." If you want to blame anything for the destruction of the domestic arts and the possibility of living off of your own two hands, blame the Industrial Revolution and NOT feminism. For if it wasn't for the feminist movement, which I feel you need to read more about before you start making bold statements about it, you wouldn't be allowed to vote, have your own bank account, or write this blog.

  • Beth Lynch
    Beth Lynch Saturday, 11 August 2012

    Well, as a medieval history buff I could argue that there have always been situations that allowed women to own property and exercise other typically "male" rights (look up the medieval legal term femme sole, if you're interested,) but I think the source of our disagreement may stem from the fact that I failed to define the term "feminist" sufficiently as I was using it. Also see the addendum to my post. :)

  • Saidhbhin
    Saidhbhin Tuesday, 31 July 2012

    I don't think that the current and more common type of feminism is what Beth meant. I assume (but could be wrong) that she's more speaking of the blatant, male-bashing feminists that were around for a while up until about the mid 90s. Every group has extremists, and I believe that these women, who's beliefs were getting the most exposure and media attention, were what caused a lot of the damage and gave today's women the idea that to be equal to a man we must do every-single-thing-he-does. It turned into a huge mess of role reversal for a while. Many fashion trends practically abolished skirts and delicate materials in favor of pants and hard straight lines that drilled in the point more that "this is what a strong woman is." I know that even today, I get a lot of strange looks for dressing in a very feminine manor. Yes, it does have to do partly with veiling but my very forward, Mama Bear attitude mixed with how I choose to dress confounds more than anything.

    Getting back to the point, unless I'm wrong, I think Beth meant the awful Feminazi stereotype.

  • Beth Lynch
    Beth Lynch Saturday, 11 August 2012

    Yes, Saidhbhin, that particular type of feminist is exactly what I meant! I realize that feminism does not necessarily carry the same connotations now and its proponents are less extreme, but the extreme kind is what I grew up with. I was born in 1965, and the idea that working outside the home is superior was already well established by the the early seventies, at least. I see it as neither inherently better nor worse--there are women who genuinely enjoy working in an office, and of course I believe they should be allowed to do so--but I do think we have lost some essential skills along the way.

  • Kathleen Farmer
    Kathleen Farmer Tuesday, 31 July 2012

    I see both Beth and Sandra's viewpoints as having validity. A lot of women (including my mother) felt that there was a time period when many feminists viewed working inside the home as "less than" having a job outside the home. I think this came from internalized oppression that originated in the patriarchal misogyny that these feminists were actively working against. Now the feminist movement is embracing these things as we rid ourselves of those messages and assumptions, but it's an ongoing and imperfect process. I also agree that the domestic arts have been degraded as "women's work" by the patriarchy for centuries and that the Industrial Revolution is what ultimately destroyed individual artisanship. A great book which covers a lot of these concepts is "For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women" by Barbara Ehrenreich. (BTW, my mother now considers herself to be a feminist, too.)

  • Soli
    Soli Sunday, 12 August 2012

    As one of those "pre-trend" head covering women, led me add nicely said! There is definitely a call toward this, and I can point to at least one acquaintance who started to cover herself once she became aware of it as an option.

    Incidentally, another nice text about the devaluation and revival of domesticity is Radical Homemakers. (Dunno if you read it Beth, but I believe Jo did.) I don't agree with all the history the author presented in the first part of the book but I damn near ate up the second half, which is profiles of various radical homemakers.

    Besides, when it comes to domesticity, there is something satisfying about making stuff yourself. Not to mention reviving older food traditions. (my own area of interest.)

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