In a thoughtful piece entitled, “Headscarves, Modesty, and Modern Orthodoxy” published in Public Orthodoxy, Katherine Kelaidis has some valuable things to say about women wearing headscarves in the modern West. In this piece she offers a much-needed and valuable historical insight that women like her grandmother wore a headscarf in Greece but upon coming to America discarded this practice in order to more easily assimilate into the culture of her newly-chosen home. In Kelaidis’ words, “My grandmother stopped covering her hair because of the pressures of xenophobia and assimilation, along with a desire to create a more liberated space for women within her own culture.” She goes on to note that modern Orthodox women, since the late 1990s, often cover their hair with headscarves as a choice even when they are not in church. She views these women’s choices against the background of her own family’s experience and says that when these women “take up the veil with complete disregard for the stories and lives of the women I have so loved, I cannot help but feel some anger.” For her the modern choice of some Orthodox women to veil themselves constitutes an ungrateful rejection of the sacrifices made by these immigrant women of a previous generation. Kelaidis is angry and feels “incredibly frustrated” that they “make these choices without having to give a second thought to women like my grandmother. Women whose lives they carelessly overlook at every turn. Women whose ability as mothers and Christians they tacitly scorn. Women whose trials and triumphs, they do not know and do not care to learn”.
I am not one who insists that Orthodox women must veil themselves, either in church or when out in public. At our own little St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C., some of our women wear headscarves and some do not. It is entirely up to the choice of the women themselves. I will not here rehearse the argument and counter-argument from St. Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 11. Anyone wanting to know how I interpret that famous passage is welcome to buy my commentary and read it for themselves. But in defence of women who do choose to veil themselves in church, I would like to offer the following.
All of the women I know personally who veil themselves in church do not intend thereby to make a statement about women like Kelaidis’ grandmother, one way or the other. They are grateful, I suspect, to have the choice about whether or not to veil themselves, and they make their choice. My guess is that they would feel that a requirement that they not wear a veil would be as unacceptable as one that required them to wear a veil, but it is for them to answer such questions, not me. What is more certain is that their choice is not based on the cultural battles of two or more generations ago, but on the cultural battles of the present.
At St. Herman’s we have a number of different kinds of people, both North American converts and ethnic cradle. The Russian, Romanian, and Greek women all veil themselves (if memory serves; it is not important enough for anyone to keep score), as well as do some, but not all, of our convert women. If asked why they do it, I suspect the former would say they never thought about it much, but that was how they were raised. The latter would say that they chose to do it after giving it some thought. There are, in fact, at least two good reasons for that choice, neither of them having to do with anyone’s grandmother.
The first reason is as a way of showing respect for the sanctity of the building into which they are entering. (Please note: I am not suggesting that women who do not use the veil thereby do not show enough respect.) Those who wear a veil in church often do not wear the veil outside in public, so that dressing differently is their way of acknowledging that the nave of the church is a different kind of space than that of the mall or the street. It is precisely because the veil is not worn in public that it can therefore function as a sign of respect in the church building. It is the vestment equivalent of signing yourself with the Cross when you enter a holy place. This is why, I suspect, Orthodox women wear the veil in church in Russia—as a sign of respect. But I have never been to Russia, and can only guess about what happens there. What is more certain is that this is what motivates the Russian women at St. Herman’s when their wear their veils.
Given this component of respect for spacial sanctity, the use of the veil by convert women also serves to unite them to the Orthodox women of other countries such as Russia, Romania, and Greece. The converts are happy to learn from their cradle sisters, and do not always (in Kelaidis’ words) “make a social media post about the lack of ‘zeal’ among the cradle Orthodox”. The converts were happy to learn a lot about Orthodoxy from those who came before them and who live elsewhere in the world—including the use of the veil when in church.
Secondly, these women’s use of the veil serves to differentiate them from the secular world around them. In the days of Kelaidis’ grandmother, the goal was to assimilate to avoid the dangers of xenophobia. In today’s world, the goal is different—it is to avoid assimilation with the godless and insane society around us and (in the timeless words of St. Peter) to “save ourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). From her words one might imagine that Kelaidis was stuck in the past, facing the challenges of yester-year when the assimilation of immigrants was the pressing need. But now, and at least since the late 1990s (when she said the headscarf appeared in her world), the challenge for Orthodox women is to build a healthy counter-culture in which to live and raise their children. If they choose to make the wearing of a veil when in church one component of that counter-culture, who is Kelaidis or anyone else (including me) to say otherwise? The words “a woman’s choice” can and have been horribly misused, but surely here is one instance where a woman’s choice ought to be respected.
Kelaidis is quite right about one thing: “modesty is not a line you draw on your knee [i.e. a dress’ hemline], but a line you draw on your heart”. Women can be modest and pious without wearing a veil in church, as many women at my own little church can attest. But a veil is now not only—or even primarily—a tool for modesty, Kelaidis’ assertion that “Modesty was always the goal of the veil” notwithstanding. Now it is a choice that some women make to express their respect for a sacred space and their desire to be different from the secular world around them. Of course women can do this without wearing a veil. But some women choose to do this through the wearing of a veil. And surely they should be allowed to do this without being blamed or scolded in the pages of Public Orthodoxy?
I cannot help but wondering if the main target and source of anger in Kelaidis’ piece is not the presence of the veil among Orthodox convert women, but the fact that these convert women choose to wear the veil as an expression of their choice to be counter-cultural and to reject the secularism around them—a secularism that Public Orthodoxy seems to so often embrace. The goal is still assimilation to contemporary culture, even now that our culture has become diseased.