You've seen us sitting in the backs of Catholic Churches, waiting to go to confession, or neatly lined up with twelve children against the hard-backed pew. You've seen us hanging around the Halal meat market in the arab district. Pushing strollers with long-lashed, smiling children. Sitting together sharing a laugh on a bench in the park. Driving by in fancy cars with tinted windows. Waiting in line in airports or movie theaters.
You've openly stared, then avoided our eyes if our paths crossed. You may have smiled. You may have frowned.
No matter who you are, you have an opinion about what we do. No matter who we are, we have a reason for what we do. We are veiled women, and every day there are more of us.
Why do we cover?
We do it for the glory of God. Women have been veiling, mostly for religious and practical reasons, since the beginning of time. Evidence of this can be seen in archeology and historical writings, and there is no use enumerating here the many reasons, styles, and seasons the feminine veil has gone through. Needless to say that when a woman makes the decision to veil, be it during worship, in certain situations, or all the time, she enters a sisterhood of grace which only the veiled can understand.
I have talked before about my personal experiences with veiling, my upbringing, and my personal reasons for veiling. I have also discussed that in my own journey, I have an addiction to the very things which, to other women, are designed as "challenges" or "penances" for salvific purposes. Some people need to pray more. I, on the other hand, need to learn to pray while SERVING more.
Just as I am currently called to detach from my beloved Carmelite order, in order to live Carmelite spirituality all the more, so I am called to somewhat detach from my beloved act of perpetual veiling, in order to live what veiling represents all the more. For me, it is, as they say, a great mystery of life and salvation.
Not that I am saying I am saved by my veil (or lack thereof) but rather that I am in a constant relationship with my veil daily, which purifies my soul as I struggle and obey, struggle and obey. It is a physical
representation of an inner battle, and of an inner truth.
Of the major religious bodies represented on the earth, veiling can certainly be considered "traditional" or at least "cultural" in all of them. Because I am a Catholic, I will deal here with the Catholic concept of headcovering, but will give practical tips for any "style" of headcovering at the end.
The theology of the Veil is based in the foundation of the Church, the source and summit of our lives: the Eucharist. Sacramentally, it represents to us the privilege of a woman's dignity and the sanctity of her vocation.
As I said, the veil is eucharistic in nature. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, woman was created from the side of man. St John Chrysostom (who also advocated against women wearing makeup, for similar reasons, especially at church) compares this creation to the creation of the Church. To paraphrase, he says that as Eve was brought forth from Adam's side, so the Church was brought into being from Christ's pierced side on the cross. Practically, this means that man's vocation is to symbolize Christ and His love for His Church, and woman's vocation is to represent the Church in her love for Christ (see Ephesians 5) It also explains the feminine desire to "return to man's side" and the Church's desire to "return to Christ's side," to be One.
Just as when man and woman are sacramentally married, uniting into one two things which, from the beginning, should have been one, so is the Church united to Christ through the eucharist, which is the consommation of the heavenly marriage. This is what a veiled woman and a veiled man represent, which is why in the presence of the Eucharist, a man's head should be uncovered, and a woman's head should be covered, to symbolize the Church's receptivity and love and submission to Christ, her responsiveness to Christ, her "yes."
It is clear, even for protestant women, although many have invented all sorts of reasons why it is a scripture not to be obeyed, that 1 Corinthians 11 describes the veiling of women.
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
There are many available teachings on this passage throughout the internet, so I will spare you the lesson, and I will focus on just one sentence in this passage: "because of the angels." (v 10)
During the passover, the israelites were instructed to use hyssop to paint a sign with the blood of the lamb over their doorposts, in order to make a 'sign for the angels,' who would be passing through to kill the firstborn children of the egyptians, a sign that God's servants lived inside. To me, the veil is this same sign... a sign of the blood of the lamb, a covering, a representation of the covenant (as a wedding ring symbolizes the covenant between man and woman, the sacramental union of man and wife.) between the Bride and Christ, through which a woman is heard and protected.... a sign "because of the angels." Another reason is that the angels atop the ark of the covenant had their heads covered with their wings. the Glory of the Lord rested atop these angels when He came upon the ark and dwelt with His people.
Because women are called to be "like Mary," the New Ark of the Covenant (who, incidentally is always veiled in her apparitions and in her representations and was throughout her life on earth) we are called to be "Set apart" and holy. In the old testament, the Holy of Holies, in the temple, was veiled, as was Mount Sinai (in clouds) when the Glory of God came upon it. Mary's body was a tabernacle, thus she was veiled in her splendor... as are our tabernacles today (ideally! :P)
In the ark of the covenant, God's glory overshadowed the covered angels as he overshadowed covered Mary to be with His people. Like Mary, a veiled woman becomes hidden, or "covered" in her Spouse.
In Catholic tradition, consecrated women (nuns) veil ALL of the time, because they represent this symbol of the Church at all times in the world. Lay women, however, veil in the presence of the Eucharist (either at home when a priest is bringing them communion or when inside the church building where the Eucharist is present) because it is at this time that they "receive" and "say yes" to their heavenly spouse. Participation in veiling at mass by lay women, then , began to dwindle as Catholic people lost their reverence for the Eucharist, and will rightly rectify the problem of disrespect for the Eucharist we see daily in Catholic churches the world over today. If you are a woman and desire to see more people approach the Eucharist as LORD, I encourage you to veil.
Further, I could probably go on for hours about the sacredness of the female body with regards to it's symbolism in God's economy of salvation. Women are set apart for this reason.... we participate in creation, our bodies nurture and feed new life, and in our bodies miracles are made. God uses female symbolism to increase our understanding of his creation, which is a whole blog by itself. Many, many women veil for modesty... in so far as they "cover" themselves away from prying, human eyes. Have you ever covered your entire body and gone out in public? Even if you do not regularly veil, I challenge you to try it... for you will see the liberty it gives you to rest in God and escape the harsh, polluted world full of sexual depravity and objectification. Who you are becomes much more important than how you look.
A woman's veil is the "sealed garden" of Song 4:12 who produces fruit reserved for God.
"A garden locked is my sister, my bride;" says the Divine Lover, and the beloved responds: "Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits."
No, it is not a sin not to cover. But when we consider the beauty and richness of symbolism for the Catholic woman, not to veil seems.... a loss.
So how do we begin? For many women, who will veil only in church and during liturgy, it simply means going to any of the numerous sites where Chapel veils are available for purchase and keeping one in your purse for those times when you happen to enter a church where the Eucharist is present. For other women, there will be other situations to veil in, or different styles. Perhaps because their own personal or family culture will be represented in their veiling choices. Here is a guide to the basic styles you might see around that interest you.
THE TRADDIE LOOK
This is the first and foremost look to explore for Catholic women. My favorite place to purchase mantillas and chapel veils is through the Roman Catholic Sacramentals Foundation, but they are available in many other places as well. (Try a google search for "chapel veils" or "mantillas" and always check e-bay for good prices.) Note that modesty is a very important thing for a Catholic woman and thus most traditional Catholic women will probably give you the once over if they see you veiling in church but wearing an immodest outfit. This goes for pretty much ANY veil style you might choose. The general rule is to ask yourself: "What would Mary wear?" We know that Mary has said in her apparition at Fatima that "certain fashions would arise that would offend Our Lord very much."
Thus we avoid such fashions, focusing instead on looking pleasant and sensible and pure. Holy Mother Church has given us a wonderful guideline for such fashions: "A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers' breadth under the pit of the throat;; which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows; and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper." (The Cardinal vicar of Pope Pius XI) It should go without saying, then, not to wear backless or sleeveless dresses, skirts above the knee, etc etc. For more information about modesty, click here.
As for the wearing of a chapel veil or mantilla, it is quite simple: you literally place it on top of your head. It will stay just fine, unless you have small children or live somewhere quite windy, in which case you can purchase a few bobby pins to keep the veil in place. Weave them through the lace (don't worry, it won't wreck it) and into your pulled up hair. If you like this look but don't have the patience for bobby pins or have a very active baby, you can always purchase a lace snood from a specialty jewish shop or from garlands of grace (I LOVE theirs) that has ties on either side for ease of use but is still so pretty and girly. Here I am wearing one at our youngest's baptism and I quite like the look...lacy and pretty but super convenient.
But don't be mistaken, the Chapel Veil, without ties, is super easy to wear, even for little girls. My daughter loves hers:
In fact, it's the single easiest and most fun style to wear with your daughters. And it helps to teach them that something sacred is about to happen.... who would want to miss out on that?
This is the typical Jewish look with all or most of the hair covered in front and either an open, triangular tie with the ends hanging or a snood style (closed back with the hair enclosed) In the picture I am actually wearing two different scarves, one rectangular one to hold the hair in place and one thin cotton square one on top.
Turban-type looks also fall in this category although I'm not a fan. Observant Jewish women cover their hair at all times (some even at night!) and again, modesty rules apply (minimum of 3/4 length skirts and sleeves and loose around the curves.) This look can be achieved with a long rectangular scarf or with (my preference) a large square scarf which you fold over into a triangle and knot at the back of the head like a big bandana. This look is very easy to wear and will keep your veil secure and your hair out of the way, so I highly recommend it for those of you with active lifestyles and kids. Your neck will show, so if you aren't comfortable with that wear a turtleneck. I purchase scarves for this look from two Jewish suppliers: Tznius.com and ModestWorld.com. I have also used large square hijabs for this look but they are a little bit larger, making it a bigger challenge for the beginning veiler. I also recommend this (or it's smaller twin, the actual bandana) for sports, housework and what not, since it is so easy to keep in place. In my experience keeping your hair in a tight bun and out of the way makes this style easier to keep in place. Be forewarned... this style is "different" out here in the west, so you will get lots of stares, even from Muslimahs in full hijab, LOL. What an adventure! :P For that reason, this is usually my "in the house" look and not so much what I would wear going out.
THE EURO/ RUSSIAN LOOK
This is typically called a "Babushka" and consists of a medium sized colorful scarf (usually cotton, wool , or silk) which is simply knotted around the FRONT of the chin as opposed to behind the head. This look is easier to get away with if your clothes are not as modest as the clothes I described above, since it is very forgiving as far as fashion goes... hello, Audrey Hepburn anyone? A variation of this look is a VERY loosely draped long rectangular scarf that frames the face but still shows the neck and hair, usually knotted or looped and thrown over the shoulder one side. I use this look a LOT (I sometimes do this with a large chapel veil, too.) It's very practical when you have kids and bags and things to tote around, easy on, easy off, and is -almost- so "simple" and basic looking that people don't do a triple take (or open mouthed stare) when they see you with it. I would buy scarves for this look at the Italian Scarf store (or ask anyone's grandma, they usually have a few extras. Also, I buy pashminas for this look. They are awesome because you can wear them as a neck scarf and then just pull them up real quick for prayer, and quite honestly, they are not as noticeable as a covering in our society, especially in the winter! When I wear them like that, it looks something like this:
This is pretty much the classic hijab look and can be done with a similar colored underscarf or with a different style/pattern underneath to hold the scarf in place. This style requires (yes, requires if you're going to be doing anything other than standing still) pinning in place and is the most "difficult" of the headcovering styles to learn to wear. Or rather, it has the biggest learning curve. Very important to remember if you are going for this look is that if your neck shows, you have missed the mark. I can pretty much guarantee that if you wear your scarf like this nearly everyone will assume you are a muslim, even though many greek and russian orthodox women dress like this daily (my husband prefers me to wear a visible cross on my person when I wear full hijab so that people are aware that I am not a muslim.) I have to say, this is my FAVORITE of all the scarf wearing possibilities, but it is also the least practical and the most challenging. Very simple things become a challenge in full hijab, such as going out to breakfast and realizing that whether you eat bacon with your eggs or not, people are judging you. Here in our conservative military community, Islam is not exactly considered a blessing so people have gotten angry with me, first for being muslim, and then later for representing myself as one when they saw me dressed that way. Again, in our culture, at least, Islam owns this look, so it takes guts and glory to pull it off in most situations if you are NOT muslim, at least it has for me.There are practical solutions for making it easier, like getting really comfortable with the wrap style you are going to use before you ever try to leave the house with it, and exploring things like Al-Amirahs or kuwaiti hijabs which help for beginners. In the church proper, I have never had anyone complain to me about veiling this way, and I find that when I wear this style of veil (which again requires a very modest outfit) I am completely "protected" from creepy looks, gazes, and comments from men AND women. No one bothers me, it's as if I don't exist. Which makes it rather humbling, too. I buy most of my scarves from HijabGirl or from lots of random internet and IRL arab shops. I find it to be beautiful, prayerful, and an incredible visual reminder of WHY we veil... which, once again, is a great lesson for my daughters. (Note, in the picture below, that I have hair showing, which is considered a no-no for muslim women and one good clue that I might not be muslim when I wear it.)
CLASSIC AMERICAN CHRISTIAN LOOK
The last look is one I rarely, but sometimes, sport and is a bit too "stuffy" and anglo and .... plain american for my olive oil and sunshine drenched taste, LOL. However there are times I think it's quite appropriate, like when a headcovering is too "wierd" for a certain situation, or just at home where you need things to be quick and easy. These are small kerchiefs that tie with a tie under the pony tail or braid and which are often held in place by barrettes on either side. You can purchase them through any number of sweet little handmade web stores by scores of helpmeets and their daughters trying to make a buck, and they usually come in plain white or plain blue. Try googling "plain prayer coverings." or something similar. They are also very easy to make. As far as "traditionally" Christian, these are it (as opposed to the frilly and lacy mantillas and chapel veils of Catholicism, reserved for visits to the Blessed Sacrament in Church) and they make good partners for housework and the nitty gritty of life. Alongside these prayer coverings you will find traditional bonnets and caps. I classify those as "hats" but that's me. Regardless, they are super cute and will make everyone think you are amish or mennonite or a quaker (again with the cultural conundrum! :D) Sunbonnets are another practical option for moms with kids and oh so pretty.
What works for you will basically depend on what you feel called to do and how. Pray on it, try different styles, and see what happens. One day, something will stick, and when it does, you'll never be the same! Let me know if you have any questions or ideas I didn't mention here... Or if you sell your own headcoverings and want to let my readers know.