Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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On Veils, from PantheaCon

Picking up where I left off my previous blog about PantheaCon –

On Saturday evening I went to a workshop called “Taking Up the Veil,” with Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdaughter.[1]  The description in the program intrigued me:

 

“A growing movement among pagan [sic] women is a turning towards modest apparel, veiling, or in some way shielding the corporal body as honor to the Divine.  In this exploratory class we’ll try some veiling techniques, discuss methodology of veiling form a Pagan perspective[,] and some of us might even develop a deeper meaning to our practices…” 

I love veils in general.  I especially like to wear one over my head and face when meditating or doing other ‘still’ work such as “anchoring.”[2]  I also find veils very useful in ritual when one is embodying a divine entity; with the veil, others see no mortal face.  Not my face or your face or the face of anyone they know in the mundane world beyond the particular sacred circle space to which that divine entity has been called forth.  Similar to working with masks, the veil both distances and brings closer in strange ways.

This workshop, scheduled on prime time Friday night, appealed to plenty of people, all women, but for one brave man (presenting as a man in jeans, T-shirt, unshaven and makeup-free), who came because he’s a cross-dressed and clothing and adornment evidently appeal to him.  My friend Serena Toxicat always lights up a space when she’s present, although with her uniquely Goth approach she may be intending to darken it.

Xochiquetzal began by speaking of modesty and dressing in solidarity with Muslim women.  She mentioned how adolescent females are excessively sexually objectified in our society, and how comforting it is to wear loose-flowing clothing and a head covering.  I completely agree with this second point.  How many of us would have welcomed being able to hide our bodies when we were out in public as we adjusted to its changing into that of a woman.

On her first point, however, I have a different, and very strongly held, perspective.

Some years ago in an online group called Our Freedom: A Pagan Civil Rights Coalition a younger woman suggested the very same thing, wearing head coverings in solidarity with Muslim women (at least those who were forced to wear hijab).  Again, I am all for solidarity with oppressed sisters, but I think the situation is more nuanced than a simple black-and-white “Let’s cover our heads in solidarity.”  After all, Roman Catholic nuns, along with royalty throughout Europe, were compelled to cover their heads in various ways, in the former denoting a pledge of celibacy (or life-long virginity if it’s not too late), and in the latter, relative social status.

To that suggestion on that list, both Phyllis Curott and I, who are just under a decade apart in age, objected.  We felt we’d struggled too hard to free ourselves from so many, many, many restrictions placed upon women in the society in which we’d grown up.  I grew up wearing girdles, hose with a seam up the back, garter belts (talk about uncomfortable[3]), shaved legs and underarms, sleeping in metal, brush, plastic, or bobby-pinned curlers.

Girl children in my day seldom wore pants, and never were allowed to wear them to school.  Never!  Dresses and skirts only.  As any active person knows, dresses and skirts can cramp you style if you’re climbing trees or playing on a play structure.  In Winter we wore two-piece woolen snowsuits, with our skirts either tucked into the pants when we went outdoors, thereby wrinkling, or flounced out over the bottoms like a peplum.

Modesty, a quality Xochiquetzal rightly extolled, was something that was forced upon girls of my generation (during and just after WW-II).  Our quite necessary response was to go for uppity (rebelliously self-assertive; not inclined to be tractable or deferential).

There was even a time in my lifetime when there were ‘public’ places, such as restaurants, pubs, and clubs, where women were not permitted to enter, or, if it was a really progressive place, a woman could come in if she were accompanied by a male patron, and even then, she had to remain seated at a table and could not approach the bar to place an order.  This was in San Francisco, folks!  And it wasn’t all that long ago.

But back to the workshop -- Xochiquetzal demonstrated various ways to wrap veils and headscarves, and most of us tried those techniques. I find many ways of dressing the head (not hair) very beautiful.  She spoke of different purposes, such as shielding the most emphatic among us from jarring and/or toxic.  These are all good reasons.  I, however, feel confined and restricted when my head is bound.  I seldom even wear hats, except for protection from sun and sometimes rain.  But sometimes I do wear veils, as I mentioned above.

She also spoke a bit about the sexuality implied in hair, especially thick, long tresses.  For much of my adult life I wore my hair long, and I felt it to be very sexual, though I liked it for other aesthetic reasons as well.  I made do with tying it back on the nape of my neck when I was doing things it interfered with.  I loved all this talk.

There was one woman there who seemed to bring with her something of a party attitude, as she frequently interrupted Xochiquetzal’s talking, and others who tried to speak.  She may have been ‘three sheets to the wind,’ I’m not sure.  In any case, the presenter handled these interruptions gracefully.

This workshop discussion underscores the value of, and need for, increased and more frequent inter-generational conversation about our worlds and our Paganisms 

Highlight

Which brings me to the real highlight, for me, of my having attended this workshop.

Understand that I’d come to PCon after a drastic disaffiliation from my ‘home community’ and another set of misunderstandings/disapprovals over the past year-plus, so I’ve been processing those changes and contemplating what my place might be, if any, in the Pagan world I love so much.

At one point Xochiquetzal recognized my raised hand, so I began to speak and was interrupted.  She then stated to the group something complimentary about me.  I was amazed!  I didn’t even know she’d any idea of who I am.  But she did, and she said it loud and clear.  It sure felt good to hear her speak.  Not only was this incident a highlight of Xochiquetzal’s workshop; for me it was a blazing highlight of the whole Con 

I’m thinking of a possibility we’d both articulated at the time, that we might have a mutually enlightening conversation about the matter of veils, along generational lines.  I could even see a colloquy between us that could be formatted into a more formal article. 


[1]   Gods, what a splendid name!

[2]    A sort of dropping-and-centering awareness technique used in some larger rituals to help maintain the focus of everyone present on the larger working of the group; something like a tent pole (holding the space up) and/or pegs (keeping the space anchored and contained).

[3]   None of this even begins to address the advances made in menstrual care products.  Some methods used before the advent of sanitary pads that adhere to one’s underwear were downright tortuous!

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com

Comments

  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    Dear Aline,
    Part of my religious past was spent in the Hari Krishna Movement and we where expected to have our heads COVERED. It was part of OUR purity. So when I hear this subject raised It pushes bottons. I can see boths sides, sometimes. Covering your head must alway be a choice, not a rule. Yes, this society sexualizes young girls too quickly, and I wish young girls would dress more modestly. But so does partriarchal religions. The very act of covering a girl when she gets the age, says she is sexual. And if a girl is not covered it makes her "fair game" for all kinds of evilness.
    I always felt that if men could not contain themsleves, THEY should be blind folded. Then my tolerence for "dessert war gods" grinds to a halt. I can put up with them for a while, but just cannot support them.
    But thanks for the article, it makes one think.
    I had the same reaction one year, at the Con, to corsetts. It seemed like it was just yesterday that I had gotten rid of my damn girdle. HA

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    Thanks for your comments, Constance. It's a complicated issue. As you said, the choice must always be that of the wearer.

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Monday, 17 March 2014

    Sometimes this topic makes me upset, and sometimes it doesn't. I've deliberately gained weight at certain points in my life in order to avoid sexual attention. We as women should not be the ones acting to cover ourselves when attention is unwanted. We should instead be acting to change the behaviors of those who would send us that unwanted attention. We need to speak up, not cover up.

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