Religious Dress and Symbols

Nancy Sullivan Murray introduced the topic of religious dress and symbols by pointing out that France recently enacted a law that no child attending a public school in France would be allowed to wear anything that symbolized a particular religion. This prohibition is apparently in effect in Belgium as well, although we have not heard as much about it in our press. Much of Europe has an unsettled relationship with its immigrant population, many of whom are Muslim, many of whom have fled from disruptive conditions in North Africa and elsewhere. Europeans are debating what it means to be European, just as we in this country are debating what it means to be American. There has also been a rise in anti-Semitism, Nancy noted, so whereas the initial legislation in France was aimed at the traditional dress of young Muslim women, it now includes the wearing of yarmulkes by young Jewish men. There is even legislation proposed in a section of Germany that would outlaw bandanas, seen by some as symbolic of Christian church clothing.

The WTB Planning Committee felt that it was important for us to come to grips with the possibility that what is happening in Europe might someday also affect what happens to us in the United States. Nancy pointed out that letters to the editor in the Post-Standard reflect a growing criticism of the Muslim community and of Islam. “We have to be very sensitive to this,” Nancy said. “Things happen, and they grow. It’s so easy to just keep going and not pay attention.” She introduced four speakers who discussed symbols and dress important to their religions and, in some cases, their faith’s response to the European legislation.

Christianity (Roman Catholic)—Peggy Thompson

Peggy spoke mostly about symbols as they relate to nuns because, she said, “Nuns, by what they traditionally wore and by their very persona, are to some extent symbols themselves.” Peggy said that in the early 20th century, the wearing of nuns’ habits was banned in certain places in this country and on this continent. Peggy passed around a book that showed many different habits. She pointed out that there is a fascination in this country with nuns’ habits. For Halloween you can buy a nun’s-habit costume, and several male rock groups dress as nuns. Peggy held up a T-shirt that she had been given showing a group called “Rage Against the Machine,” a heavy-metal all-male rock band, all dressed in traditional nuns’ habits and carrying rifles.

As another example of a fascination with nuns and their garb, Peggy passed around a catalogue from a company called Blessings, which she characterized as “some nostalgic men in Michigan who like to make nun dolls and Catholic schoolgirl dolls.” She showed us one of these dolls; it was clothed in a blue habit, depicting a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, a Michigan order that Peggy had studied, who were called “the blue nuns” because of the color of their habit.

The fascination with nuns’ habits lends itself to caricatures, Peggy said. One of the most popular traditional outfits in pornographic movies and strip joints is the nun’s habit or the Catholic schoolgirl uniform because this clothing is supposed to signify women who have taken vows of chastity. A number of studies have been done of the image of the nun in pornography going back to the Middle Ages.

The identification between what nuns were and what nuns wore was so tight that the ceremony by which women entered into a religious order was called the “clothing ceremony.” Each part of the habit of every order had great symbolic meaning.

Habits originally were worn to make sisters unnoticeable. They represented the garb of a poor widow; in other words, a woman who was unavailable to men. They became very expensive over time, however, because as clothing changed, the materials and components of these habits stayed the same and became less readily available. Often the habits had to be imported, thereby becoming symbols not of poverty, but of distinction.

Peggy says that it is important to understand where religious garb comes from and why people wear it. Otherwise, we can become offensively fascinated with the externals rather than focusing on the internal values that the garb symbolizes.

Buddhism—Bonnie Shoultz

Bonnie Shoultz (left) with Smita Rane

Bonnie Shoultz, who was ordained as a Buddhist nun in July, said that, in her view, if our government were able to dictate or prohibit expressions of our faith traditions, then the separation between church and state would not be as complete as it is set out to be in the Constitution. When there is separation, the government does not have the right to prohibit religious practices, unless done through a vehicle of the state (school, courtroom, etc.).

Bonnie wore her Buddhist robe. There is no distinction between the robes worn by males or by females. For lay Buddhists, there are a number of items that might be worn in public as well as in the temple. Each person makes a rakusu (a garment worn around the neck) as he or she decides to explore further, and make a stronger commitment to, the practice of Buddhism. The rakusu is patched, because it is said that when Buddha left his home where he had been raised as a prince, he left all his clothing. He went into a cemetery and made his robe from pieces taken from the shrouds of corpses. The rakusu is traditional and very precious to a Buddhist and takes 60 to 100 hours to make. One creates it as one works with a teacher on understanding the Buddhist path and exploring where one is going in his or her life. Bonnie then showed us a mala, a string of 108 beads used to count the chants or prostrations one does. Malas can also be one-quarter as long: 27 beads. Being prohibited from wearing either a mala or rakusu in public would be seen as a discriminatory act or interference by government.

Buddhists who are ordained, like clergy in many other traditions, have other items of religious dress and symbols that they might wear in public. Her shaved head, Bonnie said, is a sign of renunciation. In France, some Buddhist nuns or monks might hide a shaved head because it could remind people of the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Her friend, Shonen, a Buddhist nun from California who was at our meeting, had visited France and suggested to her hosts that she felt that she should not cover her shaved head, in order to allow those seeing her to come to another view of what the shaved head can mean.

Another reminder of the Holocaust is the swastika. Many ancient traditions use the swastika symbolically, Bonnie said. In Buddhism, the swastika signifies the foot or footprints of the Buddha and is often used to mark the beginning of texts. Because Hitler appropriated the symbol, people may be reluctant to use it; but re-visioning the symbol would be a better option, Bonnie suggested.

In response to a question regarding the belt worn wrapped around her robe, Shonen said that because the belt goes over the midsection of her body, it symbolizes both protection and a “getting out of the head,” which is what Buddhists strive for when they meditate. The belt is made as a circle, so that it has no end, thereby symbolizing infinity.

Judaism—Joan Burstyn

Joan reminded us that the Jewish community is not a monolithic community. She was speaking to us as an observant, non-Orthodox, Conservative Jew. She emphasized that the French ruling applies not only to the clothing of Muslims but also to the yarmulkes and Stars of David worn by Jewish children and to the crosses worn by Christians. She read from an article entitled, “Jews Weigh In as French Muslims Challenge Law on Church and State,” printed in JTA: The Global News Service of the Jewish People. The Chief Rabbi of France, speaking for the Orthodox community, recently wrote to President Chirac expressing his continued support for the secular values of the French Republic.

When the law restricting religion to the private domain was enacted in France in 1905, it was opposed by the French Catholic clergy and the Pope. It was, however, welcomed by the minority Jewish and Protestant communities, who saw it as a way to protect their freedom of conscience and their religious practice.

The law is now being challenged by religious groups that have come to France more recently. Many French Muslims, for example, feel that the law does not meet their needs. Protestant and Jewish schools are funded privately. Muslims, however, are now asking for state funding for their religious institutions. Many in French society feel that such funding would strike at the heart of the 1905 law separating church and state. (This is an issue in the United States as well, with the president’s initiative for the funding of religious institutions.) Some French politicians, however, want to find a way to assist the Muslim community, in part because a large proportion of the Muslim leaders in France come from outside the country and do not speak French; hence there is a fear that they might be spreading extremist views. Joan said she is not passing this on as fact, but only because this is what the fear is. Some in French society want to assist in the funding of Muslim schools and seminaries as a way to encourage an indigenous clergy which, they feel, would lead to a reduction in the threat of potential extremism. A prominent Jewish rabbi in Paris sees a danger in state financing of religious schools, because it would be difficult to keep the state from influencing what is taught in these schools.

Joan believes that the issue about whether religious symbols are allowed in public schools is not a question for only one society or one culture or one religion. It raises deeper issues about the freedom of religion and the role of the government at all levels.

One has to examine the current controversies in any particular country in the light of what has happened there in the past. We cannot close our eyes to the reasons why current laws exist in France or in the United States or elsewhere. Throughout the centuries, many bloody religious wars have been waged all over the world, resulting in the emigration of many religious groups, many of whom came to our own country. At the same time, many of those who were persecuted but remained in their homelands were actively involved in bringing about the separation of church and state.

Many people in the United States believe that it is important to be able to display symbols of their religious affiliation publicly. However, there are others who have been forced by the state to do so, such as the Jews during the Nazi regime being forced to wear the Star of David. Jews have struggled for centuries to be accorded all the same rights as other citizens of their countries. While their religion was different from the majority, it in no way affected their patriotism or their willingness to serve their country.

In joining the wider society, Jews often face problems fulfilling their religious obligations. Even societies that consider themselves secular may assume a common Sabbath, for example, that is different from the Jewish Sabbath.

Freedom to wear certain symbols, if one makes that personal decision, is fine. However, if wearing or not wearing certain symbols is forced on some people by others, that is a different issue. Even within some religions, certain people wish to dictate to other members what they ought to wear. There are people within Orthodox Judaism who are uncomfortable around people like Joan who dress more informally. If they had control over the local or national authority, they might try to impose their control on others.

Islam—Danya Wellmon

Danya Welmon, 3rd from left

Danya told us that hijab comes from the Arabic word that means “to curtain” or “to hide from view.” Muslims see hijab not as something oppressive, but as the hiding of something that you value and want to keep safe. People have associated hijab with just the scarf, but the word actually refers to keeping the whole body covered. Muslim women who choose to wear hijab do so out of obedience to God. Danya read a passage from the Qur΄an that commands women to cover themselves. Hijab is an outward symbol of “the light of Islam that glows in the heart of a Muslim.” For her, Danya stated, hijab helps her reflect on whether she is being the person that she should try to be. “When I go out in public … I reflect my religion. … It tries to keep you in remembrance of God and who you are.”

In some civilizations, Danya said, chastity, piety and modesty are unfortunately marketed deceptively as shackles on personal freedom. It never ceases to amaze her that in this country, we tend to equate freedom in how much clothing one does not wear! Muslim men also have to dress modestly. They are supposed to wear their clothing loose and not show their body shapes. Muslim men are ordered in the Qur΄an to lower their gaze because they are not to look at women other than their wives. In this country we are conditioned to look directly at people, and we tend to think that if a person looks down, there must be something “fishy” about him. Danya told us that if we see a Muslim man do this to us, we should not consider it a sign of disrespect.

Another aspect that is often overlooked is that hijab is a symbol of Muslim identity. A woman who covers herself is making a statement that she is a member of the Muslim community and follows a particular code of moral conduct. She is saying to you, “Deal with me intellectually, not physically.” Women start wearing hijab at the age of puberty.

A woman is still a Muslim even if she does not wear hijab. According to the tenets of Islam, no one has the right to force a woman to wear hijab; it is between her and God. Unfortunately, however, there are countries where women are forced, by men or culture, to wear hijab. In the US, women choose if they want to wear hijab; Danya has found that those who do so feel very good about their decision. She said it is ironic that the headscarf, which is seen as a sign of righteousness when worn by a nun or an Amish woman, is seen as a sign of oppression when worn for the purpose of obedience to God by a Muslim woman. Successful women in many different professions wear hijab.

Danya, who converted to Islam, finds wearing hijab very liberating, although it has also been “eye opening.” She has faced some insults, but mostly she has experienced respect from others. She related some funny stories about people’s reactions to her wearing hijab. She also told us that President Chirac of France is considering legislation that gives employers the power to prohibit some forms of religious dress and symbols.