Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Holy Hair": Interfaith Awarenesses

Over on Morethodoxy, Rachel Kohl Finegold shares her experience of an interfaith panel at Le Mood.  In short, in reaction to Quebec's proposed law against wearing "religious symbols" while working in public life, they held an interfaith panel discussion, in which head and hair covering became a major topic, in discussion with a Sikh gentleman.

Finegold finds a place where she has more privilege than her Sikh co-panelist: she can pass as just someone wearing a hat, whereas his turban is visibly a religious item.  Her observance would be marginally safer than his, if this law passed.  She is less visibly different.

She also finds in herself a new sensitivity. The Sikh feel discomfort about having his turban patted down, based on Sikh belief that the head is a holy part of the body, not to be touched by other people.  Hearing this, Finegold realizes that her own experiences in airport security are offensive to her.  People ask her to take off her hat, which feels to her like being asked to take off her shirt.  She'd never been offended by it before, but now, she was noticing the cultural insensitivity of the request.

She says that the conversation "sensitized me to my own tzniut".  And yes, in a context where covering is the norm, it would be offensive to ask someone to uncover their head or hair.  But in a world where indeed, she might pass, whether she is intending to or not, I have this feeling that there is also room for patience and tolerance- because the TSA folks might just not know.  Educating the uninformed is worthwhile, getting offended at them may be more reaction that is needed.  At least, that's my reaction today.

It seems that visibility cuts both ways.  It's riskier- but you can also use that visibility to advocate for yourself and your community.

I'd never considered covering my head as inconspicuous, but I suppose that with a hat, on the street, it is.  It's always a little squiggly feeling, noticing a privilege you have, if you want it, when you usually feel visibly identified and identifiable.  I wonder if that's what Ms Finegold was feeling.

Do you feel like you can hide your religious identity when it's convenient?  How does that feel for you?


  1. Visibility is...an interesting problem because I've found there's a difference between looking different and being visible as a member of a group. There's a strange space between passing and proclaiming identity where I look different from everyone else, but my surrounding culture lacks the necessary cues to identify me.
    This is another sticky place between privilege and presence, because I look "stylish" when I cover my hair with a hat, especially when I'm wearing a beret/wool cloche during the winter. And even my headscarves pass for intriguingly retro or offbeat on the street. There are days when I want a large sign taped to the back of my head saying "This covering has religious significance for me!" and then there are days when I very much don't.
    When I first started teaching, I only wore hats because hats, as Rachel says, help one pass. By the end of my first year, I was more comfortable wearing scarves to teach (and I was running an 8am section and taking my orals at that point so the fact that I got to the classroom with a lesson plan and my shirt the right way round was an achievement) and, over the summer, I deliberately wore a large, rectangular scarf on my second day as an odd kind of "this is who I am" statement.
    But I never know if the statement I'm making is the same one other people are hearing (this has often been my experience with teaching, especially in the beginning).
    So I value being able to pass because I am uncomfortable standing out without standing up. And yet there seems to be a lack of cultural awareness of Jewish hair covering as a recognizable form. This, I imagine, is because the how of covering has always been culturally determined and so Judaism, as such, does not have a distinctive style. We adopt the style of the culture around us and cover accordingly. And the current Western style of public hair covering is to not, which complicates matters and means that the current generation of Ashkenazi women (for the purposes of this conversation and making sweeping claims, lets say women under 40) find themselves in search of a tradition/stye of hair covering they can turn to and (assuming they have a job that does not mind scarf-like coverings) they, somewhat naturally, turn to the Israeli styles and modify them for the kinds of scarves and styles suited to the West…and attempt to avoid cultural appropriation in the process.
    Do we fail to stand out because we pass or because we aren’t identifiable in the first place?

  2. Such an interesting question! I am really fascinated reading your essays on visibility and privilege.

    I am a Hindu who does not look like a standard Hindu and I often feel very frustrated that I'm not visibly Hindu. I don't want to blend in and be assumed to be Christian because that's how I look.

    Sometimes I wear a bindi to denote my religion, but sometimes I don't. I have allowed myself to use the default of passing to avoid confusing people or making them uncomfortable.

    Visibility and passing is something that I think about a lot.

    1. It is such a tension, between wanting to publicly claim your identity by being really visible, and not wanting to go through all that trouble. I imagine that it's harder when you don't match the stereotypical "look".

      I really stand behind that position of choosing, day by day, or even in shorter time periods, whether you find it more important to identify or pass or where you just want to do what's easiest, because it doesn't matter too much. Because identity, and the social politics that go with it, aren't stagnant, or the same in every situation.

      Would you tell me more about the meaning of the bindi in Hinduism and for you in particular? I think they're gorgeous, and I know there are similar decorations that are sometimes worn by folks from other religions- but what research I've done so far seems pretty inconclusive...