Removing a Veil

A minority religious group provokes curiosity among their neighbors, not least because of their habits concerning ritual and prayer. Their women are conspicuously veiled; they gather for meetings whose mysterious conduct and message lead to anxiety. They stop even in their daily routine to pray, facing a specific direction, and using a set formula given by their founder as a mark of their faith.

This minority religion sounds like Islam, perhaps as described by a contemporary European. But the quotation comes from Andrew McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship, and it accurately depicts the communal, embodied patterns of religious practice for normal early Christians. Ancient Christian women were usually veiled, fixed daily hours of prayer were widely practiced, and directional prayer postures were common, if not universal.

McGowan here captures one of the most important pedagogical tools for the scholar of religion: defamiliarizing the supposedly familiar, so that people can see their own religion anew.

Here's a clear example: students of history are often disgusted by the religious policing of women’s bodies on display throughout Christian history. The most explicit text from antiquity is Tertullian’s On the Veiling of Virgins, whose sharp rhetoric stops modern students in their tracks:

I beg you, whether mother, sister, or virgin daughter … veil your head! If a mother, on account of your sons. If a sister, on account of your brothers. If a daughter, on account of your fathers. You are a danger for every age group. Put on the armor of decency, draw a stockade of reserve around, build a wall for your sex, [of the sort] that neither may reveal your eyes nor give access to [the eyes of] others. (16.3-4)

When we defamiliarize Christianity, it can also lead students to reconsider the religious practices of others. For students who are attentive to the news, texts such as Tertullian’s call to mind both the veiling of Muslim women and the “burkini ban” in France, where the power of the state has been used to force women to undress on the beach. And Christian critics of the ban noted, quite obviously, that Catholic nuns cover their bodies and heads at the beach. The American Amish do the same, to a lesser degree, a fact which invites a multireligious reflection on the practice.

Here in New York, students learning about Christian veiling of women’s bodies might also compare the extreme avoidance of women’s bodies practiced by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. In this case the policing occurs not on a French beach, but most commonly in a boardroom or on an airplane – even a French one. Journalist Collier Meyerson recounted her experience on Air France from a couple months ago, when a painful episode she had only heard about finally happened to her: because she is a woman, a man refused to sit next to her.

At first, Meyerson was compassionate and wanted to respect the man’s religious beliefs. But it became clear that he wasn’t going to be the one compromising by moving his seat. “When my physical comfort is compromised because of a belief that touching another woman will somehow lead to sex or impurity, that women are too tempting to even sit next to on a plane, well, that’s the devotee’s problem – not mine.”

After she was forced to move seats, Meyerson noted that “[the female flight attendant], and by extension Air France, clearly weren’t thinking about the significance of what had transpired. What if it was a white supremacist with kind eyes and a warm smile who refused to sit next to me because I’m black? Or a non-Jewish person who couldn’t stand sitting next to me because I’m Jewish?”

For students of religion, defamiliarizing the familiar is the necessary flip side of compassion, which is putting oneself in another’s shoes. Defamiliarizing is entering a mindset where one’s own shoes – one’s own religious traditions – become foreign, worthy of scrutiny, and ultimately open to both critique and renewal. A veil of the normal is lifted, and education can begin.


Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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