The veil can be a contentious symbol in American culture and is often portrayed as a garment of oppressive fundamentalism. Wednesday night three women gathered to share personal stories about their choice to embrace or relinquish the veil. They addressed the complicated cultural perception of the veil.
“I think the best way to understand the complexity is to make it a personal story,” said Rori Picker Neiss. She is a Maharat, or religious leader, in the Jewish faith. “I’m part of that narrative of where is female sexuality constrained, and where is female sexuality used as a source of oppression, and where is the covering sometimes seen as oppressive, and where is the covering seen as liberating.”
Picker Neiss spoke at the panel Choice: Women and the Veil held at The Mustard Seed Theatre at Fontbonne University. She was joined by Lubaba Abdullah, a Muslim lawyer, and Donna Fisher, a Catholic sister stationed at Notre Dame University. The panel began with brief descriptions of the participants then shifted to a scene from the current Mustard Seed production “Human Terrain.” The scene portrayed a conversation between a devout Iraqi widow and a young American anthropologist discussing veiling in Muslim culture. After the scene, the panelists shared their personal stories and events that shaped their decisions about wearing religious coverings.
Picker Neiss began wearing a traditional scarf to cover her hair when she was married. Abdullah started wearing the hijab as an adolescent. Fisher wore a habit, but returned to contemporary dress in 1970.
All three participants addressed the importance of choice in donning the veil.
“No one can make you wear the veil,” said Abdullah.
“It’s about what we choose to keep private for ourselves,” said Picker Neiss.
“The whole idea of the veil was that you take the cloister with you when you leave the cloister,” said Fisher. She was comfortable in the habit when it was part of her life but made the choice to remove the veil after the Catholic Church relaxed certain practices in the early 1960s. “After putting on nylons again, and a skirt, and a form-fitting blouse, I felt like a woman again,” she said.
Fisher was clear that her choice to remove the veil in no way judged others’ choices to adopt veiling, regardless of their culture.
Abdullah believes events and conversations like Choice: Women and the Veil benefit multiple communities and help address questions for women considering the veil.
Abdullah listed some of the relevant questions people should consider when considering the veil. “Is it just a piece of cloth or is it my relationship with God? Is it modesty, or is it chastity, or is it oppression?” she asked.
The conversation surrounding veils and their cultural significance will continue in St. Louis throughout September. “Human Terrain” will play Thursday through Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at The Mustard Seed Theatre. The Edison Theater will host “Unveiled” by Rohka Malik on Sept 27. The theaters will also be holding veil related discussions throughout the month.