Headscarves, Modern Orthodoxy, and Telling Women What to Do

by Nadieszda Kizenko

Dr. Katherine Kelaidis recently published a piece in this forum on ‘Headscarves, Modesty, and Modern Orthodoxy.’ The article, a loving homage to Kelaidis’s grandmother, aunts, and mother, describes the pressures faced by Greek immigrant women of the American Mountain West two generations ago, by contemporary Muslim women, and by Orthodox women under Ottoman rule. Acknowledging head covering as a historical code for women’s modesty and chastity—shared, one might point out, by Orthodox Jews, African American ‘church ladies,’ Roman Catholics before Vatican II, and Episcopalians before the social changes of the 1960s—the author then makes two unexpected turns. She perceptively notes that, to her supremely modest aunts, mothers, and ancestors, modesty meant “not calling attention to yourself…when everyone was wearing a headscarf, you wore it. But when you when you found yourself in a time and place where women had taken it off, you took it off as well.” “Any other choice,” Kelaidis continues, “was a display of self-aggrandizement.”

This last comment—that any other choice was a display of self-aggrandizement—leads Kelaidis to a complicated place. It is one thing to suggest that discretion is the better part of valor, and that the truly modest thing to do is to bow in true humility to the reigning external cultural standards of one’s day. One is most modest by not standing out from others. Real modesty—and by extension real Orthodoxy and real propriety—lie precisely in not making a show of one’s modesty or one’s Orthodoxy or one’s propriety.

There is certainly something to this. My supremely meek and modest parents gently corrected my own ‘Orthodox’ fervor to ‘witness’ on two separate occasions. When in the 1980s I seized the chance to travel with a group of workers from Radio Vatican in the footsteps of San Giovanni da Capestrano (see Belgrade, Budapest, and Vienna for 150.000 lira!), having just come from Jerusalem (a place where confessional lines were clearly drawn as nowhere else), as I later proudly told my father, I pointedly did not make the sign of the cross in Roman Catholic churches, even when I learned it offended my fellow travelers. He looked at me sadly. “Personally,” he said quietly, “I never think it wrong to bow before the sign of the One crucified for our sakes.” He was a real Christian. I still writhe with shame. Not so long ago, I (again proudly) told my mother that, when I was in a church where everyone else turned their backs to the altars to follow the censing cleric as he made his way around the church, I made a point of facing the altar—alone. “Perhaps,” she said, “one should not stand out from the others so not to make it seem as if one thinks one is better than they are.” With such a cloud of witnesses, I understand very well the principle of checking misguided ardor if it causes my brother (or sister) to stumble.

But there is a tension between honoring irenic humility and insisting that accommodation to someone else’s standards is the only way. Kelaidis herself acknowledges as much when she notes that when in Egypt she did initially cover her head so as not to be harassed when she went to market. In other words, one might say she was directly following the example of her grandmother. When, however, her Egyptian friends explained to her how long and hard they had fought for the right to take off the hijab, she once again went without: “I recognized that in the context of the larger culture in which I was a newcomer there was a battle being fought, and I needed to be sensitive to that.”

It is this last part that leads Kelaidis into a problematic direction. She squares off against convert women (“newcomers”) covering their hair, arguing that this shows “lack of regard for the experiences and victories of my grandmothers and aunts.” She goes further: “They do not understand what it has historically meant to be a woman in Orthodox culture and are acting a part of a culture they find exotic and appealing.” Head covering, according to Kelaidis, is supposedly part of a broader convert problem of “turning to Eastern liturgical rites into a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ live action roleplay. Dungeons and Dragons set in the Byzantine Empire or Imperial Russia.”

These are strong words—and not entirely fair ones. Let us first take the issue of “what it has historically meant to be a woman in Orthodox culture.” For all of my profound respect for the experience of Greeks, Serbs, Syrians, and others who lived under Ottoman rule, it is not the only historical context of Orthodox culture. Orthodox culture also existed in the context of rule by Russian and Habsburg emperors. There, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Rusyn women (among others), were either the dominant faith—or living alongside Greek and Roman Catholics whose notions of appropriate church dress resembled their own. This inflected their choices. Orthodox women there wore the same elegant feathered hats, bonnets, toques, or berets (depending on fashion) if they were urban or better-heeled, and scarves if they came from the village (the illustration accompanying Kelaidis’s text criticizing American converts is…a painting by Fedot Sychkov of Russian peasant women). It does not make those choices necessarily better or worse or more or less authentic than those of their Orthodox neighbors to the south and west. It just made them different.

Nor did those choices remain constant. My mother recounts that, when she and other second-wave immigrants came to the USA from the USSR in the early 1950s, still automatically wearing little lace scarves to church, they encountered the slight disdain of many ‘first-wave’ Russians who had arrived generations earlier. Those ‘first-wavers,’ like the women Kelaidis describes, and like their own ancestors in Imperial Russia, chose to emulate reigning practice and reigning fashion. On the other hand, some followed the practice of then-contemporary American Roman Catholics (and now-contemporary Orthodox Jews), wearing a little lace doily (a.k.a. the Chapel Veil) in lieu of a hat or scarf, or regarding their bouffant hair as enough of a head covering (unless, perhaps, they were going to communion). It would not have occurred to any of them that they should do anything with the hair of their little girls, let alone babies, except to have it look whatever they thought pretty—if time permitted.

All of this is to say that Kelaidis’s charge that convert women ‘exoticize’ Orthodoxy simply by wearing a head covering seems not entirely accurate. There is no shortage of either local American precedents—or, for that matter, interpretations of Scripture—for reasons women might wish to cover their hair or otherwise designate their ‘Sunday best.’ The African American women I saw every Sunday on the Broadway bus to 153rd Street (I was going to Holy Fathers, they to Abyssinian Baptist or Mother AME Zion), for example, wore gorgeous feathered creations better than anything one saw at the Derby or Saratoga—in part because of the Pauline injunction they were happy to quote in case anyone asked, and in part as respect for their own legacy of their mothers who had worked in uniforms most of the week, with church hats being their declaration of self-expression.

It is not surprising that Dr. Kelaidis’s post has sparked a lively discussion on numerous threads in social media. It is in fact heartening. It is heartening because the many different points of view—expressed with what for much of social media is extraordinary mutual respect—may bring Orthodox women and men alike to what seems a basic and essential point. Head covering for women (and indeed for men) can be a personal choice, a sign of respect for a particular tradition, or a completely unreflective act with no intentions at all. Before correcting others or enjoining them to follow the model that one finds most congenial, one would do well to realize that with regard to head coverings—and many other things—Orthodox traditions reflect different historical and cultural circumstances.  One never knows which tradition someone comes from. Perhaps we can simply agree to rejoice that others are coming to church, whatever we think of what they may be wearing. Until then, I fear I will still have old ladies in Moscow informing me that my fur shapka is a man’s hat—and be genuinely stumped when asked if it would be better to take it off and be bare-headed.

Nadieszda Kizenko is Professor of History at the University at Albany.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.