Headscarves, Modesty, and Modern Orthodoxy

by Katherine Kelaidis

Yiayia Kay kept her scarves in the far upper right hand corner of the long light oak dresser. By the time I was old enough to remember, she never took them out except to garden. She would drape one of the silk covers over her perfectly coiffed hair to protect it against the dry winds of the Colorado high plains. As a little girl and even into her teens and early married life, these had been more than mere gardening accoutrements. They were the outward visible witness of her inner self, signaling to the world, not just that she was a Christian, but that she was a lady, modest and chaste. Then one day, around the time television became king, like so many Greek American women of her generation, she folded up the scarves and put them in the dresser.

The fact is that for most of my childhood in the urban, assimilated Greek Orthodox parish where I grew up, the head covering was completely absent. The Greek immigrant women of the Mountain West (and elsewhere) had, just two generations before me, an experience not unlike that of Muslim women today with regards to the cultural and religious mandate that they hide their hair. It had made them an object of scorn among their neighbors. It had marked them out not just as different, but backward, laying bear for all to see that the Greeks were not good to their women and that Orthodox Christianity was a tool of oppression, the unenlightened project of the exotic East. It was not until the late-1990s, with an influx of white American converts, that the headscarf appeared in my world. Many of these women did not just wear the scarf in church, but kept their heads covered at all times. They hide their perfect blond and light brown hair behind silk scarves, headbands, and pretty hats. As a teenager who rose an hour early each morning to try to tame my rebellious curls, it amazed me that these women would hide their perfect, shampoo-commercial-approved hair. Frankly, it seemed like such a waste.

What I could not see then is something that appears with sharp clarity to me now: My grandmother stopped covering her hair because of the pressures of xenophobia and assimilation, along with a desire to create a more liberated space for women within her own culture. These American women can cover their hair, because they were the goalpost for that assimilation. These women can cover their hair, because they do not fear being sent to a strange country as a “picture bride.” Difference is something they can seek by choice, not a burden thrust upon them. Submission is a well-thought out theory, not a life of powerlessness and servitude. They can make these choices without having to give a second thought to women like my grandmother. Women whose lives they carelessly overlook at every turn. Women whose ability as mothers and Christians they tacitly scorn each time they make a social media post about the lack of “zeal” among the cradle Orthodox. Women whose trials and triumphs, they do not know and do not care to learn.

When I see American (predominately white) convert women covering their hair, especially outside of church, I feel incredibly frustrated for these women’s lack of regard for the experiences and victories of my grandmothers and aunts. I sense that they do not understand what it has historically meant to be a woman in Orthodox culture and are acting out a part of a culture that they find exotic and appealing. This is part of a larger issue regarding a tendency among many American converts to turn the Eastern liturgical rites into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” live action roleplay. Dungeons and Dragons set in the Byzantine Empire or Imperial Russia.

Now, there was a time, when, briefly I did cover my hair each day. When I lived in Egypt, I quickly realized that while no law existed, my life was usually easier with a headscarf. Then my Egyptian women friends began asking me why I wore it. I told them the truth: I wanted to go to the market without getting harassed. That is when I got a history lesson of my own: Egyptian women had fought hard throughout the early 20th century to take off the hijab. My friends shared with me how desperately they were trying to hold on to the hard-won gains made by their mothers and grandmothers in the face of growing fundamentalism and refusing to put on the veil was a powerful symbol of this. Recognizing this, I went without one in Egypt, even if it meant more harassment on the streets. I recognized that in the context of the larger culture in which I was a new arrival, there was a battle being fought, and I needed to be sensitive to that. Our choices, personal and otherwise, have consequences. Our choices mean something, and not just what we might tell ourselves they mean.

When I asked my mother about why Yiayia stopped wearing the veil, years after my grandmother was gone, my mother said that for my yiayia it came down to modesty (even in the face of her other considerations). Modesty as both women had been quick to remind my sister and me is “not a line you draw on your knee. It is a line you draw on your heart.” It means not calling attention to yourself. Not asking the world to view you as the most beautiful or the most holy. 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 was a display of self-aggrandizement.

Modesty was always the goal of the veil. The women I knew in my childhood who had taken it off were the most modest I have known in my life. These were women who lived their lives in a spirit of humility I can only dream of possessing. When women come to the Orthodox Church and take up the veil with complete disregard for the stories and lives of  the women I have so loved, I cannot help but feel some anger. Our choices matter. And so I would beg my sisters to reconsider theirs. I have known pious women, saints if ever saints walked among us. They lived lives you cannot imagine. They were the refugees you fear. The child brides you ignore. At least think of them when you walk into the churches they built. Do not make their burden your costume. It seems a small tribute indeed.

Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries.

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.