All this week I’ve had coverings on my mind. Yesterday, as I was doing research about plain dress among the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, I was joined at the library computer table by a Muslim woman in full head veiling.
Yes, it’s true. There are more Muslim head veilings at Eastern Mennonite University these days than there are Mennonite ones.
And the last time I veiled my own head, it was to enter a mosque.
So, as I prepare to speak on the subject of Coverings: Amish and Mennonite Stories next Tuesday, February 25, at Mount Joy Mennonite Church, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, I recognize the complexities of this subject.
In my own case, the story I have to tell is one of both attraction and rejection. I wore a Mennonite prayer veiling 1960-1966 every day all day. My memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World tells the story of how hard it was for me to choose between the loving faith community that surrounded me and the glittering world that attracted me.
I was saved from the hardest choice by the fact that the church itself was changing. Conservatives would say that the Lancaster Conference gave way to the pressures of the world. Liberals would say that the church had been placing an unfair burden on women to maintain religious and ethnic boundaries for the whole community. The old visible symbols gave way to more abstract and historical theological identities.
Thousands of Mennonite women living today at one time wore a covering on their heads and no longer do so. Thousands of Mennonite women living today still wear coverings on their heads.
It seems only fair that both should speak.
I asked my Facebook friends, many of whom belong to the category of formerly-covered Mennonites, for their stories.
I can’t include all of them here, but you may be interested in this summary:
- 21 people responded with stories
- two people suggested scholarly articles to consult
- most of the stories were from women. Most of them had either humorous or rebellious themes. All of them showed evidence of the strain of carrying the weight of communal identity.
Here are just two of the stories representing the latter theme. Since I didn’t ask permission for attribution, the actors in the stories are anonymous:
I love these stories because they show how boundaries beg for creative responses, which women supplied many times. The last story shows how complicated the issue becomes when there can be a profit motive for using the symbol without its religious base:
The president at Hesston called me to his office one day to tell me he noticed I wasn’t wearing my covering to chapel and that my parents wouldn’t appreciate that. In protest, I dyed the rim a pale pink!
Ditched it by college, but kept one folded up in a drawer for years. Found it last week. My now 35-year-old daughter played nurse with it when she was little.
I stared wearing a “covering” when I was baptized at age 9. I never minded as all my friends wore one too. Then in college I stopped wearing it and still remember how upset my mother was. She kept a drawer full of coverings by the kitchen table and would slap one on my head at meal time.
I remember when I had to start wearing a covering to school. I was so embarrassed. I had always been embarrassed when my mother came, and my peers saw her covering. Now, I had to wear it, too. We still wore strings, untied. So, what happens the first day I wear it in 7th grade? The young man who sat behind me pulled on the strings that were hanging down the inside of my dress, anchored by a large safety pin. And he pulled up the safety pin. He was surprised, and I was embarrassed even more than I already was.
It was a cold, snow covered December Sunday. She arrived at church to lead singing — but forgot her covering. When she told the worship leader, assuming they could improvise somehow, he said she wouldn’t be able to lead singing without her covering. So someone else took her place. When she got home, she quietly gathered up all the coverings in the house, took them out into a snow drift and lit them on fire.
The last time I put the covering back on was in the mid-eighties when I began waitressing part-time at the local Mennonite restaurant. Waitresses were required to wear a small, white-net covering. When I was hired and was asked if I would agree to wear it, I agreed. I also said, however, that it was difficult to put it back on because my mother and my grandmother wore it for religious reasons. And I was wearing it so that they would make a profit. It seemed disrespectful to me. He agreed, but he said his father-in-law insisted on the practice.
These are real stories from real women. It’s quite clear that most women who no longer had to wear the covering felt liberated when the change came.
The blush imagery I chose for my memoir has resonated with women like those above. They even use the same pink-red themes!
Below, I’d love to hear from you whether or not you ever wore a covering. I’d love to know your questions about the practice if you are viewing these stories from outside your own experience. Was there any symbol in your life you were happy to leave or any that you endured through creative positioning? Next time, in Part Two, I will try to represent the choices of women who still wear the veil.