Behind the Veil: a feminist’s view on veiling

I was sitting in the Oratory in Birmingham before vespers, when my then boyfriend nodded towards a lady a few rows away. “I wish you wore one of those”, he whispered. I knew in that moment I would never wear a lace mantilla.

A year ago, on the Catholic calendar day dedicated to St Philip Neri, the rose gold lace veil had its debut at yet another church of the Congregatio Oratorii, when a friend and I had a cheeky day out in Oxford. We visited Magdalen College, and walked to the church in the warm late afternoon air, speculating about who, among the eligible Catholic bachelors would have been there. After all, I must be the only Catholic of my generation not to have a selfie with Leo Cardinal Burke.

The same friend once passed me a link to ChurchPop’s article about hipster traddies. One sign to help you spot them was the choice of headcovering: conservative enough to wear one, but stubbornly against wearing one that would link them to a specific side in church politics. Or, at least, this was the rationale for my friend. I refuse to go to Vetus Ordo Mass on principle, and I believe Vatican II was a good thing.
I’m not very liberal in my theology beyond siding with the “Come as you are” crowd: I find the idea skinny jeans are admitted into a church, while a short skirt isn’t, ludicrous. The downside of this acceptance is people showing up in joggers, but I’d ban them from society beyond church so maybe the point is finding in myself the humility to accept taste wasn’t listed as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

I have to confess that Leo DiCaprio in joggers and a denim shirt in The Wolf of Wall Street gets a pass.

Watching the film I was struck by how similar to Belfort I actually am. Until one of his sexual preferences was revealed, at least. I’m by no means a meek, submissive and unambitious woman. I’ve already come out as considering myself much alike Samantha from Sex and the City. I’m starting my own business at 27. I like pretty things and recently bought an iPhone. I have two wardrobes and a chest of drawers full of stylish clothes, and that’s just in my London flat. I get my hair “cut” in Bloomsbury and have so much stuff to do my hair I definitely agree hair is a woman’s glory. I’m not exactly the most obvious candidate for veiling. You’d think I’d rebelliously flaunt my locks in the Communion line.

The other night, fittingly on St Philip Neri’s day, I was at an event organised by the Women in Leadership Network. The theme was Embracing Excellence, and the focus was a talk by Will van der Hart, co-author of “The Perfectionism Book”. It hit right home, and many of the themes overlap with my decision to take the issue of veiling seriously. People often think that perfectionism is about excellence, but in truth it’s about a need to control.
There are 10 accepted signs of being a perfectionist, and you only need to tick 6 boxes to quality. I tick 15.  But this is a story for another time.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about head covering. I’ve read almost all of the content of the Headcovering Movement website. That’s a good place to start. I knew the feminist argument, and of course it resonates with me: I’m a #girlboss if ever there was one. My nickname in kindergarten was La Papesse. It’s quite a statement about the kind of woman I’ve been from the start. It isn’t the kind of woman you’d think would happily embrace being told she’s second best. And second best to a man? Heaven forbid.
But I have happily embraced the veil, exactly as I am. Sometimes wearing dresses that are a bit on the short side. I embraced it precisely because I’m this kind of woman, not in spite of it.

The reason is simple: it’s not about me. Nor it is about the hypothetical husband in red trousers sitting next to me on the pew. It’s not about my inferiority, or what we think of when we talk about submission or authority in the broader world. It’s not condoning or, worse, encouraging the abuse of the woman. In a society where most men don’t wear hats anymore it’s hard to see how removing one is a sign of submission for them, but we’ve all watched Downton Abbey and Mad Men so we know it wasn’t the case until recently. Hats were symbols of something, and what men did with them in society had a meaning too.
Corporate worship is about God. What both men and women do in that situation is about God.

For me, it takes the form of letting go of my need to constantly prove myself and the world that I am good enough because of what I do. It’s about letting my Heavenly Father take care of me rather than always coming up with “I know best”. I’m a strong woman and I don’t think I should be any less so: the Bible is full of strong women, and so is the history of the Church ever since. The strongest in my view is Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who risked her life being pregnant outside of wedlocks and all she had to say was: “my soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46-47*), and then risked her life again fleeing to Egypt to protect the child, and stayed with Him until the end {and the via dolorosa isn’t called that for no reason}. Art and iconography almost always paint her with a veil.
Who am I not to wear one?

*Douai-Rheims Bible. Or KJV if you’re of a Protestant persuasion. It’s translated exactly the same in both versions.

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