Saturday, February 20, 2010

Help, Help, I'm Being Oppressed

A couple days ago, my husband called down to me from upstairs, “Honey, are you oppressed by men?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s the violence inherent in the system.”

“When you wear your bonnet? Do men oppress you when you wear your bonnet?”

Ah. That’s why the question. This strange stairwell conversation was coming out of his online discussion with some British Friends, who were inexplicably uncomfortable with the idea of people following personal leadings to dress differently from them.

“Ah. No, the bonnet isn’t a sign of oppression. As a matter of fact, it tends to make men uncomfortable. And when men are uncomfortable, I win.” I still think this is a funny line, although the Brits didn’t see the humor. Kevin dutifully toddled off and reported his scientific findings regarding female plain dress to them, and they immediately started wondering why I felt such a need to compete. I guess I can’t win, after all.

So, yes, I’ve been oppressed and witnessed it too… from my childhood, when my father absent-mindedly responded, “Women can’t do that” when I mentioned a career possibility that I had a passing interest in. I have long forgotten which one of the scores of career possibilities it was… I know it wasn’t sperm donor. But I still remember his offhand rejection. If I reminded him of the conversation, he would be horrified. But the assumption of inferiority was still there; and the assumption kicked in before the higher faculties ever even engaged.

Through various strange assumptions as I grew into adulthood… the vice-principal of my high school shook his head at me, “You’re a smart kid. I don’t understand how you could be doing so badly in school. Maybe you should join the cheerleading squad; it would help you get involved more… Get some school spirit…”

Through that strange Episcopalian church-conference on sexual abuse, where they quoted statistics for the number of boys sexually abused by the age of 18, and the number of girls sexually abused by the age of 12. When I pointed out the lack of parity in the statistics, the presenters were genuinely distressed. They had never noticed. They had never noticed that the assumption behind their statistics was that what happens to minor girls 13 and up isn’t sexual abuse, but what happens to minor boys is. They promised to make the statistics equivalent… I dunno if they ever did. I hope so.

Right up to the conversation I had yesterday, with a sweet gentle kind man, about a Christian women’s group on Yahoo! “Well, you know, it’s a place where Christian women can get together and talk about women’s things… housecleaning, and cooking, and childcare… stuff like that….” I didn’t actually have the heart to challenge him, because I had to admit to myself that I do talk about those things with other women. Just the other day, I commiserated with a member of my meeting about the state of our porches… she had a pet rooster who had made his home on hers; I have a fence-defiant goat. Personally, I would rather have goat poop than chicken poop on my porch, but either one is annoying. So I admit that he is right… these are things women talk about. But why are they relegated to “women’s things”? And what about politics and sports and economics and social justice and spiritual growth and leadings from God? Why don’t we assume that those are women’s things?

Even my own meeting isn’t immune to the violence inherent in the system. For 350 years, Quakers have accepted the equality of men and women. But even here, where women are allowed to be strong, and men are allowed to be gentle, somehow nearly twice as many of the recorded ministers in my yearly meeting are men. And nearly twice as many of the elders (the supportive, nurturing position)are women.

So, yes, there’s violence inherent in the system. Yes, there’s deadly assumptions built into our culture. But, no, the doohickey on my head is not a symbol of male oppression.

I chose to alter my style of dress and to put the bonnet on, in order to be visible as a professing servant of God (the clothes can only bear witness to my profession, not to my actual spiritual state). I didn’t honestly have any expectations about how other people would react to this public declaration, but folks’ reactions have been interesting and instructional. Many people find my appearance strangely reassuring; total strangers will come up to me and tell me about their spiritual journeys, or ask me questions about God. My heart goes out to them; such people are on a spiritual journey, and God has placed this dumpy little Quaker where they can see her, to aid in some small portion of their trip. It’s an honor beyond measure.

Folks who are members of religious groups that practice headcovering for women find me comfortable… I’m different—they can tell I’m different—but they’re pretty sure we must have a connection somewhere, whether they’re Mennonite or Amish or Muslim.

And then there are the folks who are made distinctly uncomfortable by my appearance. At first, this bothered me a little… I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable. But I have come to understand something. If my mere appearance is enough to make someone uncomfortable, it probably has very little to do with me. It is probably because I am silently challenging their assumptions. There is probably something that they could afford to examine about themselves or their beliefs. Most commonly, folks are concerned that I don’t dress like them. For some reason, this bothers them. Sometimes they explain that it is because they think I am pretending to be better than they are, spiritually. Sometimes they explain that they think I ought to blend in better with the dominant culture, in order to be a better witness for God. Sometimes, they see my bonnet and create a whole imaginary set of stereotyped beliefs and activities for me, and it bugs them that I am intelligent and articulate and bossy and laugh too loud and detest canning and support gay marriage.

For one reason or another, I challenge their assumptions, and wrench their perspective into an unfamiliar alignment. Whenever that happens to someone, he or she becomes open to new wisdom in ways that they do not when their comfort zones are not challenged. I don’t know what new wisdom God intends to plant in folks, when my doohickey puts their knickers in a knot. But that’s not my problem. I guess I should have told my husband, “When folks are uncomfortable, God wins.” And when God wins, we all get to walk out of the cave of oppression. With or without the bonnet. Just watch out for the rabbit.


kevin roberts said...

I don't "toddle."

Shawna said...

Objection duly noted.

Toddle along now, there's a dear.

Michelle-ozark crafter said...

Well while hubby "toddles" off dutifully I will say I greatly enjoyed your post. Here in my hometown, my covering and manner of dress don't even warrant a second glance, yet go to Springfield Mo 80 miles away and I am either treated as if I have 2 heads, stared at as a curiosity and sometimes even accepted and treated kindly. If it makes others reflect on Christ and think about their spiritual life I have served my purpose! huggles!

Broken Gooding said...

I really enjoyed your comments. I have begun covering and am constantly amazed at the way others treat me. Men give up their seats for me on the train instead of ignoring me as I about fall over holding a hand railing. Total strangers now apologize to me if they accidentally rub me. All in all, I am treated lots more respectfully and I like the change very much. The results are I smile a lot more while moving through crowds, and here in LA County, CALIF., we have too many of these:)

Joyce said...

Does anyone ever just think you're being silly? I am a life long Quaker and that is my general attitude to Quakers who go off on the simple dress thing. 'Course, it's also my attitude to the Joys for thinking it is against god to cut your hair, and various other people.

Of course, I hope you would never know to meet me that this is what I think. As a good Quaker I am pluralistic and believe in respecting everyone's leadings however silly I think they are. As you have pointed out, yours distinguishes you as clergy to a lot of people and I can see that has value now that you point it out. Still "silly" would have been my first impression, and neutral respectful "just-treat-the odd-ball-Quaker-like-everyone-else" would have been my behavior.

Peggy Senger Parsons said...

I love you people - really I do. Thanks for the funny look into your world.

I don't give a rat's ass what you wear. but I hope you wear the doohickey when you belly dance cause that would be so cool.

I think you and I both dress for respect. I get lots of respect in public. Especially when I wear the knee high snake skin boots with the four inch stiletto heels.

I do keep my head covered when I am on the bike - Jesus told me to.

toddle on!
much love

kevin roberts said...

I don't "toddle."

kevin roberts said...

And I'm not "dutiful," either.

Beth said...

Hello Shawna!

Thanks for this perspective. I would love to tell you about my encounter with conservative Mennonites since I don't wear a head covering, but must get back to some academic tasks.


Shawna said...

Hi, Michelle! Hugs back... Somewhere in my photo files, there is a picture of my kids enjoying a street fair in Columbus, and a young man with a mohawk and body piercings turning his head to stare at them as they go by. It's absolutely precious. Carry on, sista!

Hi, Broken! I'm so glad that you are having a good experience. I think people seem to smile at me more when I am wearing my covering too. A couple months ago, I was in a rush to get out the door and couldn't find my bonnet, and I decided to just go without. It might have been my imagination, but I felt like I was being treated with more indifference while I was shopping... not as many smiles that day.

Hi Joyce! Oh yes, I'm sure that there are plenty of folks who simply regard my choice of clothing to be silly (which may account for the lack of smiles on my covering-less errand-run the other day....). That's OK. The world needs all the silliness it can get. If we all took things less seriously, we might have peace in our time. I've met folks who have made good-natured jokes at my expense. That's cool.

Hi Peggy! One of the reasons I love and respect Quakerism, is that our individual appearances are not prescribed to us by someone else. We are not a "plain-dressing" church, in which everyone has to wear the right suspenders or bonnet. We are also not a "modern-dressing" church, in which everyone is pressured to wear clothes that fit in with average cultural street dress (I've met Methodists, for example, who had received a lot of grief from their church for attempting to wear more plain-looking clothes). At a Quaker meeting, I can wear my bonnet and sit next to people in dreadlocks, or with body piercings and tattoos, or in shorts and tank tops, or stilletto snakeskin boots, and no one thinks it's odd. I think that's pretty cool.

I don't wear my everyday cotton doohickey when I'm bellydancing. I made a black silk scarf, and a blue gauze sort of a wimple-thing, and a painted cotton scarf... to wear while dancing. I once wore the blue gauzy thing to meeting for worship; got several compliments, but it's too fragile for daily wear-and-tear.

Hi Beth! Be sure and share your story sometime when you have more time. I like the Mennonites, conservative or liberal, although we have our differences.

Martin Kelley said...

I don't see what's wrong with toddling. Embrace your toddle Kevin!

Chris M. said...

Oh, I'm not scared of a little rabbit. Whoops! Auggggghhhhh....

PS The story about the guy with the mohawk and piercings is great!

Mary Ellen said...

In our area, we don't (to my knowledge) have any plain-dressing quakes, but we do seem to have a dress code of sorts - which is to wear simple and casual clothes to Meeting for Worship. A friend of mine who used to come from time to time felt very uncomfortable not dressing up for a Sunday service. And our many visitors probably do feel a bit overdressed. But jeans and casual shirts don't communicate anything about specific about a religious calling as your covering does. I wonder what I would wear to express that?

Karen said...

Token Briton here: I don't find your covering odd or uncomfortable. It's probably because I hang out with a lot of Goths, who get all kinds of verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse for looking different.

I have found a lot of lazy assumptions about dress, particularly when Muslim women wear headscarves, in the UK, which is mainly about the ugly anti-immigration, anti-Muslim sentiment encouraged by the press and government over the past 10 years or so.

My own experience is that you can tell when someone's performing and when they're just being authentic. I've known a couple of women wear "plain dress", including head covering, as just an integral part of who they are, and they felt warm and real; a couple of others, though, seemed to be doing it for attention - somehow their lack of integrity telegraphed itself around them before they even opened their mouths and confirmed it. They were just as insecure and desperate for attention as the girls they were judging (negatively) for their fake tan, hair extensions, fake nails, and trowelled-on make-up.

Oh, I know what it is! When you are aware that your presentation is a performance that doesn't affect your integrity, it feels as "right" as when your presentation is not a performance at all. It's when you're not at peace with who you are and with your presentation that it feels "wrong".

Well, that was obvious once I typed it.

Linda (haven) said...

Thanks for all of this...the sense of humor, the explanations, the "toddling", the differences.
I'm toying with what plain dress is for me. I think its the clothes I would wear everyday, jeans and a plain shirt, hair pulled back instead of fancy styles, practical shoes. It's the things that remind me that God is where I am every second of every day, and that I don't have to dress up or down, to meet the God of my understanding. But might there be merit to witnessing that to others in some more traditional fashion? I am praying on it. You and Quaker Jane have been giving me a lot of food for thought, and it is much appreciated.

Raye said...

Shawna . . . oppressed . . . in the same sentence?!?!?!


Heather said...

I was so pleased to read this - I do wonder how you're getting on when you don't blog, especially since I gave up the Conservative Friends mailing list.

I'm just giggling that anyone could think you were oppressed :)

Keep toddling, Kevin! :)

Joyce said...

Marry Ellen -

I think that dressing plainly is a pretty common expectation among Quakers. I like fashion and I like to wear stylish things and I have definitely felt judged at times. The people who dress up in a less traditional way do not I think get as much judgement but I can't be certain. I went to a Quaker College where I was a member of the Quaker program and my insistence upon staying clean, wearing make-up when I felt like it, and dressing in what was described (not nicely) as proto-professional often got me trouble. Also, leather can cause problems. Shawna's tern of phrase is very appealing but I bet the person in the leather steleto's (if they exist) was either a man (who would be accepted as counter culture) or a woman with a very strong sense of self who doesn't mind that some Quakers don't like her way of dressing.

Hystery said...

Thanks for this post, Shawna. I will want to read it again and again.

Peggy Senger Parsons said...

This has been a very fun thread.

Forgive me Shawna, But I just have to respond to Friend Joyce.
I haven't had the novelty of having my existence questioned in quite a while.

Hi, Joyce, I exist.
And so do my stilettos.
I have been told they are Python.
They are real.
I am wearing them in my profile pic.
Is snake, leather? I guess so.
My motorcycle leathers are goat.
(tougher than cow and softer)
I am not a man.
I am the pastor of an unaffiliated Friends Church that is inclusive in more ways than I can count.
I guess I do have a strong sense of self.
I have many funny stories about Friends reactions on both the Unprogrammed and programmed sides.

You can follow the profile pic to my blog and my churches blog.

Peggy Senger Parsons

Shawna said...

Martin -- Kevin says he'll get you for that!

Chris -- But what is your favorite color?

Mary Ellen -- When Kevin and I first started attending Quaker meeting, we decided "You will know them by their shoes." (Sorry, Peggy. there wasn't a stiletto in the bunch.)

Karen -- Excellent point. A person can be just as uncomfortable with themselves while wearing plain-ish stuff as they can be while wearing "worldly" stuff. No matter where you go, there you are....

Linda -- You and God will develop the right "look" for you! Quaker Jane, by the way, is a wonderful woman. Intensely intensely wonderful. She feels led to a more traditional, historic way of dress. I like bright colors, and am more artsy-fartsy plain-ish. Jeans and a T-shirt are an equally valid witness, depending on what God wants you to do....

Raye -- well, not very oppressed. But I've been reading a wonderful book called "Ambassadors of Reconciliation", which is about peacemaking and restorative justice, and the authors are very careful to point out that there are power dynamics at work in our various cultures that we need to be aware of in order to truly be working towards justice. One can, without realizing it, be both oppressed and oppressor.... It's been a great read.

Heather -- Hello! It's great to see you! Kevin is adamant that he doesn't toddle. I think he protests too much.

Joyce -- Funny how a person can be given grief just for wearing what they want to wear, isn't it? Folks are silly sometimes. I suspect that what you experienced was probably a result of liberal Quaker attitudes. Among the conservatives and evangelicals (and I think also FUM), that "proto-professional" look would be more acceptable. Leather too. The conservative meeting I attend has tattooed, tank-topped women, and women who like to wear business suit-style Sunday best, and women in jeans, and me... just to name a quick range of styles. Peggy really is a real woman, by the way, and an excellent writer. You should check out her blog.

Hystery -- Well, thank you. I hope it's useful. I'm working on a new blog post that includes Matilda Joslyn Gage... thanks again for the tip!

Peggy -- Neener neener neener, you don't exist!!!!!

Joyce said...

You are sorta right that I was experiencing the negativity from Liberal Friends. It was at Guildford and we have a pretty good mix there but the the FGC folks are the loudest.

Peggy, I said you might exist, but I didn't rule you out as a illustrative device. You sound fierce, I will check out your blog.

Nate said...

Don't let 'em kid you, Joyce. Peggy is entirely mythical, as are Shawna and Kevin. Don't know whether Shawna and Kevin hug as warm as Peggy, though.

Shawna said...

Joyce -- Yep, Peggy is cool. Sorry about the lack of patience of the folks at Guildford...

Nate -- I don't mind being mythological, as long as you believe in me... Someday, I hope we get a chance to do a warm-hug comparison. Peggy will probably win, cuz she's cool, but I'll give it my best!

Joolie said...

Loved this post! When I was in my 20s I lived in a neighborhood that was largely Muslim (East Dearborn, Michigan). I was a young feminist and very uncomfortable with the head-covered women. I would fume to my friends and coworkers about their oppression. Much later I realized how I had judged them, that I never attempted to make friends in my neighborhood, that I have no idea how those women felt about their head coverings. Recently I saw a rerun of Jack and Bobby, an old WB TV show, in which a female college professor gets told off by an observant Muslim woman in her class, who points out that her choice to withdraw from the world of fashion is equally authentic with the women in high heels and makeup, who are surely just as oppressed, or not, as she is. As with many issues, one must go beyond the knee-jerk reaction.

Hystery said...

Me again. I told you I'd enjoy reading this over and over...

This is my favorite part:
"Many people find my appearance strangely reassuring; total strangers will come up to me and tell me about their spiritual journeys, or ask me questions about God. My heart goes out to them; such people are on a spiritual journey, and God has placed this dumpy little Quaker where they can see her, to aid in some small portion of their trip. It’s an honor beyond measure."

What a beautiful, simple, humble, and love-filled approach to ministry!

Shawna said...

Joolie, I have been reading a book called "Ambassadors of Reconciliation" that has been an extremely interesting view into the world of power dynamics and oppression. It is just as you say....

Hystery, Thank you very much. You're very kind to me. (I don't feel humble!)

Shawna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ronna Detrick said...

Beautifully written, beautifully spoken, beautifully lived.

I was listening to a podcast just this morning. Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaking on the Dangerous Old Woman ("age" not being the determiner). She spoke of being in a place in our lives as women here we stop paying attention to all the voices around us; where we actually live from our intuition, our heart, our deep knowing.

You're doing this. Did I mention that it's beautiful? Undoubtedly, God is winning. :)