Examining the Mysteries, and Myths, of the Veil

January 22, 2016
Susanna Drake, WSRP Research Associate
2015–16 WSRP Research Associate Susanna Drake

This past fall, Susanna Drake taught a seminar on one of the most contentious religious objects in the world today: the veil.

Drake, an associate professor at Macalester College who received her MTS from HDS and is back this year as a Research Associate with the Women's Studies in Religion Program, is quick to point out that, despite popular notions about the veil, it has a much more complicated history than we imagine.

Westerners are now likely to associate the veil with Muslim women, but it has actually been used much more widely throughout history. Drake's course, "The Veil in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam," let students explore the many and varied meanings of the veil in the Abrahamic religions, learning how complex a simple piece of cloth can be.

The seminar covered some territory new to Drake, since her scholarship until now has largely focused on early Christianity. She began studying that area in earnest at HDS, taking classes with professors like Nicholas Constas (now Father Maximos) and Karen King on subjects such as gnosticism, the New Testament, and influential early Christian theologians called the Church Fathers. These interests eventually led her to a PhD in religious studies at Duke.

As a graduate student, Drake was fascinated by early Christian ascetic texts tied to the rise of monasticism, but she found a strange theme kept popping up.

"The writings often contained horrible things about Jewish people, so I began wondering what the use was, for these early Christian leaders, of these negative representations of Jews, especially around the area of bodies and sexuality," she said.

This became the subject of her dissertation, which in turn became her first book, Slandering the Jew: Sexuality and Difference in Early Christian Texts.

Though the specificity of that subject may seem a far cry from a seminar that explores veiling practices in three world religions and includes texts spanning 2,500 years, Drake's interest in the veil was also inspired by her study of the Church Fathers.

One New Testament passage particularly important to these early theologians is found in Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, which makes the veil Moses is said to have worn into a metaphor for interpretation of the Scriptures.

"These theologians believed the Jews had a 'veiled' reading of their own scriptures, so it was only those who were able to access a deeper spiritual meaning, i.e., a Christological meaning, who read with 'unveiled' faces," Drake said.

Though Paul and the Christian writers who followed him were using the veil metaphorically, Drake found herself wondering about the historical practices that might have informed their understanding of the veil.

"Whenever I would talk on the subject, people would ask, 'Well, who was veiled in the third century when Origen of Alexandria was walking around Caesarea Maritima? Are there gender connotations there, are there class connotations?' "

At the same time, Drake was encountering the veil in her own life.

"When I began thinking about the veil on Moses's face, I was also living in Minneapolis among women who had a veiling practice, including students at Macalester," she said. "There's a large Somali population in Minneapolis, many of whom are Muslim, and many of the women wear veils. So my thinking about what sorts of things the veil signified in the late ancient world was never divorced from thinking about what the veil signifies right now"—here she paused and corrected herself—"or rather what sorts of things the veil signifies right now. I always want to make that plural because it's never just one thing."

“How do we train ourselves to hold differences tenderly?”

The distinction is characteristic of Drake, who always tries to push discussion in the direction of greater complexity and nuance, away from generalizing. It was precisely the oversimplification of Muslim veiling in political discourse, even among some feminists, that fascinated Drake.

"There's a common notion among many non-veiling people in the United States that women's veiling somehow signifies oppression, submission, or subjection, and that unveiling signifies freedom. Because I was interested philosophically in theories of freedom, in feminist theory, and in understandings of religion, I started going outside of my study of early Christianity, wanting to think about the theoretical issues raised by people like Saba Mahmood, who really disrupted any idea that veiling always signifies non-freedom and unveiling always signifies freedom. Leila Ahmed, too, has done such good work to show us how those notions are rooted in colonialist history—those different feminist efforts to unveil the oppressed women."

To illustrate what a political flashpoint veiling is, as well as how narrowly the topic is conceived, Drake pointed to the fact that the New York Times website has a special subheading called "Muslim veiling," under which all articles touching on the subject are gathered.

"Christian veiling is not a category, but why not? There are head-covering movements among lay Catholics and lay Protestants in the U.S., and you can find women who blog on the subject. We've also totally forgotten that many nuns still wear head-coverings as part of their Christian practice," she explained.

This shift in thinking in the U.S. is relatively recent, as Drake's own family reminded her.

"I was talking to my aunts about teaching this class, and one said, 'When we visited our grandparents in Kansas around 1960, in their Protestant congregation all the women and girls had to have something covering their heads and were handed a doily at the door to put on their heads.' So there's a variety of Christian and Jewish veiling practices right here in the U.S. that needs to be studied, too."

By injecting more nuance and historical context into the discussion about veiling, Drake hopes to blur lines between "us" and "them." As she explained, "I think it's about talking about difference and not shutting down voices at the table. Instead, we need more voices at the table to show how complicated a conversation it is, and to talk about the various commitments that speakers have to feminism, to political causes, to religions, to communities."

Drake wants her classroom to be a place where this conversation can happen, despite differing perspectives.

"There was a real diversity of opinion and commitment in the class, and they did a great job of listening to each other, which is wonderful to see," she said.

Students in the seminar are also teaching Drake new things about the veil, which she relishes.

"One of the things that's most exciting is that we just keep adding to the list of the significations of veiling practices. It might be a student of early Christianity pointing out something in the Greek about veiling not just as a piece of cloth, but also as a gesture or a performance. Or it might be students from nations where veiling's embraced by more women, talking about the different words in Arabic for the practice."


Though Drake has found that staging a conversation about the veil can be challenging, her students appreciate it. Denson Staples, an MDiv candidate who took the class, said, "Although contemporary discussions about veiling practices can be laden with political significance, and therefore often charged with strong emotions, Professor Drake has a way of eliciting contributions from the class, structuring and reframing those contributions to highlight their scholarly merit, and allowing tensions to exist among various perspectives."

To do this, Drake uses the Socratic method to draw students out, asking for their thoughts on the text at the start of class in order to decenter the authority in the classroom.

"Emphasizing from the beginning that you're also a learner empowers them to be teachers in the classroom, and by teaching they're really bringing together some of their learning and reading in a way they might not get an opportunity to in a lecture class," she said.

When people with differing views are all able to talk and be heard, Drake believes there is an opportunity for progress on seemingly intractable issues.

"I've been thinking about this question: How do we train ourselves to hold differences tenderly? And I try to make my classroom a place to think about that, so that my students can then go out into their own communities and hold those differing commitments as tenderly as possible."

Students are already thinking creatively about ways to advance the discussion outside the classroom. Brenda Bancel, a photographer who is a Special Student at HDS, is taking pictures of women who veil in different traditions. She hopes to create an exhibit of her photos in order to combat negative stereotypes.

MTS candidate Seelai Karzai is working on poems about veiling.

"The medium allows me to envision a different world, one outside of the prevailing narrative of the West versus the Muslim world," she explained.

Drake hopes that such changes to our popular discourse will eventually make her seminar on the veil obsolete. Smiling, she said, "The utopia would be that this class no longer exists because we are no longer fighting cultural battles on the heads of women."

—by Walter Smelt