Sunday, August 26, 2012

The American Burka

Homeschoolers and religious sectarians.  And the way they dress.  And the reasons behind it.  And the judgements implied against the rest of us.  These things offend me.  I'm in a mood :)

Homeschoolers in the U.S. tend to overwhelmingly lean toward the strictly religious and the political far right.  For the record, I have no personal problem with either of those things.  It's the trappings for the female half of those populations that make my hands involuntarily clench into fists.

Long skirts or jumpers (frequently denim) and long sleeved, high necked blouses.  That's the required uniform.  It is what I call the American Burka.

Also frequently, all the sisters in a family (or all the sister wives of religious sectarians) are dressed alike.  Same pattern of skirt, same material, same color.  Possibly variation of color in the blouse (although not always) but all sewn (often by the wearer of the garment) to the same specs.  Same hair.  Same allowed hobbies, skills and professional ambitions . . .

Modesty is a Biblical principle (as well as a principle in many other religions) and you'll find no argument from me about adhering to that.  The argument from me is how modesty is achieved--specifically in American culture.

My question is this:  at what point was it decided that the only accepted definition of dressing modestly for religious women in America is based on fashions of 1800s homesteaders?

In the summer I volunteer at the county fair helping my friend who is the superintendent of all the 4-H sewing projects.  Every year, kids (mostly girls) turn in garments to be judged and some to be modeled during the public contest.  Approximately 90% of the contestants are home schooled girls.  Approximately 90% of those girls dress in the American Burka.  Colorless, drab, matronly, frumpy outfits that work tirelessly to hide all traces of overt femininity.

One perpetual contestant has a penchant for period pieces.  She dedicates herself to hours of research in the styles, patterns, fabrics and sewing techniques encompassing the period spanning the Civil War up to the 1940s--as though broaching the styles of the happy-go-lucky 50s or beyond to the rebellious 60s is tantamount to rebellion itself.  Costumey and anachronistic, these are the everyday clothes she wears.

Her mother's eyes light up when, at a fabric fair for 4-H kids, this girl chooses yet another dingy, characterless calico.  "Oh--that brown is really your color!"  Why is it threatening to wear non-bleak colors? Is it possible to wear a cheerful yellow or a vivid blue without being construed as preening like a conceited bird?

We also have a family of 5 sisters who all sew, wear and turn in for competition ankle length denim skirts--each one as boring, plain and impeccably crafted as the next.  For special family occasions, the girls sew and wear identical dresses or skirt/blouse combinations.  Why must they all dress alike?  Is having no individuality part of being modest?  Looking at them (at the way they stand, walk and talk) and considering the other fair entries they turn in (paintings, food items) it is obvious that these girls are as different as any 5 girls you'd meet on the street--sisters or otherwise.  Why are they being trained to look the same when they are anything but the same?  Is that somehow modesty?

One of our American Burka-wearing 4-H families is actually quite prideful about their way of life.  Prideful about the daughter's sewing skills (which are remarkable,) prideful of how hardworking the mother is, prideful about one of their sons' woodworking skills (also remarkable,) prideful about being a "certain" kind of farming, homeschooling family.  Pride does not equal modesty, no matter how dowdy your clothing is.

Back to the accepted fashions:  why only skirts and dresses for these women?  Why are pants considered to be inherently immodest?  Yes, they show the shape of the legs and the hiney, but the mere fact of having legs and a hiney doesn't constitute being provocative.  Pants can be conservative, flattering--and convenient in a woman's life--without being vulgar.

Modesty in clothing can be achieved in a fashionable way.  Length and style of sleeves, style of neckline, darts, non-calico fabric can all be employed to make a comfortable, respectable garment that is pleasing without crossing the line to immodesty.

We non American Burka-wearing homeschoolers, obviously, are making a lot of judgements about the families who choose to dress like they belong in a little house on a prairie.  But make no mistake--they are making just as many judgements about us.  Judgements about how serious we are in our relationships to God, judgements about whether we're training our children the "right" way, judgements about whether we are valuing our girls above rubies (as though allowing them to be individuals is devaluing them.)  It becomes a very "us vs. them" sort of attitude on both sides of the coin.  It's destructive, really.

I started doing a little questioning about men and modesty and about the idea that perhaps it isn't entirely up to women to dress modestly; perhaps men bear a responsibility not to be pigs and to control their base instincts.  Poking around a bit, I tripped across this fascinating blog.  For your consideration:  The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker.

There's more going on regarding women's clothing in Indian culture and American homeschooling/religious sect culture than modesty.  The level of control that Indian women are subject to, and a specific section of American women are willingly subjecting themselves to, under the guise of 'modesty' is disturbing.  It might be said that putting so much focus on adhering to an unusual style of dress is taking focus away from other areas that might otherwise flourish.  AND it's interesting that by setting themselves apart from mainstream American culture, the broader principles that these families stand for aren't appreciated because of, ironically, their appearance.

Just a thought.