Heated debate over women's clothing

On TweetDeck, I have a column solely devoted to women religious. Any time someone tweets the words “nuns,” “Catholic sisters,” “women religious” or “LCWR,” it pops up in this column, because, you know, it’s my job to know what people are talking about.

Most of the time, the column is filled with links to personal blogs, comments on whether the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is going in the right or wrong direction and prayers of support for the Little Sisters of the Poor in their fight against Obamacare’s contraception mandate. But last week, I started seeing weird tweets out of Australia  angry, profanity-filled back-and-forths about nuns’ habits. Bizarre, right? The tweets were strange to me for several reasons. First, I was not aware that women religious in Australia were largely habited. (As it turns out, many of them aren’t, but that’s Twitter for you.) Second, why were habits such a hot topic all of a sudden? (The tweets didn’t provide a lot of context, but again, that’s Twitter.) And why were people so heated about them?

So I did a quick Google search and found that last Thursday, the Australian parliament declared that Muslim women wearing burqas, when visiting the parliament building, will now be required to sit inside enclosed glass galleries  for national security reasons, obviously. Australia’s prime minster has since asked parliament to “rethink” their position, but in the meantime, passionate people on both sides of the issue took to Twitter to weigh in. A common refrain in the discussion was that burqas were like any other type of religious garb  like habits, for instance, and hence the tweets.

What women and girls wear is a multilayered topic, even more so when those women and girls are part of a particular religious tradition. In these instances, we use a woman’s clothing to determine how devout she is, how virginal she is and  once she’s married  how maternal she is. Now, in Australia, a Muslim woman’s clothing is being used to determine how likely she is to be a terrorist.

In the secular arena, we’ve made some progress on this front; we’re at least having discussions about how what a woman is wearing is not an invitation to rape  and some people even seem to believe it. But when it comes to religious clothing, I think we’re slightly more myopic. Not all of us, certainly. But a lot of us.

We quickly assess the politics and doctrine of a woman based on what she wears. If she’s wearing a burqa, she’s a conservative, anti-feminist Muslim  or is at least married to one. A progressive nun would never wear a habit, but a conservative one might, and so on and so forth. How a woman dresses can become the focal point of any discussion of her faith, to the detriment of anything else.

But we can and should do better. Back when Global Sisters Report was in its infancy, Molly Pyle explored what the habit means to younger and older Catholic sisters, how their views on the need for an outward symbol of religion devotion differ.

“The challenge is to help the people we serve know what the life of women religious is, beyond the distraction of what we wear,” Pyle quotes a sister as saying. “If they stop at the habit, or its absence, they don’t see why we’re here. They miss the point.”

And I imagine that concept rings true for any religious woman, whether she’s a sister in a habit (or not), a Jewish woman wearing sheitels (or not), or an evangelical teen who is intentional about “modest” clothing (or not). How a woman dresses may say something about her personal understanding of her faith, but it is not the defining characteristic of her faith — nor should it be the defining characteristic of her story.

GSR is one monument to that type of storytelling, but we can’t change a global narrative all on our own (though I think we will certainly try our best). Women of faith around the world are doing amazing things, and we should celebrate their work. We really shouldn’t, if we’re being honest, have time to notice what they are wearing.

It’s a tall order, but I think we as a global society can eventually get there. And I’m sure I’ll find out about it, first, on Twitter.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is the staff reporter for Global Sisters Report.]