04 May 2018

Qipaos, headscarves and duelling norms

Keziah Daum, an 18-year-old high-school student in Utah, recently wore a Chinese dress – a Qing and Republican-era qipao 旗袍 – to her high school prom, and posted pictures of herself in the dress to Twitter. The response from Asian-Americans, firstly Jeremy Lam of the University of Utah, was immediate, harsh and profane: ‘My culture is not your g---amn prom dress’. Asian-Americans largely began accusing Ms Daum of cultural appropriation. The response from commentators within China to the same photos, however, was much more supportive. In her own defence, Ms Daum said she simply chose the dress because it was elegant and modest, that she had no intention to offend or disrespect anyone by wearing it, and that she would wear it again if she was given the choice.

This isn’t quite the same situation, of course, as the Twitter storm over Dr Matt Taylor’s T-shirt four years ago, but the parallels are striking. If anything, the bullying of young Ms Daum, led by an older Asian-American man, over her choice of prom dress is even more egregious. As with the Taylor débâcle, the righteous indignation in the hue and cry aimed at the target by the Twitter mob holds to a deliberately-unreachable standard of political correctness. And also as with the Taylor débâcle, there is the unmistakeable whiff of sublimated frustration at play in that very indignation, to be released in the psychosexual catharsis of punishing the scapegoat.

I’ve only given a handful of brief words on the subject of cultural appropriation. To be sure, I think cultural appropriation represents a set of real existential problems – and that I’m as guilty of it as any other white mutt American – but it’s nowhere near on the same order as the people who most criticise it make it out to be. There’s really no non-perverse reason not to take Ms Daum at her word, when she says she picked the dress simply because she liked it. But without denying any of Lam’s follow-up historical analysis, when Lam turns Daum at the end of his Twitter rant into a monstrous-feminine-Other bearer of ‘colonial ideology’ – that speaks to some pretty deep women issues. More than that, I’m not going to say except to point back to my Laschian flight-from-feeling piece from back when, which has become disturbingly and sadly relevant again.

The church may be a refuge from the culture and the sicknesses of the world, but being human we still bring them inside. The entire debate around headscarves, and whether or not women should wear headscarves in the sanctuary, is another topic which seems fraught with passion (and I mean that term with precisely the worldly-churchly double entendre in mind) on both sides. The headscarf discussion specific to the Orthodox church indeed applies more broadly to the debate, which the Daum qipao story also tangentially touches on, of what is and isn’t considered ‘modest’.

In the Orthodox churches of which I’ve been a member, in one of them (the Moscow Patriarchate church in Beijing) a majority of women wear headscarves in the sanctuary. In the other two – Antiochian and OCA respectively – the majority of women go with uncovered heads. The norms were very different; however, the reasons, as far as I understand them, that Orthodox women wear the headscarf are twofold. Firstly, it is a long-standing custom in many Orthodox countries, and an attempt to sincerely follow Pauline exhortations to the women of Corinth to remain modest within the Church. Secondly, it has become something of a fashion in itself. (A couple of the women at St Herman’s do wear very beautifully-patterned headscarves.) As far as I’m concerned, the first is a valid reason to wear the headscarf, and I approve and endorse the women who do it; and the second is frankly none of my business.

Readers of my blog may be familiar with this story, but on one Sunday Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh heard of a young mother in his church being told off for not wearing a headscarf by one of the parishioners. This was the entirety of the homily he delivered that day:
Last night a woman with a child came to this church. She was in trousers and with no headscarf. Someone scolded her. She left. I do not know who did that, but I am commanding that person to pray for her and her child to the end of his days to God for their salvation. Because of you she may never go to church again.
But this kind of scoldish behaviour cuts both ways. In a lengthy Facebook post by Greek-American Orthodox blogger Katie Kelaidis (which had been public, but is now apparently taken down), she basically accuses ‘white’ women (meaning, apparently, ‘white’ women who are not Greek or Arabic) who adopt headscarves upon converting to Orthodoxy to be insensitive to the historical experience of women from Orthodox cultures – almost exactly the same argument that Lam makes against Daum. Here is the ‘punchline’ portion of her now-deleted post:
When I see convert women covering their hair, especially outside of church and especially when they feel it necessary to bring it up, I feel incredibly frustrated for these women’s lack of regard for the experiences (and victories) of my mother, aunts, grandmothers, etc. I sense that they don’t understand what it has historically meant to be a woman in Orthodox culture and are acting out a part of a culture that they find … I don’t know.

This is part of a larger problem with cultural appropriation among converts to Orthodoxy in America, but I think it is one worth addressing.
In the interests of clarity: just as with Lam, I don’t see any cause to doubt the veracity of Kelaidis’s account of the historical experiences that lie behind the headscarf. But there currently is no pressure on American women to cover their heads; if anything, the pressure lies in the opposite direction. (If Kelaidis really wants to talk about sensitivity to cultural context, she might have started there.) To the extent that headscarf-wearing Orthodox women ‘bring up’ their headscarves, it’s probably on account of that pressure rather than because they’re seeking attention or choosing to be ostentatious. But that’s the rub, as they say. The fact that there is an assumption of bad faith against women who choose to dress modestly in the appropriate venue speaks volumes about the way our psychosexual normative expectations are structured – not just between men and women, but between women also.

Now, when I say ‘normative’ I don’t mean it in a pejorative way; I’m not saying by any stretch that all norms are bad. Obviously, in the interest of the common good we do need to enforce some dress norms. There are goods like public safety and decency which do require us to ban some forms of public (un)dress. But there are also unhealthy, ideological normative expectations which we might call ‘fundamentalist’, and those we might call ‘radical-feminist’, playing out against each other with ordinary women – like Keziah Daum, Metropolitan Anthony’s young mother or the ‘convert women’ who caught Kelaidis’s shade – caught in the middle. Like Kelaidis, I recognise that this is a ‘battle’ that is going on. But the only way women (or men, for that matter) can win it is by not choosing sides between a repressive ‘right’ and an equally-regressive ‘left’ (or rather, in Orthodox terms, by choosing to trust the ‘œconomy’ of the situation).

In short, I guess, the rule-of-thumb should be Wheaton’s Law. We ought not to assume bad faith on the part of other people, particularly if they’re the opposite sex. More deeply, though, the Orthodox way of doing things has always been to study our own faults rather than seeking to admonish them in others. That’s a lesson I might learn myself, someday.

EDIT: Ms Kelaidis has obligingly posted a longer-form version of her old Facebook post here, on Public Orthodoxy.


  1. very concise and good advice! Thank you! The internet seems like it's full of crazy, and it's refreshing to read thoughtfulness instead :)

  2. Thank you very much, Stephanie! Always glad to be of service!