Headscarves, Modesty, and Scolding Modern Orthodox Women

In a thoughtful piece entitled, “Headscarves, Modesty, and Modern Orthodoxy”, published in Public Orthodoxy, Katherine Kelaidis has some valuable things to say about women wearing headscarves in the modern West. In this piece she offers a much-needed and valuable historical insight that women like her grandmother wore a headscarf in Greece but upon coming to America discarded this practice in order to more easily assimilate into the culture of her newly-chosen home. In Kelaidis’ words, “My grandmother stopped covering her hair because of the pressures of xenophobia and assimilation, along with a desire to create a more liberated space for women within her own culture.” She goes on to note that modern Orthodox women, since the late 1990s, often cover their hair with headscarves as a choice even when they are not in church. She views these women’s choices against the background of her own family’s experience and says that when these women “take up the veil with complete disregard for the stories and lives of the women I have so loved, I cannot help but feel some anger.” For her the modern choice of some Orthodox women to veil themselves constitutes an ungrateful rejection of the sacrifices made by these immigrant women of a previous generation. Kelaidis is angry and feels “incredibly frustrated” that they “make these choices without having to give a second thought to women like my grandmother. Women whose lives they carelessly overlook at every turn. Women whose ability as mothers and Christians they tacitly scorn. Women whose trials and triumphs, they do not know and do not care to learn”.

I am not one who insists that Orthodox women must veil themselves, either in church or when out in public. At our own little St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C., some of our women wear headscarves and some do not. It is entirely up to the choice of the women themselves. I will not here rehearse the argument and counter-argument from St. Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 11. Anyone wanting to know how I interpret that famous passage is welcome to buy my commentary and read it for themselves. But in defence of women who do choose to veil themselves in church, I would like to offer the following.

All of the women I know personally who veil themselves in church do not intend thereby to make a statement about women like Kelaidis’ grandmother, one way or the other. They are grateful, I suspect, to have the choice about whether or not to veil themselves, and they make their choice. My guess is that they would feel that a requirement that they not wear a veil would be as unacceptable as one that required them to wear a veil, but it is for them to answer such questions, not me. What is more certain is that their choice is not based on the cultural battles of two or more generations ago, but on the cultural battles of the present.


At St. Herman’s we have a number of different kinds of people, both North American converts and ethnic cradle. The Russian, Romanian, and Greek women all veil themselves (if memory serves; it is not important enough for anyone to keep score), as well as do some, but not all, of our convert women. If asked why they do it, I suspect the former would say they never thought about it much, but that was how they were raised. The latter would say that they chose to do it after giving it some thought. There are, in fact, at least two good reasons for that choice, neither of them having to do with anyone’s grandmother.

The first reason is as a way of showing respect for the sanctity of the building into which they are entering. (Please note: I am not suggesting that women who do not use the veil thereby do not show enough respect.) Those who wear a veil in church often do not wear the veil outside in public, so that dressing differently is their way of acknowledging that the nave of the church is a different kind of space than that of the mall or the street. It is precisely because the veil is not worn in public that it can therefore function as a sign of respect in the church building. It is the vestment equivalent of signing yourself with the Cross when you enter a holy place. This is why, I suspect, Orthodox women wear the veil in church in Russia—as a sign of respect. But I have never been to Russia, and can only guess about what happens there. What is more certain is that this is what motivates the Russian women at St. Herman’s when their wear their veils.

Given this component of respect for spacial sanctity, the use of the veil by convert women also serves to unite them to the Orthodox women of other countries such as Russia, Romania, and Greece. The converts are happy to learn from their cradle sisters, and do not always (in Kelaidis’ words) “make a social media post about the lack of 'zeal' among the cradle Orthodox”. The converts were happy to learn a lot about Orthodoxy from those who came before them and who live elsewhere in the world—including the use of the veil when in church.

Secondly, these women’s use of the veil serves to differentiate them from the secular world around them. In the days of Kelaidis’ grandmother, the goal was to assimilate to avoid the dangers of xenophobia. In today’s world, the goal is different—it is to avoid assimilation with the godless and insane society around us and (in the timeless words of St. Peter) to “save ourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). From her words one might imagine that Kelaidis was stuck in the past, facing the challenges of yester-year when the assimilation of immigrants was the pressing need. But now, and at least since the late 1990s (when she said the headscarf appeared in her world), the challenge for Orthodox women is to build a healthy counter-culture in which to live and raise their children. If they choose to make the wearing of a veil when in church one component of that counter-culture, who is Kelaidis or anyone else (including me) to say otherwise? The words “a woman’s choice” can and have been horribly misused, but surely here is one instance where a woman’s choice ought to be respected.

Greek dancing in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Cleveland people.com Greek dancing in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Cleveland people.com

Kelaidis is quite right about one thing: “modesty is not a line you draw on your knee [i.e. a dress’ hemline], but a line you draw on your heart”. Women can be modest and pious without wearing a veil in church, as many women at my own little church can attest. But a veil is now not only—or even primarily—a tool for modesty, Kelaidis’ assertion that “Modesty was always the goal of the veil” notwithstanding. Now it is a choice that some women make to express their respect for a sacred space and their desire to be different from the secular world around them. Of course women can do this without wearing a veil. But some women choose to do this through the wearing of a veil. And surely they should be allowed to do this without being blamed or scolded in the pages of Public Orthodoxy?

I cannot help but wondering if the main target and source of anger in Kelaidis’ piece is not the presence of the veil among Orthodox convert women, but the fact that these convert women choose to wear the veil as an expression of their choice to be counter-cultural and to reject the secularism around them—a secularism that Public Orthodoxy seems to so often embrace. The goal is still assimilation to contemporary culture, even now that our culture has become diseased.

Used with permission.

Anne9/7/2022 4:51 pm
Wearing a headscarf in Church should not become a legalistic matter. Having said that, I do believe that obedience to the Church is obedience to God. It is also about love. When we do something for God, we show Him our love.
Presvytera Seraphima Shagoury10/24/2018 8:18 pm
I completely disagree with Father Lawrence Farley. Xenophobia in America in the 1920's did not extend to the Greeks it was a communist issue. Womens rights to vote and American fashion cultural trends that distracted the Eastern Orthodox Bishops away from reinforcing womens headcoverings in Church. Similarly -- purely secular cultural changes since the 1920's contributed to Eastern Orthodox Priests adopting non-Orthodox clergy garb when out in public. The going back and forth of the Eastern Orthodox over women's headcoverings is a moot point: they themselves gave in to feelings of being ashamed out in public of being perceived as "communist russians" - so they did not follow what St.
JJ10/14/2018 9:25 pm
In Lebanon Christian women do not wear head coverings in order to differentiate themselves from Moslems.

Monks grow their hair long which St Paul says is a shame for men.

In Jesus's day men wore robes / skirts. In many countries women wear loose trousers - Kurdistan, Baluchistan etc, just as the men do.

Dress is culturally determined.

JT9/2/2018 10:59 pm
As someone with a virtually non- religious background, I have no problems with head coverings. Personally, if I were given the option, I'd cover my head every day for practical reasons. Where I live, (and throughout much of the world, I imagine) most women spend huge amounts of time and/or money in order to make their hair look a certain way in order to appear "appropriate for work" or "attractive". I'd be considered "unkempt and unprofessional" by co-workers and employers if I wore my hair in a naturally curly state at work. If I could avoid dealing with the judgements, money-wasting and fuss, I would gladly cover my head. Perhaps head covering serves as an equalizer among women.
Rus8/29/2018 8:22 am
I appreciate the polite responses, agree or disagree, and am disappointed to see that some choose to make rude responses.

To respond to Mr. Manzuk, I would say that I think polite, intelligent debate, where the parties involved listen to each other and consider each other’s points, to be a wonderful thing. They can be a positive pleasure if people don’t take them personally or make them personal.

In that spirit, I challenge the idea that dress in church is merely a matter of “following rules”; I assert that all that we do, especially in regard to worship, has spiritual effects on us and on others. But debate here is difficult to conduct with such drastic limits on text.
Susan (a different one than above)8/28/2018 8:54 pm
...please forgive...

In becoming Orthodox, two years of learning, studying, praying and attending services and classes, I always felt that wearing a head covering and dressing modestly in Church was one of the easiest steps in a continual evolution of my faith. I am not perfect and attend Church as I can, trying to adhere to this tenant should be a small step for me, but my sickness/vanity sometimes intercedes.

...Lord have mercy on me a sinner.
Stephen8/28/2018 5:21 pm
Second wave and third wave feminism mystified the female as an archetype, suggesting that there is something metaphysical, transcendental to the feminine. These ideas slowly filtered into popular attitudes through popular culture, magazines like "Ms.", and the college classroom. This has led to a near obsession and idolatry of women's experiences as mothers, grandmothers, etc. The fact that anyone has to think about what was once an organic part of life shows that something important has been lost and they've been psychologically processed to discard a component of their identity. The age of Nietzsche's Last Man has arrived -- everything is a "value," a choice, an interpretation.
Manzuk Christopher8/28/2018 10:57 am
Rus, not knowing your background, of course, I would point out that there was a period from the 60s thru early 80s where many parishes fought about the issue of women’s dress. More than a few had headscarves and wrap-around skirts at the candle desk, and they were pretty much insisted on, not just there for convenience.

Even in parishes where it wasn’t mandatory, many babuskii (sadly, including mine) would give the stink eye to ladies bold enough not to cover their hair or < gasp > wear slacks!!! This was driven more out of an Old Wirld follow-the-rules-or-be-shunned mentality, rather than one of pondering ones spirituality.

Let’s not head back that way - not worth the debate.
Zachary8/28/2018 7:15 am
Delete this article.

So in a nutshell her grandmother was culturally Orthodox then comes to America and caves to modernity so because other people take their faith seriously shes offended. Yup. Sounds legit.
Wai8/28/2018 4:25 am
Trisha, covering the head is kind of part of the "Biblical teaching" part of your list. St. Paul's letters.
I wont bash anyone for not wearing one though, even though it is more lovely to see covered heads.
Susan8/28/2018 12:05 am
Kelaidis's argument against head covering is because her Greek ancestors allegedly suffered from xenophobia?! Why do I not see the same thing happening with the Armenians, Assyrians, Ethiopians or Coptics. The Greeks look far more like a typical caucasian than the ethnicities I just mentioned do, and yet if you go to their churches they did not dispose of the vail in an attempt to fight the prejudices of the west! Did not Christ teach that we are not of this world? What of St. Paul who says not to be conformed to this world?! I mean....really? A little pushback makes you deny your faith and holy traditions? To this day Amish, German Baptists and others wear head coverings! Is she serious??
John O&#039;Rourke8/28/2018 12:03 am
I agree with John below and also with Anthony. It baffles me why Pravoslavie is publishing these articles by Fr. Lawrence Farley. This is the priest that wants to censor the divine services of Holy Week in order to not "offend the Jews." The Bible tells women to cover their heads in the churches. The Orthodox tradition is for women to cover their heads in the churches. So what's the problem? Women - if you want to attend an Orthodox Church you are going to need a hat or a headscarf. Is it going to kill you to wear one for a couple hours once or twice a week? It is extremely disrespectful to enter a church without your head covered. Why is this so difficult? Please understand this. Thank you.
George Feeny8/27/2018 10:53 pm
Anthony, no one cares about your opinions in the slightest. If this site is so bad, please do us all a favor and stay away. Find some other site where someone might actually care that you speak Greek.
Mat. Anna8/27/2018 9:32 pm
EXCELLENT article! I have seen this subject treated poorly, incompletely, disrespectfully, with idolatry, you name it. I would say this was just about perfect.
Trisha8/27/2018 9:10 pm
Whether or not a woman chooses to wear a veil is between her and God. It's nobody else's business. Given the way many women choose to (un)dress in public & at church in today's society, one would think this sign modesty and reverence would be welcome. ~sigh~ There are far more things to be concerned about -- abuse, sexual immorality, infidelity, hatred, lack of solid Biblical teaching, discrimination against believers -- a veil is a piece of fabric. if a woman's relationship with God has reached the point where she feels convicted to wear a veil, let her wear it. It certainly isn't hurting anybody.
Anthony8/27/2018 5:24 pm
Hi all! I was wondering if anyone else finds this website has now reached rock bottom.The articels they are publishing these days are so pointless and pathetic; who gives a rats whether some westerner of Greek origin feels angry or aggrieved because some women choose to wear a headscarf and don't show her grandma ''respect'' because of her alleged ''struggles''; a truly tragic symptom of the facebook-me-me-me generation. No one knows you Kelaidis or gives a fig about you either. And don't priests have anything better to do than to sit penning responses to such codswallop in any event. Anyway - to add some sound to the picture of the Greek dancers - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae-gtqM4c0U
Susan8/27/2018 2:34 pm
John, although I agree that it is a positive thing when converts want to practice the Orthodox traditions, I disagree that that criticism from the cradle Orthodox (it's usually Greeks like the author of the article cited by Fr. Lawrence, but certainly not all Greeks) is the only thing keeping Orthodoxy from flourishing in the West. I think that if people were really ready and earnestly seeking the True Church, no one could hold them back.
John8/27/2018 2:08 pm
Quit holding Orthodoxy hostage with your convert talk and speaking of what your grandmother did.

This is why Orthodoxy doesn’t flourish in the West.
Rus8/27/2018 1:43 pm
My two cents is that any “small ‘t’ tradition” that affirms distinction between men and women is healthy in our time which insists on denying the distinctions between men and women. It affirms what the outside culture denies. That includes different manner of dress, both in church and out of it.

Also, I don’t hear men complaining of having to uncover, or of any men demanding a “right” to remain covered.

Accepting a pious tradition is humble. Insisting on rejecting it because of modern thinking about one’s “rights” and the world’s idea of equality (which really means “interchangeability”) is prideful. I’ll leave it to others to “do the math” on which is more Christian.
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