Monday, September 26, 2011

Quakers: Burqa Wearers of the 17th Century

In 1630, a certain oatmeal maker was examined by the highest church court in England, accused of preaching without a licence. Before an audience of bishops, he kept his hat firmly on his head. Doffing it momentarily to a secular representative, he turned again to the bishops, crying: "But as ye are rags of the Beast, lo! – I put it on again." Refusal to observe "hat honour" – the custom of removing one's headgear in the presence of a social superior – was a way of saying, in the most confrontational manner: "I reject your authority." (In the case of the oatmeal maker, this was an especially radical rejection: the bishops were agents of Antichrist.) It was a gender-specific affront, since hat-doffing was a peculiarly masculine form of humiliation.

Hat dishonour and burqa-wearing are not, of course, the same thing at all. But they do both illustrate the symbolic power of head-covering, and its relationship to political "headship". Twenty years or so after the case of the oatmeal maker, following civil war and the collapse of traditional pillars of social stability (the monarchy, and the church courts), the early Quakers also famously rejected hat honour. This was a prophetic sign not only that unjust inequalities were being dissolved, but that men were subject to the authority of God alone. Keeping one's head covered was a provocative statement of dissent towards the entire system of deference and consent which apparently held together English society.

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