Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

Last week, Joseph Borgen, a Jewish man, was attacked in New York City. While people can argue that the violence last week in Gaza motivated the attack, one reality is certain: Borgen’s yarmulke – his skullcap – identified him as Jewish to someone who wanted to hurt a Jewish person. His yarmulke made him a target of hate.

Religions often have associated clothing items or “dress codes.” Sikh men, for example, generally wear a turban, which covers a Sikh’s uncut and neatly wrapped hair; it signifies equality as well as tolerance. Sikh women may wear the turban, and some do, but others wear a dupatta (head scarf).

Like the yarmulke identifies Jewish men, the turban identifies Sikh men, who have been attacked in the U.S. for wearing this article of faith. Surjit Mahli experienced such an attack in San Jose, California in 2018, when he was beaten and told to return to India, where he was born. After the attack, Mahli told a New York Times reporter that his turban had saved him.

Religious apparel can focus on the head, such as the niqab or hijab that many Muslim women wear. The hijab is a headscarf that covers the women’s hair and neck. The niqab is a veil that also covers the face, leaving the eyes uncovered. Nor are those the only head coverings that Muslim women wear; the clothing style varies by culture. For example, Iranian women may wear a chador, a kind of shawl that is draped over the head and body and held or wrapped closed. The woman’s face is exposed, unlike with the burqa, most commonly worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which covers the woman’s entire head and body. A mesh over the eyes allows her to see out.

Often, people in the West react to the burqa and hijab. In France this month, French senators passed an amendment (not yet law), that limits the rights of Muslim women to wear even hijabs when accompanying their children on school outings, and which would ban them from wearing burkinis, full body swimsuits that really are not much different from wetsuits. Quebec’s courts last month ruled that the province’s police officers and others in authority are not allowed to wear hijabs or turbans; however, it allows that teachers and others in English-instruction schools may still wear their religious apparel.

Religion is a form of group identity, and religious garb is an aspect of identity. The white collar, for example, is worn by many priests and ministers. For a long time, Catholic priests wore cassocks even outside of church; now they are likely to wear vestments, often black. In elementary and high school, I was instructed by nuns who wore habits, long or modest length garments. Some wore just a veil; others wore a wimple, a head covering that also covered the neck, chin, and forehead, leaving only the face exposed. It is similar to a hijab. Some cloistered nuns still today wear habits, with or without wimples, although many modern nuns have abandoned them, choosing to dress modestly instead.

Within our own country and around the world, religious garments say, “I believe this.” When I see the saffron robes of Buddhist monks or the kimonos of Japanese lineage Zen priests, I stop and press my palms together and bow because I am a Buddhist. Those of us who shop up at the Market Wagon are used to seeing the white caps and modest length dresses worn by the Mennonite women who work there. Think of the headgear and voluminous white robes worn by Mevlevi order Sufi dervishes, which differentiate them from other Sufi orders; the straw hat of an Amish man; the shtreimel, a fur hat worn by Hasidic Jewish men, or the black suits worn by many Orthodox Jewish men and head scarves worn by many Orthodox Jewish women. Hindu women may choose to wear saris or shalwar kameez (tunics and trousers), often decorated with Hindu symbols, and both Hindu men and women may use facial markings such as the tilak, a mark on the forehead that varies in design and color and indicates what path of Hinduism the wearer follows.

These outward manifestations of faith are varied and beautiful. They are not for those outside the religion to judge. They should certainly not be targets for hate, for hatred can be turned outward endlessly; there is always an “other” to hate. Hatreds do not cease by hating, the Buddha said, and certainly they do not cease by legislating what believers may or may not wear; it is already too much around the world that some believers fear wearing the garb and markings of their faith because of the violence that may befall them.

Nancy Thompson regularly teaches classes in comparative religion for Northern Vermont University and Community College of Vermont and is author of Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s religions Share and How They Can Transform Us.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us.
We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.