Veils and leggings: Gender roles in Indiana, Oman, and beyond

Author: Elizabeth Boyle

Elizabeth Boyle

This time last year, a mother of two young sons wrote to our campus newspaper urging young women to avoid wearing leggings during Basilica Mass because it was distracting for her sons and other young men. The opinion piece spread like wildfire and found its way into various prominent media outlets, such as the Boston GlobeToday, and the Washington Post. Our semester-long course on religion and global politics began with a look into this national controversy in our own backyard.

The campus response was swift and almost unanimous: This does not speak for us. Female students, professors, and staff, as well as some male colleagues, came onto campus in leggings of all different colors and styles for the next two days as a way to protest. 

I found myself reflecting on that moment frequently during our time in Oman. As I worried about whether showing my ankles or wrists would offend someone in Muttrah Souq, I pondered how ridiculous my internal debate would seem to my compatriots at Notre Dame who came out against the leggings mom.

As an advocate for gender equality on campus, I am always thinking about the ways in which I can expand opportunities for women in a Catholic environment. The intersection of gender and religion makes Notre Dame a place ripe for conversations about leggings in Mass, anti-support of the Women’s March, and discrepancies in the residential life policies of the male and female dorms.

When examining this issue of gender and religion, I have come to realize that it is part of a larger debate about religion and politics. Due to my prior experiences in Madrasa Discourses, I had an idea of what I was going to encounter in Oman but I still wondered how religion and politics would factor into gender relations in both Oman and Bangladesh.

I found that due to the institutionalization of religion through the establishment of a Ministry of Religious Affairs in both Oman and Bangladesh, religion has a more direct effect on national gender politics than it does in the United States. More specifically, the prominent role of men in regulating religious affairs and religious commentaries directly impacts the rights afforded to women in Oman and Bangladesh. Though there are many critiques to offer for the way both of these countries are structured, it is also important to critique my own culture and acknowledge the ways in which the Catholic Church also uses religion and politics to restrict women’s rights and gender equality.

The first time I encountered a Ministry of Religious Affairs was in January 2019 during the Madrasa Discourses winter intensive in Doha, Qatar. As I was walking through downtown with my peers, I looked up and saw the signage on the building I was passing, “Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs.” I was struck by the idea that for some countries, a Ministry of Religious Affairs is a required and expected government agency, much like the Department of State or the Department of the Treasury in the US. Through past experiences working for the US government, bringing up the topic of religion always seemed to be taboo and made folks uncomfortable. To think that in other countries an entire department devoted to religion was a norm was something very new to me.

While in Oman, we engaged with just one representative of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the sheikh from the College of Shari’a. Our visit with the sheikh was perhaps not the best representation of the ministry. After he proclaimed that “women are like diamonds” and gay people are like “animals,” we left that meeting with a bad impression of the college and the ministry.

Something that I have learned through my time at Notre Dame is to always extensively analyze and research systems and structures that I am interested in challenging. For that reason, I decided to do some independent research to have a better understanding of the role of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in everyday Omani life. In a word, it is extensive. The website itself has a plethora of information in Arabic, English, and French. In addition to regulating the teaching of the Qur’an in schools and organizing the hajj for Omani citizens, the Ministry also regulates preaching, is responsible for issuing fatwas, and manages a significant endowment. It also appears that the current minister, and every minister before him, has been a man. Thus, for years, the leaders in Oman interpreting religious texts and converting it into law have only been men.

When the sheikh told us that all women like wearing the abaya, hijab, and even the niqab, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. From my conversations with my roommates in Madrasa Discourses and from reading academic works such as Saba Mahmood’s “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent,” I know that some Muslim women choose to wear these kinds of clothes and accept the role of “docile agent” because they gain agency from it in certain societies. Mahmood further argues that it is necessary to apply a more critical lens to understanding women’s subordination, especially in a religious tradition, because there are often times when women do not feel subjected due to their subordination. 

Even with this in mind I could not help but critique the way that religion and politics in Oman converge to eliminate women’s voices and experiences from policymaking. By having only men serve as ministers, Oman appears to erase women’s lived experiences from consideration when issuing fatwas, interpreting religious law, and regulating the nation.

Some of the most lively conversations during that week came after our meeting with the sheikh. While sitting there, listening to his impression of the role of women in Omani society, I was not surprised by my classmates’ responses to his perspective. What did surprise me, however, was how upset and angered the Bangladeshi students were by his comments. At our group discussion that evening, many of the Bangladeshi students said that they were angry because he completely misrepresented Islam and was not actually representing the Muslim perspective on gender relations. I again was drawn back to my experience in Madrasa Discourses. Specifically, in the summer intensive in 2018, many of the women were hesitant to speak out against the men when they said something that I believe to be patriarchal and sexist. This stark dichotomy brought me to ask myself why.

Though Bangladesh also has a Ministry of Religious Affairs, it is nowhere near as extensive and overreaching as that in Oman and Pakistan (where my colleagues in Madrasa Discourses were from). Many of the female Bangladeshi students remarked that they felt comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt to class, they felt more open to date than the Omani women did, and the preferred Islam in their country over Islam in Oman. This just goes to show how vastly different religious experiences can be from country to county.

Despite the more liberal approach to Islam in Bangladesh that these students represented, a quick search of the website for the ministry in Bangladesh shows that every secretary and honorable minister is a man. When men are the ones making the laws and regulating them, how does that affect policy? Considering that the prime minister of Bangladesh is female, and both Pakistan and Bangladesh have had female heads of government, my diverse encounters make me wonder if the situation is more complicated that meets the eye.

This is something that I will be continually thinking about, especially as I reflect on my time at Notre Dame. How has Notre Dame, as a Catholic institution run by men, created policies that have often failed to take into account the experiences of women on campus? How do women at Notre Dame continue to find fulfillment, hope, and belonging, even as they continue to struggle to advocate for changes? And what place do more conservative voices, as represented by the leggings mom, have in our culture? Although the US does not have a separate government agency devoted to religion, politics and religion overlap in complex ways on a daily basis, often in more subversive ways than merely regulating the dress and appearance of women.