A Muslim Woman in the Pews

As a college student I often slipped into the refuge of the campus’s large Mission church for a few moments of quiet during the middle of the school day. After entering the sanctuary through the rear doors on one particular occasion, I saw a Muslim woman in hijab sitting in one of the distant pews near the front altar. “That’s great,” I thought to myself, “I am glad that people of all faiths feel welcome in the space.”  Although it was a Catholic university, it was not uncommon to encounter students of various faith traditions, especially Muslim students. Furthermore, the school’s location in California’s Silicon Valley meant that the communities around the school were rich with religious diversity.  Perhaps this was a local community member who slipped in the Mission on a mid-day walk.

As I walked further into the church, however, I realized that this was not a veiled Muslim woman, but rather a rosary-praying Catholic wearing a mantilla, a type of veiling worn by the women of my faith during the pre-Vatican II era when the institution required us to cover our heads. While my initial assumption about the faith of this woman made sense in context–veiled Muslim students heavily out-weighed the mantilla-wearing Catholic population at the university–I was embarrassed. My reaction suddenly seemed incredibly shallow.  I was embarrassed that I had so quickly responded to the prospect of a Muslim woman in a Catholic sanctuary with a sense of pride for my own faith community: “Isn’t it so great that we west-coast Catholics are so progressive and inclusive and welcoming that people of other faiths feel welcome in our sacred spaces!”

The fact is, there is not much I do intentionally to make people of other faiths feel more welcome in the Catholic community.  The institutional church often does a pretty bad job of it this too.  And in an increasingly globalizing world, isn’t this more important–and more possible–than ever?  As we recognize the 8 year anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, I hope to spend some time thinking about inter-religious relations in our international, national and local Church. What are we doing to foster peace, collaboration, and love in our relationships with other faith traditions? What can we do, and what can I do?

Jessica Coblentz graduated from Santa Clara University in 2008, and recently began her Master of Theological Studies degree at Harvard Divinity School where she is studying “Women, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion” and Roman Catholic theology. Follow her writing on the web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.

8 thoughts on “A Muslim Woman in the Pews

  1. There is a flip side to this:

    On the one hand, you felt prideful of your faith-tradition because you thought it more accepting of different faiths.

    On the other hand, you seem fairly dismissive of the mantilla, which seems to be an express of faith by woman who chose to wear it. By this point in time (since its not required anymore), I would think a woman’s choice to wear a mantilla or not would be conceived as an act of empowerment: this woman chose to display her faith in a very public way.

    So the question should be: a) do I do anything to make people of other faiths feel welcomed in my faith tradition, and b) do I do anything to make people with differing views in my faith tradition feel welcomed? You brushed off the mantilla, and the “Pre-Vatican II Era”, fairly dismissively.

  2. Point well taken. In this situation, I was actually struck by the woman I didn’t find there much more than the one that I did. I didn’t mean to come across as “brushing off” the praying woman I found or her mantilla–that simply wasn’t the focus of my reflection at the moment. Having said that, I probably should have described the mantilla as a “type of veiling REQUIRED OF the women of my faith during the pre-Vatican II era”–which, as you point out, would have more accurately acknowledged the fact that many women still choose to wear a mantilla.

    Whether this choice can be considered an act of empowerment is complex. I think that subject deserves it’s own post, but in the meantime I will say this: 1) “empowerment” is a tricky word. I don’t think things, like a veil, give people power. I think PEOPLE have power, and they often employ things to exercise that power. I think it’s important to acknowledge the power that people have, particularly when considering power dynamics among marginalized populations. 2) There is some very important work going on in Muslim feminism regarding the use of veiling as a form of religious agency. It has brought many western assumptions about the oppressiveness of veiling into question, but these arguments are not without controversy. I recommend checking it out of if you are interested.

  3. Ha! I wear a veil full time, not because of pre-Vatican II stuff and I also agree that veiling can be a powerful, empowering experience. In my community, there are many different people who wear veils — both full and part-time. I think the mantilla gets brushed off because many Catholic feminists like to pounce on the oppressiveness of other faiths and practices (i.e. veiling) and think that somehow they are above that. And dude, it’s not just Muslim feminists who are talking about veiling. In fact, ask almost any Muslim, and they will probably tell you that they are sick of answering questions about veiling.

  4. When you found out the woman was a Catholic wearing traditional/conservative clothing, what did you think and how did this new revelation change your thought response?

    I can’t help feeling that your reaction to the alleged Muslim woman was much more respectful than your final reaction to the conservative and traditional Catholic woman. That’s how I read it anyway.

    Maybe the woman was from a Muslim family who had converted to Christianity and she was secretly praying to God and not Allah.

    Theodora, what did you mean; “How do we decide who is Muslim anyway?” I don’t think we decide.

  5. Mrissman, thanks for your comment. It is alarming–and honestly, sort of perplexing–that people have read my reaction to the woman wearing the mantilla to be disrespectful. I deeply regret that my reflection has been received that way–particularly because I hoped to be imploring us all to consider how we can make the Catholic Church a welcoming space for all people.

    As I tried to clarify in my response to Theodora’s comment, my reaction to the Catholic woman I encountered had nothing to do with what she was wearing on her head–it had everything to do with the fact that she did not appear to belong to the faith tradition that I had originally assumed. My reaction was rooted in my reflection about Muslim women and the Catholic Church, not conservative or traditional Catholics.

    Again, I regret anything that has led anyone to view this as an attack against conservative Catholic women. I hope in reading my reflection again you will find that was not my intention.

  6. I don’t think you mean it that way. But labeling mantilla/veil wearing Catholics as conservative and traditional has that connotation. In addition, there are many reasons why people veil besides to say f’you to Vatican II. I know you know this, it just comes off that way.

    In good dialogue,

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