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Although Sarah Roy was raised Catholic, she'd never planned on becoming a nun. In fact, as a girl growing up in Illinois, she dreamed of the day she'd become a veterinarian. "That idea ended in college, once I realized I couldn't do chemistry or physics," Sister Sarah, 33, says with a laugh. She soon changed her major to human development, then went on for a master's in social work. While she was in grad school some nuns gave a talk at the union center, urging students to think about their vocation. That resonated with Roy and soon after she graduated, at age 24, she joined the order of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception and began her confirmation as a Catholic sister.
Today she's the only nun under 65 in her Peoria order who actually looks the part. Most nuns stopped wearing the veil in the late 1960s after the Vatican ruled that nuns should simplify and modify their habits, and most don't wear the habit (a black frock over a white blouse) either. Sister Sarah wears both.
It wasn't easy to adopt a garment that's practically extinct among her fellow nuns, Sister Sarah says. "I was living as a sister for three years before I chose to wear it, but I felt there was something missing." She didn't want to make a choice that would separate her from the rest of her order, but for her the tradition felt right. "I think when I wear the veil and habit, it makes people think about God, if just for a second," she says. "It also gives me a sense of identity -- this is who I am."
Actually finding a veil wasn't too easy, either. At first Sister Sarah borrowed one from an older nun and had it tailored to fit. After searching online, she finally located a store that still sold them and mail-ordered a couple. But that store went out of business, so Sister Sarah now has them tailor-made.
Her parents supported her decision to wear the habit, she says, though her mother would still prefer that she "wear something more fashionable and less nunnish."
Sister Sarah's old-school ways are actually a hit with the students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she works as a religious counselor. They love the fact that someone close to their age is wearing a garment they've seen only in history books and movies. "They like the idea that I'm proclaiming my faith so publicly," says Sister Sarah. "A lot of them are looking for structure and a solid truth, and even if this isn't the path they'd take, I think they admire that someone else has."
She has never lived in India, but Anita Patel dresses as if she's traversing the streets of Mumbai. On any given day the 47-year-old Dallas grade school teacher can be found in a traditional pantsuit called a shalwar kameez (a long tunic, matching pants, and shoulder scarf) or a long kurta blouse over slacks. For special occasions she dons a colorful sari and a red bindi -- a decorative spot of color in the middle of her forehead, just above her eyebrows.
Patel was born in England to Hindu parents and the family moved to the United States when she started high school. Her parents always urged her to dress more traditionally, which of course made her gravitate toward jeans and T-shirts. But since marrying an Indian man and having two children (both of whom are now grown), Patel found herself moving back toward the traditional dress associated with Hinduism.
Patel now attends temple in her Dallas suburb as well as going to weekly Hindu study groups to get to the root of her beliefs. "I'm learning more and more about the real meaning behind the rituals I perform and the meaning behind what I wear, rather than just doing it because I was brought up that way," she says.
It turns out there are no overarching Hindu dictates on what should or shouldn't be worn, and the significance depends on your point of view. For example, the shape and color of the bindi can connote a woman's theological outlook or simply signify that she is married -- for Patel, it's the latter. Her reasons for dressing traditionally are pretty uncomplicated. "I feel like the native dress from India, where Hinduism was born, shows pride in my motherland, ancestors, and faith," she says. "Plus it's incredibly comfortable."
As for blending into the community around her, Patel doesn't really feel the need to. Her life isn't that different from that of her colleagues -- she grabs a vegetarian lunch (most Hindus don't eat meat) at a sandwich shop near her school and works out (in T-shirts and track pants) at her local gym. True, she stands out, but if her appearance does elicit a reaction, it's almost always a friendly one. "I've never felt people were looking at me negatively because I'm dressed oddly," she says. "I go to the grocery store and get compliments. They ask a lot of questions, especially when I wear a sari: What kind of material is it? How exactly do I put it on? They also ask if there's a place where they can buy one. I joke and say, 'Yes, there's a giant Mecca for saris -- it's called India.'"
At St. Joseph's Hospital, in Kokomo, Indiana, Sarah Shultz is the only ICU nurse whose scrubs are in fact a skirt. That's because Shultz is a conservative Christian who refers to the Bible when deciding what to wear. That goes for her hairstyle, too: "In Corinthians it says, 'But if a woman hath long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given to her for a covering,'" says Shultz, who has never cut her waist-length hair. "I believe abiding by those words makes me a good Christian."
Shultz attends the same conservative church she and her husband were raised in since childhood. "I grew up dressing modestly," says Shultz, who also wears no makeup. "I rode bikes, roller-skated, and skied in skirts. My parents thought it was the right thing to do, and really, it didn't stop me from being active. In junior high I was the only one in gym class who wore a jean skirt instead of shorts. But I made it work."
There are no clear-cut dress guidelines for conservative Christians the way there are for, say, Orthodox Jews. But Shultz and other women from her nondenominational church know to wear their hemlines below the knee and their necklines well above the breastbone. They set their standards according to Bible passages that say that women should dress modestly, avoiding elaborate outfits or fancy hairstyles. "We live by that, and it informs how we appear out in public."
Shultz buys all her clothes from mainstream department stores, but it's not always easy to find the right thing, especially when it comes to work attire. For instance, her scrub skirts aren't sold anywhere. "The only scrub dresses I've seen for sale are borderline too short," she explains, "so I just started buying material and making skirts myself."
Ironically, when Shultz and her friends from church go to stores and restaurants, they almost always turn heads, since their humble and unassuming appearance makes them stand out. "People sometimes approach us and ask what church we belong to. I think that's their polite way of checking whether or not we're a part of some cult," she says with a laugh.
Wearing her faith on her sleeve is important to Shultz -- for her, it's a way to celebrate her relationship with God. But she knows the choice can sometimes make others uncomfortable. "People think I might judge or condemn them for not being pious enough," she says. "But really, I don't think what I believe is the only answer. It's just what's right for me."
From her stockings in midsummer to her close-toed shoes and long-sleeved shirts, Sarah Elizabeth Sagal is not your average Los Angeles girl. That's because the 27-year-old librarian is also an Orthodox Jew who adheres to a strict interpretation of religious laws found in the Jewish holy book, the Torah. "The point is to be attractive but not attracting," says Sagal, who is married and has a toddler son. "God gave us these precious souls and I really want that to shine through. There's no need to show off my body when I would rather people know my inner essence."
What sets Orthodox Jews like Sagal apart is their strict adherence to their faith and to rituals that affect everything from their diet to their dress. The dress code emphasizes modesty. "My skirts must cover my knees whether I'm standing or sitting, and my shirts must rise above my collarbone and cover my elbows," explains Sagal. "I cover my hair, too. I could wear a scarf or a hat, but I wear wigs because they're less conspicuous." (Orthodox Jews believe a woman's hair should be seen only by her husband.)
Getting an inconspicuous wig can be an expensive proposition: Sagal's range anywhere from $400 to $2,500 and are made from human hair. "People often ask me, 'Why cover up your own hair with someone else's? Isn't that cheating?' " she says. "I grappled with that question and wore head scarves at first, but really, they're hard to match with other clothing and they make me stand out. The whole point is to not be conspicuous, and that's what a wig achieves. Also, it's not like I'm wearing some long, blond, eye-catching thing. It looks nice, but it's not sexy."
When Sagal hangs out with nonobservant friends, her Orthodox lifestyle doesn't really get in the way. "Thankfully, there are tons of kosher restaurants in Los Angeles," she says. "That makes it easy for me to be proactive and say 'Oh, let's eat there!'" But she does have to make more obvious concessions to her faith when engaging in activities like swimming, working out at a gym, or riding a bike. She swims in women-only pools and wears a high-neck top and knee-length skirt with leggings underneath, all made from swimwear material. And to work out? Sagal wears a knee-length skirt and leggings -- and she doesn't work out in front of men. "I can do most everything, but people do stare," she says. "It's Los Angeles, and I know they're wondering, Why doesn't she just wear shorts like everyone else?"
Over her typical American clothing, Saba Syeda wears a face veil, a long head scarf, and a roomy outer garment -- even while riding a Jet Ski. "I put a life jacket over my abaya [the outer garment]," she explains, "and that keeps it from flapping around. Believe it or not, my niqab [the face veil] stays in place most of the time. Of course, all those clothes can be burdensome and uncomfortable. But they remind me of my commitment to God, so I'm willing to make some sacrifices. Overall, covering makes me feel like a better Muslim and a stronger woman."
Syeda, 33, who lives in Newark, Delaware, with her husband and three kids, represents a small minority of Muslim Americans who cover from head to toe in the name of Islam. Wearing a face veil is not a requirement, but for Syeda it is a religious choice. She says it helps her remain modest and humble and ensures she maintains platonic relationships with men other than her husband. But Syeda's clothing isn't stocked at the local mall -- she orders her garments online from Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan or buys them when she travels abroad.
Syeda started covering her face with a veil as a sophomore at the University of Houston, where she was a biology major. Her parents, who are Pakistani immigrants, were not thrilled. Her mother wore a head scarf but feared that Saba's face veil was going too far. "They were afraid the niqab would make me stand out too much," says Syeda. "But they eventually accepted it when they realized it was more than just a passing phase."
Today Syeda is well known in the Islamic community as the founder of a Muslim women's magazine called Daughters of Adam and as a featured blogger on the website Muslimmatters.org. She says covering doesn't stop her from doing "normal" things like shopping for kids' clothes, lunching with friends who don't cover (she had to learn to eat with the veil on, and they had to learn to stop laughing at her when she did), or playing at the park with her kids. "The other children are always curious about me. They'll say, 'Look mommy, it's a ghost, or an angel.' It's the parents who look the most uncomfortable."
Dressing in an outfit more synonymous with Saudi Arabia than the Eastern Seaboard does raise eyebrows, but it doesn't bother Syeda. "From the outside, they might think, 'Whoa, she's so oppressed,' but to me it's exactly the opposite," she says. "The loose clothing and face covering mean I no longer feel objectified by men. It makes me feel confident and liberated."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2011.