We see a Mennonite woman in a bonnet or prayer cap, and many of us think it’s “quaint” and part of this area’s history.

We see a Muslim woman in a hijab or niqab, and many of us feel fearful or suspicious.

Why the difference?

This is the central puzzle of UN/COVERINGS, a richly detailed and thought-provoking exhibit at Schneider Haus National Historic Site on Queen Street in Kitchener.

In one room, black bonnets of Mennonite women are displayed. Seen up close, some quilted and others with ruffles, they are things of beauty and signifiers of their community, as well as instruments of oppression.

As if to push this complicated reality home, another wall shows rotating images of beautiful lace patterns, evoking prayer caps — but above it is a punitive quote.

“Women’s uncovered hanging hair are a major stimulus to male sexuality. No wonder rape and immorality rise as the veils disappear,” reads the quote by American Mennonite minister William McGrath, from a pamphlet entitled “Christian Women’s Veiling.”

Both for Muslims and Mennonites, it can be a complex thing for a woman to cover her hair, said Laura Morlock, co-curator of the exhibition with Cristina Moreno Almeida. (Morlock is Mennonite, and Moreno Almeida is Muslim.)

A woman covering her hair “100 per cent has been used as a tool of oppression — and (also) used by women to claim identity, to claim independence,” said Morlock in an interview.

This dynamic has applied to both Mennonite and Muslim women, said Morlock, who is also a lecturer at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Fashion, and specializes in diversity, gender and dress in North America.

Although 84 per cent of Muslim women in Canada and the United States do not cover their hair, Morlock said some have taken to wearing a hijab as a response to anti-Muslim bigotry; a way of standing up and being counted.

There’s a huge diversity in the Muslim part of the exhibit, showing similar tensions between freedom and oppression.

There’s a “burkini” — tunic and leggings — that’s used as a modest bathing suit. It was outlawed in some resort towns in France, where the police have forced women to remove their clothing or leave the beach.

Also on display in the exhibit is a full niqab and abaya, a loose-fitting ensemble which covers all parts of the body except hands and eyes.

Beside it is a poignant quote from Noha Abdul Ghaffar of Waterloo.

“When I go to the airport and people see me in my niqab and abaya, and (my husband) Zuhair with his beard, oh my God! We’re Osama bin Laden,” she writes.

Another quote comes from Zunera Ishaq, who successfully challenged the previous Conservative federal government for the right to wear her niqab while taking her oath of Canadian citizenship.

“The niqab is a symbol of liberation for me,” her quote says. “I chose it for myself.”

The range and beauty of Muslim dress for women is shown throughout the room. A dark blue wedding outfit from Turkey with cap, veil and robe, dazzles with gold braid and sequins. A couple of couture outfits from designer Sara Mirza, rendered in rich fur, velvet and brocade, shows a miniskirt in one outfit and a daring cutout in another. These ensembles contrast with very plain black or white robes, elsewhere in the exhibit.

The exhibit is on display in Kitchener until Labour Day, and after that it will be toured outside Waterloo Region. Its next stop is the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives.

Antoinette Duplessis, head of content and experience at Schneider Haus, said this kind of exhibit is not what people expect from a venue that was the historic home of Mennonite settlers in the early 19th century.

“We really want it to be a conversation starter,” she said.

Many people remember Schneider Haus as a place of four-poster beds and cast-iron wood stoves, where 19th century crafts are practised, and cookies are baked according to historic recipes.

But some of that is going to change, just as our understanding of history is changing, she said. This exhibit is part of that.

“We knew we had to expand the stories we’re telling,” she said.

Luisa D’Amato is a Waterloo Region-based staff columnist for The Record. Reach her via email: [email protected]