Last week, I did a radio interview with Stu Bryer of WICH in Norwich, Connecticut. We talked about several subjects, including the Syrian refugees and the veil. While I believe that veils that completely disguise people are problematic for safety purposes and unnecessary in a Western country where people choose to live, I also feel that we should explore the issue of veiling in a more historical and personal context.
During my trip to Baghdad in 2000, I visited my parents’ Christian village in Mosul and asked my cousins to find me an abayya in the souk. He found one I liked, disputed with the merchant over a few dinars, wanted to walk out, and at my plea, agreed on a price. I left with an abbaya that today still has some of the spices I’d carried in my luggage in a journey that lasted from Baghdad to Detroit three days.
What’s an abbaya? It’s a veil that reminds me of my mother and the neighborhood women who’d sometimes wear it when they went to the market. Since Saddam encouraged women to wear western clothing and he was against Islamic fundamentalists, the burka wasn’t allowed in Iraq. Usually older women wore the abbaya. They did so for religious purposes, as Islam requires women to dress modestly in order to keep the focus of beauty on spiritual and not superficial attributes. Wearing the veil was also a way to avoid harassment. But mostly, they wore it because it was part of a culture that predates Islam by many centuries.
In the Near East, Assyrian kings first introduced both the seclusion of women in royal harem and the veil. Prostitutes and slaves, however, were told not to veil, and were slashed if they disobeyed this law. This practice also appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia and in India among upper caste women. It’s suggested that afterwards it spread among the Arabs.
Muslims in their first century were relaxed about female dress. As Islam reached other lands, regional practices, including the covering of women, were adopted. Yet it was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. Muhammad’s wives originally dressed in veil in order for people to distinguish them from other women.
Throughout Islamic history only a part of the urban classes were veiled and secluded. Rural and nomadic women, the majority of the population, were not. The veil did not appear as a common rule to be followed until around the tenth century. In the Middle Ages numerous laws were developed which most often placed women at a greater disadvantage than in earlier times.
For 2,000 years, Catholic women have veiled themselves before entering a church or any time they are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., during sick calls). It was written into the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262, that women must cover their heads – “especially when they approach the holy table”
For many centuries (until around 1175) Anglo-Saxon and then Anglo-Norman women, with the exception of young unmarried girls, wore veils that entirely covered their hair, and often their necks up to their chins. It was in the Tudor period (1485), when hoods became increasingly popular, that veils of this type became less common.
Sometimes a sheer was draped over and pinned to the bonnet or hat of a woman in mourning. They would also have been used as a simple method of hiding the identity of a woman who was travelling to meet a lover, or doing anything she didn’t want other people to find out about. Veils were also sometimes worn to protect the complexion from sun and wind damage (when un-tanned skin was fashionable), or to keep dust out of a woman’s face. Conversely, veils are often part of the stereotypical image of the courtesan and harem woman where the mysterious veil hints at sensuality and the unknown.
Among the Tuareg of West Africa, women do not traditionally wear the veil, while men do. It’s believed that the veil wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well. This veil is worn from 25 years of age and is never removed, even in front of family members.
What about the origin of a bride’s veil? Some say that the veil was introduced in ancient Rome to keep away the evil spirits. It’s also said that it was a symbol of purity, chastity, and modesty. Other say that the origin of the bridal veil was due to the circumstances of an arranged marriage. In days past, men bargained with an eligible young lady’s father for their hand in marriage. After the ceremony, the veil was lifted to reveal the bride’s features. This was to keep a groom from backing out of the deal if he didn’t like what he saw.
With my mother, the veil was used for convenience, when she didn’t want to change from her nightgown in order to go to the bakery and buy bread. Or when my cousin wanted to meet her lover without anyone noticing her. Or it was worn by those who found it attractive or simply liked having it flutter around their ankles.
When I was a little girl, I used my mother’s veil to play house. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have my own veil, not knowing then that one day wearing fabric in such a manner, or not wearing it, could cost women their lives.