Veiling, the use of fabric coverings to signal limitation of access, has been practiced in a variety of cultures during much of recorded history while remaining virtually unknown in others. Where practiced, veiling is always part of complex and multidimensional systems of signification bound up with gender, sexuality, ethnicity, literary culture, religion, politics, architecture, morality, and economic and other class distinctions. From earliest accounts of the practice up to the early twenty-first century, veiling has been deeply involved in the expression and contestation of privilege, identity, and control.
VEILING IN ANCIENT TIMES
Some of the earliest textual accounts of veiling associate it with marriage, but also with prostitution and deception. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Rebekah veils herself when she first catches sight of her intended husband Isaac. Years later she covers her son Jacob with animal skins in order to trick his blind father into blessing him. In the same biblical book, Tamar, twice-widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, veils herself to pass as a prostitute in order to conceive the children wrongfully denied her by the father of her two deceased husbands. In both story cycles, vulnerable women attain power through deception in a kind of veiled manipulation of patriarchal authority.
Other biblical stories recount how Moses, after intimate contact with the Divine, veiled his face when he returned to his people. In Islamic iconography the face of the Prophet Muhammad is customarily veiled in the rare instances in which his image appears. According to the Qur'an the Divine communicates with mortals only through revelation or "from behind a veil (hijab)." Similarly, the Israelites were commanded to veil the place of the Divine Presence in the wilderness tabernacle and, later, in the Jerusalem Temple's Holy of Holies. Early Christian stories portray the supernatural unveiling of this same divine sanctuary at the moment of Jesus's death.
In earliest Greek and Roman culture veiling and unveiling were most closely associated with weddings and sacrifice. Classical tragedies such as the stories of Iphigenia and Andromeda express the psychosocial relationship between these two rituals. Everyday veiling in ancient Rome was associated almost exclusively with professional priests and priestesses. The first-century Greek writer Saint Paul demanded that Christian women of Corinth veil their heads during public ritual but that the men never do so. Following this injunction most Roman Catholic celibate nuns wore veils for many centuries; a mid-twentieth-century change in Church rules rendered the practice optional for many communities. Ancient rabbinic Jewish texts prescribed some kind of hair or head binding for married women when they were away from home and for male priests serving in the Temple sanctuary (destroyed in 70 ce). In some Jewish communities married women continue to cover or cap their hair when they leave the house, and males wear a skullcap at all times.
VEILING AND ISLAM
The veiling of brides and of women participating in public religious rituals continues in many societies and cultures around the globe in the early twenty-first century. Women's veiling as a constant, everyday practice, however—and as an expressly politicized practice—is most commonly associated with Islam.
There is much evidence, both textual and artifactual, for the veiling of women (and some men) in pre-Islamic Persia, Assyria, Arabia, and parts of Africa. The practice was hardly universal, however, and was most likely a contrivance of the elite classes. Ancient Persian kings and queens, for example, veiled themselves as a mark of separation and distinction from commoners. Imperial images on Sassanian coins depict a royal veil raised above the crown to show the monarch's face on the obverse. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, proponents of veiling began to draw on the vocabulary and ideology of the new movement to imbue the practice of veiling with divine and prophetic significance. The Qur'anic revelation most often cited in relation to the veiling of Muslim women is reported to have been uttered at the close of a wedding feast celebrating Muhammad's marriage to his cousin Zaynab. It calls upon the followers of the Prophet to respect his privacy and that of his household, to remain behind a curtain when bringing a question or petition to any of the Prophet's wives, and not to seek to marry any of the Prophet's widows after his death. The elements of wedding/marriage and elite status, familiar from other cultures' veiling traditions, are present in this instance as well. The manner by which the curtain (hijab) specified in this verse comes to be applied to the bodies of all women—and not merely to rooms where believers sought audience with the Prophet's wives—is a matter of widely divergent opinion and interpretation. Other scriptural verses invoked to authorize the veiling of Muslim women include those that call for male and female modesty—specifying, in particular, that women cover their beauty, ornaments, and breasts—as well as those that instruct the wives of the Prophet and other female believers to distinguish themselves from nonbelievers by how they wear their cloaks.
Veiling of women has not been customary or compulsory in all Muslim societies. It has not, for example, been the common practice among Muslim women in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. With the advent of Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism in the wake of European colonialism, however, veiling emerged as a major symbol in battles over public identity and self-determination in individual, communal, and global contexts. Many Muslim women have found themselves caught amidst competing claims and obligations in struggles involving veiling wherein the stakes could be, at times, quite high.
During the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, different locales, states, and entire countries have required the wearing of veils by women, on one hand, or outlawed or restricted the practice, on the other. Banning, fines, corporal punishment, and imprisonment have been among the penalties inflicted for violation of such laws, and their enforcement has been carried out by police, courts, family members, and self-appointed vigilantes. Even in the absence of formal laws prohibiting or requiring veiling, communities or individuals have regularly attempted to enforce a preferred practice or interpretation through pressure, public harassment, beating, attacks with burning acid, and, occasionally, murder of noncompliant women. Hence, many Muslim women veil or unveil as a matter of conformity to prevailing social constraints, whereas others exercise some degree of active choice in the matter.
Muslim women who engage in veiling often express the conviction that the practice is an act of faith and of submission to the will of Allah, as well as an act of fidelity to the Umma (Muslim community). Some Muslim women choose—or are compelled—to veil as a show of solidarity with one or more Islamic political movements, particularly in contexts of war, military occupation, colonization, postcolonial revolution, or anti-imperialist resistance. Many Muslims reject the gender asymmetry of veiling practices and critique them as fundamentally misogynistic in nature; others claim that women are, in fact, inferior to men and should signal their subordination through veiling; still others assert that gender equality is unaffected or somehow enhanced by female veiling.
VARIETY AND PARADOX
Within and across cultures, veiling has taken differing forms—from the pinning of small lace mantillas or snoods to the hair; to the donning of diminutive kerchiefs, large headscarves, head-and-shoulder-covering wraps, and/or small face or nose-and-mouth covers (niqabs); to the wearing of full-body-and-head-covering chadors or abayas, or shroudlike burqas, which also cover the face and eyes; to the use of curtained litters, curtained room partitions, latticed windows, or separated living quarters. Veils worn on the head and body are, in some cases, of prescribed color and shape, but in other cases their design affords a means of ethnic or individual expression.
As a cultural phenomenon, veiling is inescapably laden with paradox. As a prerogative of the Divine or of the human elite, it can enhance power and high status; when imposed upon those without active voice or authority in human society, it can signify oppression, degradation, lack of volition, or chattel status. Veiling is an explicitly public act, a visible display of fidelity to a particular ideological system; but veiling simultaneously signals an assertion of privacy, forbidden access, invisibility, even anonymity. For women, veiling may be experienced as liberation from sexual objectification; nonetheless, as a highly gendered practice, it further entrenches the association of women—and not men—with sex, sexuality, and sexual objectification. Veiling has often functioned to enforce the confinement, seclusion, and exclusion of women, yet at times it has served as the condition for their inclusion and integration into civil society.
see also Islam.
Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard, and Wendy Doniger, eds. 1995. Off with Her Head!: The Denial of Women's Identity in Myth, Religion, and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
El Guindi, Fadwa. 1999. Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford, England: Berg.
Mernissi, Fatima. 1987. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Shirazi, Faegheh. 2001. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Thompson, Cynthia L. 1988. "Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth." Biblical Archeologist 51: 99-115.
Cynthia M. Baker