The veiling of women by scarf or hood, and their seclusion, became a mark of honour and social status in cities of the Middle East and Mediterranean world in the centuries before the Common Era. In this context, the apostle Paul called upon Christian women to cover their heads, and in the third century, Tertulian recommended that the Christian women of Carthage veil themselves outdoors. At around this time, the bridal veil became incorporated into the Christian wedding ceremony, adapted from the Roman model, while women who became consecrated to the service of God ‘took up the veil’ as a symbol of their marriage to Christ, and a sign of their chastity. The earliest clear evidence for the bridal veil in Jewish custom dates from the early Middle Ages as well, although Jewish women had covered their hair in public, as an act of modesty, since biblical times.
The veiling of women became a feature of Islamic society some time after the Islamic conquests of the eastern Byzantine lands and the domains of the Sassanian empire in the early seventh century. During the Prophet Muhammad's lifetime (d. 632), the revelation of the Qur'an called for modest dress for both men and women, including the cloaking of women outdoors, and the seclusion of the Prophet's wives. After the Islamic conquests, in an environment in which respectable non-Muslim urban women covered their hair and remained at home, jurists interpreted the general prescriptions of the relevant Qur'anic verses, and the example of the Prophet's wives, to mandate the wearing of a veil or hijab for Muslim women. The definition of the hijab — for example, whether it must cover the hands and face — was and continues to be a point of difference among legal traditions and individual jurists. Barbara Showalter has shown how Qur'an commentaries from the tenth, thirteenth, and seventeenth centuries suggest a historical trend, among legal scholars, to ever stricter interpretations of the requirements of modesty in the pre-modern period. In practice, socio-economic and regional variations must have always prevailed in the use and form of the veil.
In the modern period, officials of the European imperial empires and other Westerners pointed to the veil as a symbol of the oppression of women and the backwardness of Muslim societies, and Middle Eastern nationalists and reformers, men and women, began to discuss the status of women and the wearing of the veil. Some women, such as Huda Sha'arawi in Egypt, discarded the veil after becoming active in public life, to mark their departure from the world of seclusion and identify themselves as modern women, while others worked for nationalist goals, or to improve opportunities for girls and women, without deeming it necessary to renounce the veil. By the 1930s, however, many women of the upper and middle classes in many of the major cities of the Middle East no longer veiled themselves, with the encouragement of governments, such as the Turkish republic, or by legislation, as in Iran.
The current politicization of the veil has occurred as part of a general reaction in the Islamic world to the political, economic, and social changes of the last century and a frustration with, or rejection of, what have been identified as Western models for the state, society, and economy. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 called for the foundation of an Islamic state based on Islamic principles and upholding Islamic law, and imposed the full veiling of women as a visible symbol of that commitment. Since then, the veil has become a widely recognized, and ideologically charged, symbol of Islam, taken up by various Islamist movements not necessarily sympathetic to the Iranian Revolution.
Women in different parts of the Islamic world have been forced or pressured to take up the veil, but women have also chosen to take up the veil out of a political or personal commitment to Islamic reform, or as an expression of their rediscovery of their Muslim identity. In some contexts, the veil is associated with the seclusion of women at home, but in other contexts the veiled woman is active in public life. The identification of the veil as a symbol of an Islamic way of life has stirred a new generation to debate the status of women in Islamic religion, law, society, and culture.
The increased incidence of new veiling may be misinterpreted in some contexts, because the veil has become so closely identified with Islamist movements and anti-Western politics. Arlene MacLeod's study of lower-middle-class women in Cairo who have taken up the hijab — here defined as covering clothes (of varying styles) and a head scarf that generally covers the hair, neck, and ears — reveals that many women who take up the veil are not politically active or particularly interested in Islamic revival. The women of her study were often from rural backgrounds and the first in their families to work outside the home; they adopted the veil as a way to secure respect from those they encountered at work, in the course of their day, and from their families. Their veiling facilitated their activity outside the home and represented an accommodation between their economic needs and social circumstances.
For some Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim societies, the veil has become a contested symbol of ethnic and cultural identity. In France, for example, Muslims have agitated to allow girls to wear a headscarf to school, asserting the principle of freedom of religion and challenging the tolerance of the state and society, while in Germany, Turkish migrants may wear the head scarf as a sign of pride and rejection of assimilation.
The veil has become a potent symbol of Islam and Muslim identity in recent decades and yet its meaning for those who wear it, or see it being worn, for those who advocate the veiling of women, or reject it, is hardly uniform, and often ambiguous.
Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and gender in Islam. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Showalter, B. (1984). The status of women in early Islam. In Muslim Women, (ed. F. Hussain), pp. 11–43. Croom-Helm, London.
MacLeod, A. (1991). Accommodating protest. Columbia University Press, New York.
See also Islam and the body.
VEIL , covering for the face. In the Bible there are several terms usually translated as veil. However, the exact connotation for these terms is not known, and they may refer to other garments used to cover the face as well. The term צָעִיף is used of Rebecca (Gen. 24:65) and Tamar (Gen. 38:14, 19). Other terms used in the Bible for veil – though the meaning is not always certain – are צַמָּה (Isa. 47:2; Song 4:1, 3; 6:7); רְדִיד (Isa. 3:23; Song 5:7) and רְעָלָה (Isa. 3:19); cf. Shab. 6:6, where Arab women are said to go out רְעוּלוֹת (veiled), which implies that Jewish women did not. The מַסְוֶה worn by Moses after descending from Mt. Sinai to screen his radiant face (Ex. 34:29–35) was some kind of mask; the leper had to cover his upper lip (Lev. 13:45), by pulling his head-cover over his face (cf. mk 24a).
The Talmud has no Hebrew word for veil except the Aramaic בייכא or בייבא (bb 146a) and the Persian-Arabic פדאמי or פרמי (Shab. 66b). The word הינומא (Ket. 2:1, and 17b; tj, ibid. 26a; cf. the Greek ὑμέαιος) describes the bridal litter (see M. Petuchowski's note in Baneth-Hoffmann etc. Mishnayot, 3 (1933), 100f.), but is interpreted by Rashi as "a veil over her (the bride's) head, let down over her eyes, as is customary in our region"; see also *Ḥushi'el of Kairouan, who lived before Rashi (jor, 11 (1898–99), 649). This custom for the bride to veil her face or, as it is done now, for the groom or the rabbi to cover her face before the marriage ceremony ("bedecken," see *Marriage), goes back at least to the early Middle Ages. In 15th-century Rhineland bridal veils were part of the groom's presents to his bride (sivlonot). In the late 17th and 18th centuries communal regulations (takkanot) forbade women to wear veils of gold or spun gold with gold or pearls or even braided (Metz, 1692), to visit the synagogues unveiled (Metz, 1697), or betrothed girls to appear in public without their faces covered (Amsterdam, 1747). In Muslim countries Jewesses had sometimes to wear distinctive veils, but Tunisian Jewish brides wore gold-embroidered veils in the 19th century. In certain ḥasidic circles brides have their faces completely wrapped and covered.
Krauss, Tal Arch, 1 (1910), 189, 196; idem, Kadmoniyyot ha-Talmud, 2 pt. 2 (1945), 265f.; I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322), 108, 304; A. Rubens, History of Jewish Costume (1967), index; L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948), index.
veil / vāl/ • n. a piece of fine material worn by women to protect or conceal the face: a white bridal veil. ∎ a piece of linen or other fabric forming part of a nun's headdress, resting on the head and shoulders. ∎ a thing that conceals, disguises, or obscures something: shrouded in an eerie veil of mist. ∎ Bot. a membrane that is attached to the immature fruiting body of some toadstools and ruptures in the course of development, either (universal veil) enclosing the whole fruiting body or (partial veil) joining the edges of the cap to the stalk. ∎ (in Jewish antiquity) the piece of precious cloth separating the sanctuary from the body of the Temple or the Tabernacle.• v. [tr.] cover with or as though with a veil: she veiled her face. ∎ [usu. as adj.] (veiled) partially conceal, disguise, or obscure: a thinly veiled threat.PHRASES: beyond the veil in a mysterious or hidden place or state, esp. the unknown state of life after death.draw a veil over avoid discussing or calling attention to (something), esp. because it is embarrassing or unpleasant.take the veil become a nun.DERIVATIVES: veil·less adj.