The Story Behind the Veils

by Caroline Stone
photos by Leon V. Kofod

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Who has not been intrigued by a woman in a veil? A young Bedouin roaming the desert with only her eyes showing, a shy bride blushing when her veil is lifted or a grieving widow in black are all sources of fascination and mystery. For centuries, this single piece of cloth has represented different things to different people. It can be worn as a mark of dedication to God, a protection from prying eyes, a fashion accessory or as a symbol of joy or mourning.

From the earliest times the prime function of the veil was to show that the wearer was marked off or consecrated. The custom of veiling is believed to have originated in ancient Greece. Practices varied from state to state. For instance, in Sparta unmarried girls went unveiled while their mothers covered their own heads. In Thebes women hid their faces behind a transparent white veil with holes for the eyes.

In Republican Rome, a wife’s refusal to wear a veil constituted grounds for divorce. Under the Roman Empire, however, women became emancipated and refused to accept the veil as compulsory. Instead, they wore the stola, a piece of cloth thrown over the head and crossed on the left shoulder, similar to our stole. This form of the veil is still often worn by Northern Indian and Pakistani women.

In India women covered their heads when they were tending to the sacred fire and performing other rituals. It is from this practice of covering the head while worshipping that the veil of the Christian nun and the Muslim woman is believed to have evolved.

For the nun, the veil is not merely a piece of clothing, but a mark of dedication to God and segregation from the everyday world. Thus we have the expression “to take the veil.” In some religious communities veiling symbolizes the transition from postulant to fully professed nun.

In the Koran, Islam’s sacred scripture, references to wearing the veil are obscure. The veil is almost always used in its metaphoric sense, for example, the veil of death, the veil which divides God from men. For centuries Muslim scholars have discussed what precisely the veil should consist of. There is one time, however, when women are not required to veil, and that is during the pilgrimage to Mecca “the House of God.” This is because as pilgrims, they are in a state of ritual purity and not liable to sin.

One commentary on the Koran stressed that the veil marked off women of class. Slave women, especially blacks, were not automatically required to veil. A woman who wore a veil was a good Muslim. Wearing a veil also indicated that a woman was young, free, reasonably well-to-do, beloved, exempt from manual work and not a nomad. The use of the veil was largely an urban phenomenon. Country women did not veil except for visiting towns and on special occasions.

In complete opposition to their tradition, Muslim brides today choose white weddings. This is a result of the Western influence of television and fashion magazines. Western styles have also influenced Indian brides whose traditional wedding color is red. More and more Indian women today are choosing white instead of their traditional color.

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Tags: Middle East Cultural Identity Muslim Women (rights/issues) Bedouin