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The practice of people concealing themselves behind the veil for a variety of illicit purposes is an old one. Young men, disguised as veiled women, secretly entered Athens to visit Socrates at a time when it was forbidden. The Thousand and One Nights tales are filled with stories, comic or tragic of misunderstandings caused by the veil. Probably the most famous is the story of the Dance of Seven Veils performed by Scheherazade.

In addition to the Koran, the Bible is another book which has few references to the veil. The first of the rare references is in Genesis 24. Rebecca puts on a veil before marrying Isaac. This implies that she was not usually veiled. It may have been that the custom of the wedding veil led to the confusion between Rachel and Leah. In the book of Ruth, Boaz pours barley into Ruth’s veil. The mere fact that she takes it off shows that it was not an essential symbol of modesty.

The types of veils worn today are as diverse as the number of women wearing them. A traveler to the Middle East may notice the yashmak, a veil which covers everything but the eyes. This was convenient in a world where smallpox all too often left women with their eyes as their only beautiful feature.

The charm of the veil is especially obvious in the Sinai and Jordan. Here the yashmak is often held by a jewelled or coin-decorated band running across the brow with a vertical strip coming down to meet the similarly decorated cloth, at the bridge of the nose.

In parts of Turkey and Iran veiling consists of a cloth, almost always black, covering the head and breast. A fold of the cloth can be pulled up to cover the mouth and nose. Sometimes it is worn with a kind of pill-box cap.

It is a common practice among the Bedouin women of the Sinai to sew coins on their masks as a sign of wealth.

A Bedouin in the Sinai is far removed in place and circumstance from a bride in America or a widow in India. Yet a veil is the visible connection among the three. Although it is worn for different reasons, the veil will continue to link women through ages and cultures.

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The author frequently writes about Middle Eastern customs.

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