The veil – there’s probably not an item of clothing as contentious. A stirrer of political, religious and cultural customs, a blender of motives and principles, it’s controversial and confusing; some claim it a statement of oppression, others personal expression. The reasons for wearing one are multi-farious too – to please, to fit in, to be unseen, to be good. And so the debate rages on…
Light in the hand, it’s punch is knockout;
Archaic Esteem: Veiling has a long history in European, Asian, and African societies; long before religions took their hold. The practice likely developed out of worship practices of sacred objects and then as way to define women in society. Notions of ‘protecting’ women in public – from the stare of the stranger, and to demonstrate their status, and respectability. High status women in ancient Mesopotamia and in the Greek and Persian empires wore the veil to show their social standing. In Assyria (1400 and 1100 BC) explicit sumptuary laws detailed veiling ‘rules’ – depending upon the woman’s class, rank, and occupation in society to “differentiate between ‘respectable’ women and those who were publicly available”. Female slaves and prostitutes were forbidden to veil and faced harsh penalties if they did so. In ancient Greece(550 and 323 B.C.) respectable married women were expected to seclude themselves and wear clothing that concealed them from the eyes of strange men.
Religious Reserve: Wearing a veil, in differing forms, was then adopted by the early religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam as a way for women to demonstrate their propriety and modesty.
In Christianity, the Virgin Mary, was mostly depicted veiled. From the Middle Ages till the 1960s, head coverings, from the wimple to headscarfs and lace caps, were common for marred women. Nuns ‘took the veil’ as a symbol of their commitment to Christ.
As Islam from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century spread so did ideas about the veiling of women as an expression of Qur’anic ideals regarding modesty and piety (which is probably why there are so many different interpretations now). The Yasmak in Turkey was made of two pieces of fine muslim; one tied across the face under the nose, and the other tied across the forehead draping the head. This did little to conceal the face, more likely this gauzy concealing heightened the wearer’s beauty or allure.
The black yashmak (or peçe) is more favoured by Islamic women in the Arabic states and North Africa. Made of a rectangle of woven black horsehair attached close to the temples slopes down, like an awning, to cover the face and has slits for the eyes, it’s held in place behind the head with strings. Yashmaks of this type can also be supported over the nose by a small piece of gold, but this was associated with the bint al-balad, the “native woman” and very much condsidered working or lower middle class.
Today the black yashmak is usually worn with a chador – a full body covering garment. This centuries old custom was in decline in the 20th century, except in the most traditional societies, but a resurgence in Islāmic expression has seen an recent renaissance in shrouded dress.
Erotic Review: As a representation of a woman’s mystery, allure and sexual prowess veils contrast most starkly with piety. The use of veils in dancing and seduction has just as long a history.
The Babylonian goddess Ishtar ” is thought to have performed the first documented striptease” when she descended into the underworld in search of Tammuz. Ishtar had to “relinquish her jewels and robes at each of the seven gates to the underworld until she stands naked in the ‘land of no return.’
And in the biblical story (from Matthew 14) of John the Baptist. Salome is said to have danced before Herod II, in return for John’s head on a platter.A dance we now know as “Dance of the Seven Veils”, thanks to Oscar Wilde (in his 1891 French play Salome).
Wilde was probably influenced by the popular Arabian veil dances of his time. But dancing with veils goes back further, to cultural traditions of the Middle East and then the Sultan’s harems. We now call them Belly dances; but back then they were considered sensitive and spiritual, far from overtly sexual. By focusing the movement of the hips, they aimed to express power by movement. The veil added interest, an accoutrement to a very feminine art.
In Rêve d’Égypte, a live tableau performed by controversialist ‘Colette’ veils were used to heighten the sexuality of her mini play. An Egyptian curator is stunned when a museum mummy suddenly comes to life, unwinds its wrappings, and dances. At the end of the skit, the women exchanged erotic kiss. According to press reports, Colette wore a calf-length gauzy skirt, golden breastplates and a veiled headdress, her legs, midriff, and feet were bare.
Veils then as sensual accessory, concealing and coaxing.
Political Defiance: From pioneering Egyptian feminists like Hoda Hanim Sha’rawi, who in 1923 made a big gesture of removing her fine white crepe-de-chine yashmak and letting it flutter to the ground (an so the veil ceased to be a signifier, for Egyptian women anyway, of social standing) to the banning of headscarves by the French government in 2004, the yashmak (and it’s veiled sisters) has long been at the focal point of in battle for power – between State and Religion.
There’s a view though, that the veil as symbol of women’s standing in society, was and still is, a diverting side issue. Malak Hifni Nasif (another Egpytian feminist), argued in 1906, the veil had only come to be about women’s place because the west (personified in Egypt then by Lord Cromer) had made it so. She urged that reformers should concentrate on questions of education, health and economic independence – ie, the opportunity to work outside the home –
and let the veil take care of itself.
Fashion Statement: Fashion has struggled with the veil – it likes it as a wedding accessory or as a headless for a sultry look but the full veil and it’s associations with oppression normally scare designers’ off.
Until recently, now we have hijab chic. Youthful Muslims began wearing colourful and embroidered hijabs to match their trendy outfits. Religious, modern and connected, they think they have found a way to please their parents and their peers.
And the Fashion world has taken notice, from Nike to H&M and Dolce & Gabbana’s, “modest fashion” is having a moment. Models such as Mariah Idrissi, who was the first to wear a headscarf in a fashion campaign, and Halima Aden, who has appeared in a show in New York Fashion Week, are also helping to spread the word. This year saw the first London Modest Fashion Week – embracing our veiled sisters – now that feels rather new.