illustrated by Will Hobbs
Veils. Has there ever been such a complex piece of cloth? Essentially a veil is just a piece of fabric that traditionally covers the hair and/or face, and yet it means many things to many people. For some a veil conjures up the image of sensual belly dance, for others an emblem of paying proper respect to their religious faith. Not everyone has taken the time to think about veils and their symbolism, but with such a long and varied history the only thing to be certain of is that everyone can find a veil they like.
According to my favorite anonymous resource, Wikipedia, the first recorded example of women wearing veils is in a legal text from the 13th century BCE, which stated that only Assyrian noble women were allowed to wear veils. Common women and prostitutes were forbidden from wearing them. In fact, the idea of women of higher status wearing veils was also practiced by the ancient Greeks.
In modern times, veils are often pinned to hats worn by widows at funerals and through whatever designated period of mourning is appropriate after the burial. And of course, everyone thinks about the wedding veil that brides wear. The veil is a symbol of purity and, if worn by the bride, when the bride’s face is revealed by the father lifting the veil, it’s a gesture of handing over possession of his daughter to the groom, when lifted by the groom, it signifies what will be taking place in the marriage bed, you know, when the clothing comes off!
Often times, in traditional Catholic or Christian churches, women are encouraged to cover their heads, which means that for many, attending church means wearing a hat or veil. Oddly, men are to remove their hats when attending church. Apparently it has something to do with Corinthians and how man is in the image of God, so he shouldn’t be all ashamed and covered, but woman is the glory of God…which you would think that would be good enough to show your hair, but what do I know? I wouldn’t have even known about Corinthians if it wasn’t for Wikipedia again!
Married Orthodox Jewish women, in compliance with the covering head requirement, related to the modest dress standard called tzeniut, cover their hair by using wigs, hats, and scarves (Which can be awfully veil like, right?). Why do they do it, what does it symbolize? I don’t know. I’m Jewish, but I’m what’s called in theological parlance a “bad Jew”. If any of my Jewish peeps know the skinny on the tzeniut and why Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair, leave an informative comment at the end of the article!
Let’s be honest, the war in Afghanistan has really introduced the concept of Muslim veiled women to the west. In fact, in the Muslim world the ladies rock so many varied veils that I can’t keep the names straight! And that’s why I’m just going to flat out quote the Wikipedia entry here.
“A variety of headdresses worn by Muslim women in accordance with hijab (the principle of dressing modestly) are sometimes referred to as veils. Many of these garments cover the hair, ears and throat, but do not cover the face. The khimar is a type of headscarf. The niqāb and burqa are two kinds of veils that cover most of the face except for a slit or hole for the eyes. The Afghan burqa covers the entire body, obscuring the face completely, except for a grille or netting over the eyes to allow the wearer to see. The boshiya is a veil that may be worn over a headscarf; it covers the entire face and is made of a sheer fabric so the wearer is able to see through it.”
Now if you think I’m a bad Jew, you won’t be amazed to learn that I’m super less than an expert on the Muslim faith, but here’s my stab at talking hijab. Women of Islam were instructed to cover themselves when they go out so that everyone will know they’re women and will be left alone and not harassed. I’ve also been given to believe that the basic concept is that because women are so hot (as in sexually attractive, not in measurable temperature) and that men are so easily distracted, that women being covered when in the presence of men who are not family is just the smart way of doing business. If any readers have the 411 on the practice and perhaps symbolism of this kind of veil, leave a message in the comments section so we can all learn something new!
Obviously these days discussing the veiling of Islamic women is an issue of religion, politics, and civil rights. Guess what I’m not going to do? Stick my head into the middle of all of it. Let me just say, there are days when the idea of not worrying about my clothes, hair, or make-up is appealing, as long as it’s my decision when to cover it up and when to flaunt it.
So what the heck do we have here? A symbol of purity, of mourning, of social status, of marital status, of faith, of sensuality. Now that’s a heck of a lot for one square of fabric!