ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Story Behind the Veils

The ancient practice of wearing a veil survives in many cultures.

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.

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.

The author frequently writes about Middle Eastern customs.

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