Fall 1990, Volume 7.2


Lifting the Veil: Shared Cultural Values of Control

The Arabian peninsula was the cradle of three of the world's religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It should come as no surprise, then, that they share important cultural patterns, particularly in the role and perception of women. Specifically, the symbolism of the veil reveals their suspicion of woman, who represents both a challenge to spirituality and, more dangerously, a locus of evil. Although all three religions provide examples of veiled women and men, only the veiling of women implies the need to control those veiled. For example, the customs of Moslem tribes of the Tuareg and the Teda in Northern Africa, whose men, not women, "veil," contrast sharply with the laws of Islam requiring women to veil; Greek Orthodox priests veil themselves for high ceremonies, while Western Christians veil only their religious women. The Jewish ceremony of the husband "veiling" his bride dates from the second century, one of the oldest Hebrew ceremonies that has no supporting Talmudic text. The comparable male "unveiling," circumcision, clearly, has different connotations; the uncircumcised male has no place or identity in Jewish law or society.

Because of the complex interaction of religion and custom that defines the veiling of women in cultures dominated by these religions, I propose to examine shared perceptions of women and veiling in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and to demonstrate in three modern examples how those perceptions continue to shape the perception of women today. I hypothesize that veils for men represent a veiling of sacred or secular power from the uninitiated; veils also mystify or distance the sacred from the (female) profane. For women, the veil's meaning stems from a recognition of evil or weakness in the female character. The nature of the veil has also been forcibly transformed from emblems of modesty, class, or leisure, to a symbol of the need to control women and their dangerous or sinful allurements.

Understanding the religions that began on the Arabian peninsula begins by examining their shared cultural and social roots. Life on the Arabian peninsula until the seventh century A.D. was semi-nomadic and tribal. The pagan religions practiced in South Arabia accorded women, along with male priests, considerable power and prestige. And unlike the purely nomadic tribes of the north, the southern tribes practiced some agriculture in the more fertile coastal areas. Following the predictable curve of a society converting from nomadic herding to primitive and then more advanced agriculture, the status of women in these societies declined. Specifically, the environmental hardships and the nomadic traditions dictated the supplanting of early (tribal) matriarchal systems by patriarchal and male kinship lineage. The tribes lost the practice of monogamy and started a transition to polyandry and eventually polygamy. In short, woman's status on the Arabian peninsula was pointedly diminished (Carroll 194-97).

On land unable to sustain large populations, groups regularly broke off from the larger core to relocate to more remote areas of the peninsula. Two such "breakaway" tribes were the Hebrews and, much later, the Muslim Arabs, both groups distinguished by their patriarchal social organization and their religious monotheism. Indeed, the Jews, with some historical justice, view Islam and Christianity as younger "daughters" of Judaism. As evidence of this common heritage, veiling in Judaism, Eastern (Greek Orthodox) Christianity, and Islam indicate a distinct and shared pattern of the veil as a symbolic marking of women.

Veiling of the sanctuary and veiling of a married woman share close connections in Judaism and Islam. The practice of the Jewish bridegroom "veiling " his bride (reversed in Western custom, where the groom lifts the bride's veil once the marriage vows have been pronounced) indicates her severance from the world (or glance) of men. Further, the Jewish wedding canopy or chuppah symbolizes the consignment of the woman to her husband's "tent," a concept echoed in Islamic purdah (the word means "veil"). The "veiling" of the Temple sanctuary has special significance for women as well. Behind this veil women may never step, only (male) priests of the tribe of Levi. Proscriptions against a woman's monthly "uncleanness" (barring her from normal social interactions during menstruation) seem to have been gradually extended to a perception that the "uncleanness" of women was a condition of her sex, hence her exclusion from sacred places.

Eastern Orthodox Christians repeat the Jewish custom of veiling the sanctuary with a more substantial barrier. The iconostasis is a solid screen pierced by three doors; a veil hangs behind the largest double door in the center. The image of the iconostasis is repeated in the religious icons that hang in the church and in every Orthodox home. The icon is, literally, the meeting place of heaven and earth, reminders of the invisible presence of the company of heaven at the liturgy or in everyday life. Thus the dualism that characterizes many religions, the sense of the spiritual defiled by the material and of the association of the material with women, is concretely demonstrated in sacred places and ceremonies. The separation of the sacred from the profane, spiritual from material, male from female, is echoed in the symbolism of the veiling of individuals.

Originally intended to protect religious women from Viking, Saracen, or Magyar invasion, political anarchy or violence common between 300-600 A.D., the cloistering, veiling and active restraining of female religious since the fourth century came to be seen as a natural outgrowth of the negative perception of women in the early Christian Church. "Diana went out and was ravished," St. Jerome reminds Eustochium in 383 A.D. Accordingly, Pope Gregory the Great instructed that nuns should confine themselves to convents lest they "suggest any evil suspicion to the minds of the faithful" (qtd. in Schulenberg 53). The implication, of course, is that women, even religious women, outside their cloister, pose a serious threat to the spirituality of the laity. The role of female religious as the lesser sisters of the stronger male priests is ingeniously elaborated in the way that the Church awards diminutive status to female religious and translates secular society's life-states into weaker echoes of those relationships in religious life. Nuns are "handmaids" of the Lord, "Brides of Christ," defined by the secular state of wifely servitude, situated in an unconsummated marriage, without any of the benefits of the alliance.

The custom of veiling in Islam reflects more social and behavioral than religious origins, but there is a gradual religious re-definition of the veil until it becomes almost completely a religious emblem. The custom of female veiling originated with the Persians over a century after the death of the prophet Mohammed. At first a non-obligatory symbol of the women's class or status, and later, of her desire to protect her respectability, the veil gradually became an outward sign of purdah, the seclusion of women within the home (Strobel 123). In Iran, the recent appearance of the chador, the black cotton or silk fabric in which a woman wraps herself from head to toe, signals a return to traditional compulsory veiling, accompanying the returned conservatism of the country.

The connection between veiled women and the veiling of the sanctuary, while seeming to posit a sacred quality to both, actually proposes contrasting models for the veil's symbolic meaning. The sanctuary's veil shields the faithful from close contact with the sacred and signals its special status within the human community. The veiling of woman reflects her necessary exclusion from human society because of the inherent evil of her character. The veil, therefore, reflects two contrasting messages: in the veiled sanctuary, the sacred must be protected from the defilement of the human community; however, the veiled woman represents society's need to control the profane element in society, woman.

The Jewish community further refines the connection of women's veiling with a specific aspect of her profanity—her sexuality. The Talmudic law requiring women to cover their heads so as not to expose their hair is derived from a biblical injunction and dates at least to the second century. The issue was one of morality, not simply modesty; a woman's hair was considered sexually provocative. Virgins were exempt from the law to veil, since, presumably, their one beauty—their hair—was a way to catch a husband. Married women covered their heads with scarves or hats because frequently their heads were shaved at marriage, thus assuring their fidelity to their husbands by removing their "market value." Since the nineteenth century, Orthodox women have worn wigs (sheitel ) in place of hats or scarves (Bloch 103). In conservative communities today, particularly devout Jewish women still wear wigs over their own hair in recognition of this precept.

The implication that a woman's hair may occasion the sin of lust, which "law" and the woman herself must control, contrasts with the equally ancient practice of circumcision. The description of this procedure is instructive. After the foreskin of the male infant has been cut, the wound is dressed so that, according to theologian Abraham Bloch, "the head of the organ remains altogether exposed, an act termed 'Periah,' uncovering, without which the circumcision is null and void (133). Circumcision marks the Jewish male as "a son of the Covenant," a member of the Chosen People. Further, while woman's sexuality (represented by her hair) is shunned as evil, the ceremony of male circumcision authenticates the male's sexuality. This practice can be usefully contrasted with the practice of female circumcision, practiced with great regularity in the Muslim areas of North Africa. Sanctioned by health professionals, modified circumcision is practiced in modern hospitals throughout the West today; no rationale for female circumcision has ever been advanced, but it continues to be practiced. In a sense, the practice institutionalizes the mutilation and "sewing up" of the female genitalia, a more radical form, perhaps, of compulsory veiling.

Issues of veiling and circumcision divided the early Christian community, evidence that these religious "teachings" were almost immediately challenged as cultural practices peculiar to the Jews and thus inappropriately applied to Gentiles converting to Christianity. Ironically, the champion of no circumcision for adult Gentile male converts, the Apostle Paul, staunchly supported the veiling of women. His reasoning was based on women's subordination to her "head" (her husband) and a symbolic acknowledgement of the differences, ordained by God, between men and women. Paul's decision was also influenced by social practices in Corinth, where the unveiled head was the equivalent of the shorn female head, the contemporary punishment for prostitution (Vaughn and Lea 112). Priestesses of Isis were known to pray with their hair unbound and heads thrown back dramatically, an image of enthusiastic worship that Paul was anxious to erase as a model for the struggling Christian Church. Further, Paul preached and wrote against the practice in Corinth of women cutting short their hair and wearing men's clothing (Acts 3:25, 48), gestures motivated by the women's belief that their conversion to Christianity had conferred upon them a gender-blind equality with their male brethren. Paul also counseled against women being allowed to preach during a religious service. This behavior was doubly threatening, since women were not only playing a leading role in religious liturgy by preaching, but were uncovering their heads to speak (McDonald 110).

Common traditions of the veiling of women are clearly present in early Judaic, Christian, and Islamic history. Although the veiling of women was originally associated with urban and upper-class Middle Eastern women as a mark of status or luxury, the systematic curtailment of women's participation in the new religions transformed the wearing of the veil into a mark of women's subordination to the authority of men. Such a transformation appears to occur as religious leaders, products of traditionally conservative societies, face the challenge of cementing and protecting a new religion (Carroll 203). The transition from religious precept to culturally sanctioned behavior is readily traced in the history of veiling practices. While Jewish law defined unveiled women as a source of sexual provocation, and Christians viewed woman as a temptress and locus of evil, the veiling of women in Islam is a visible way of securing male honor by assuring the woman's modesty and purity.


Modern inheritors of ancient Judaic and early Christian practices, Christians of both West (Roman) and East (Orthodox) preserve vestiges of earlier veiling practices and many of the convictions about woman's nature that authorized the practice originally. Several aspects of the cultural and religious constraints imposed by veils are subtly demonstrated in the modern-day village of Vasilika in rural Greece. Older married women carefully cover their heads at all times with a brown kerchief wound around their heads to form a close-fitting cap. For field work, they (paradoxically) add a white kerchief on top of this scarf. Women frequently tuck the ends of the outer kerchief around their faces in a manner that covers their mouths as well. Anthropologist Ernestine Friedl notes that this practice carries none of the Muslim connotations of veiling, although it is speculated that the manner of draping the kerchiefs dates from the Turkish (Muslim) occupation of Greece (Friedl 45).

Friedl also reports on the ritual observances of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to which every member of this village belongs. For Easter, young girls are allowed to enter and decorate the Church unsupervised by men. Friedl reports that the girls stand at the chanter's table and chant some of the prayers of the service and tease each other about going behind the iconostasis, a place forbidden to women. Friedl notes that the girls seem very uneasy, even frightened, at this teasing (101). Girls and women are excluded from many of the activities of the Church and generally stand in the back of the church during services. To some extent, the position of Orthodox Judaism and the early Christian Church provides a rationale for the exclusion of women from engaging in liturgy. Because women were central to pagan ceremonies and the chief celebrants of most of those rites, Jewish law allowed only men to preside at Jewish liturgies (Getty 52). The Roman Church followed the same proscription, denying women participation in liturgy and requiring them to cover their heads during a service until the late 1960s.

The veiling of men also carries ritual significance that differs markedly from the veiling of women. The Greek Orthodox clergy or papas, for example, are a striking sight in the village of Vasilika, wearing their long black robes (longer and looser than the Western cassock), tall cylindrical caps—to which black veils are attached for high liturgies—and unshorn hair and beards. Clearly, the formal veiling of the priests reflects some connection with the sacred places where they may ritually enter. Informally, the village's life has also retained the female version of veiling, in the muffling of married and older women with not one but two head coverings. Women's diminished role in the liturgies of the Church further confirms their lower potential for spirituality. Permitted to clean and decorate the church, they are consigned to the back of the Church for services, kept as far away as possible from the "sacred areas" of the liturgy.

In the Middle East, purdah is a central tenet of Muslim society, excluding women from the mosque and the marketplace. Despite considerable evidence that Muslim women were not veiled during Mohammed's time, that they accompanied men into battle, that they made pilgrimages on their own and freely interacted with their husbands in their own homes (Hussain 35), the practice of veiling has been forcefully reintroduced in parts of the Middle East. The stated intent is to preserve the traditional order of Islam and to fight corruption by the West. Interpretations of the Qu'ran in fact trace an increasingly stringent interpretation of the customs of veiling and of the seclusion of women in the two centuries immediately after the Prophet's death. Iran's recourse to the close veiling of women suggests a similarity between today's rigor and the increased interest in veiling women in the difficult times of the new Islamic religion (700-900 A.D.).

Unlike the "traditional" veiling practices of the Arab-Islamic countries, two nomadic herding tribes of modern North Africa present a very different view of veiling. Although Tuareg women do not veil themselves per se, they do wear a shawl loosely covering their head and shoulders. By contrast, the men's use of the veil has earned the Tuareg the designation "Al-el-Litham," the "people of the veil." The old Tuareg saying that "the veil and the trousers are brothers" reveals their conviction that bare-leggedness and bare-facedness are violations of male modesty and propriety (Nicolaisen 93). The veil is wound around the face first and then around the head, enabling the Tuareg male to pull his veil over his eyes or higher on the bridge of his nose to create a completely swathed face (Benhazera 32). While their neighbors, the Teda, are less particular about the draping of the veil, Teda men also veil their faces during their participation in all rituals, including that of adult circumcision (Kronenberg 58).

In analyzing this custom, anthropologist Robert Murphy suggests that the Tuareg women do not "veil" because they have no social, public reality, despite their traditional high prestige in a matrilineal tribal setting. Men veil to distance themselves from social interactions, particularly ones characterized by ambiguity or role conflict (Murphy 290-319). This contradictory notion of communication and simultaneous withholding of communication, participation in society and a symbolic distancing from it all communicated by the veil, is completely reinterpreted in the veiling of women.

The veiling of the Tuareg may share some affinity with the veiling of the sacred—the sanctuary of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Jewish "Holy of Holies," the draping (and veiling) of ordained priests and rabbis. Far from a consistent application of the imagery of the veil, the symbolic content varies by gender rather than by culture.

The image of the icon of the Greek Orthodox Church perhaps best summarizes the complex interaction of religion, women, and the traditions of veiling. The Orthodox icon represents the contact point between the real and the spiritual worlds, re-enacting as it does the incarnation of Christ—God becoming man. Valued for her fertility, woman is inevitably tied to the "material" realm, while man is specially privileged in the religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity; he alone can be the intermediary with the divine. Ironically, the first intermediary, in Christianity, the woman who bears the Christ Child, is immediately consigned to a lower, material world for her physical contribution to Salvation history. The icon, or the veil which separates sanctuary from congregation, becomes the dangerous, mysterious, even erotic contact point for these two powerful forces.

The evidence from these three religions all demonstrate a striking similarity in their use of the veil in ritualistic as well as daily practice, differences largely consistent across cultures by gender. When men take the veil, it represents religious or personal power that they control. But when women take the veil, or when they are veiled, they signal their acceptance of man's law to subdue and control their errant natures. Although many Westerners are quick to assume the sexist nature of Middle Eastern societies, they overlook the close connections among the three cultures that emerged on the Arabian peninsula, particularly in their cultural definitions of men and women. Clothing and hair are still used in the Western world to convey underlying cultural assumptions about women. Not surprisingly, the veiled women of Western culture, the nuns, continue to enjoy a surprising level of interest, bordering on the erotic, in popular media. Despite the abandonment of the traditional habits by many Roman Catholic orders of nuns, the media continues to use the recognizable figure of the veiled nun to represent the unknown, the alien, the "asexual." Ironically, the draped figure and particularly the veil heighten rather than quench the latent sexuality that the veil is intended to obliterate.

The message of woman's fallen nature that the veil both symbolizes and, perversely, evokes is a striking, shared cultural manifestation among the three religions that arose on the Arabian peninsula. All three found ways to consolidate patriarchal power by silencing the competing arguments of female goddess worship and of gender equality in a new religion. The veiling of women is only one manifestation, although one of the most visible, of many practices that label women as aberrant, dangerous, and in need of male control.





Benhazera, Maurice. Six Months Among the Ahaggar Tuareg. Algiers: n.p., 1908.

Bloch, Abraham P. The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies. New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1980.

Carroll, Theodora Foster. Women, Religion, and Development in the Third World. New York: Praeger, l983.

Friedl, Ernestine. Vasilika: A Village in Modern Greece. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1963.

Getty, Mary Ann. First Corinthians: Second Corinthians. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983.

Koso-Thomas, Olayinka. The Circumcision of Women: A Strategy for Eradication. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1987.

Kronenberg, Andreas. The Teda of Tibesti. Horn-Wien: Ferdinand Berger, Publisher, 1958.

MacDonald, Dennis R. There is No Male and Female. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

Mandelbaum, David. Women's Seclusion and Men's Honor: Sex Roles in North India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1988.

Murphy, Robert F. "Social Distance and the Veil," in Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East, Ed. L. Sweet. 1: 290-314.

Nicolaisen, Johannes. Political System of Pastoral Tuareg in Air and Ahaggar . Copenhagen: Danish Ethnographical Association, 1959.

Schulenberg, Jane Tibbets. "Strict Active Enclosure and Its Effect on the Female Monastic Experience (500-1100)." In Distant Echoes, Vol 1 of Medieval Religious Women. Eds. John A. Nichols and Lillian T. Shank. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984: 51-86.

Vaughan, Curtis, and Thomas D. Lea. 1 Corinthians: Bible Study Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Lamplighter Books, l983.