“As much as the veil is a fabric or an article of clothing, it is also a concept. It can be illusion, vanity, artifice, deception, liberation, imprisonment, euphemism, divination, concealment, hallucination, depression, eloquent silence, holiness, the ethers beyond consciousness, the hidden hundredth name of God, the final passage into death, even the Biblical apocalypse, the lifting of God’s veil, signalling so-called end of time.” Writer Jennifer Heath in her mammoth edited volume, “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics”, authored entirely by women describes the much controversial piece of fabric in these words.
The veil, as scholars have noted, has symbolised different things to different people across centuries. Why and how its practice began in the first place is difficult to pinpoint with certainty.
As Heath notes in her work, “the idea of veiling started when humans began observing nature’s mysteries.” In ancient societies though, veiling was most often associated with rank, religion, marital status or the marker of one’s ethnicity.
In modern times, as the veil has come to be associated most intimately with Islam and Islamic societies, it has had the effect of polarising opinion globally. The Sri Lankan government on Monday banned covering the face with veils under Emergency regulations put in place in the aftermath of the Easter attacks in the country that led to the death of more than 250. In recent years, the veil, particularly the form in which it is worn by Islamic communities, has been banned in several countries.
The earliest evidence of the veil is believed to be situated in ancient Mesopotamia where it was worn as a sign of rank and respectability. “Rules on veiling- specifically which women must veil and which could not- were carefully detailed in Assyrian law,” writes the scholar of Islamic studies Leila Ahmed in ‘Women and Gender in Islam’.
Consequently, wives and daughters of ‘seignors’ had to veil while harlots and slaves were forbidden from veiling. “Those caught illegally veiling were liable to the penalties of flogging, having pitch poured over their heads, and having their ears cut off,” she writes.
Similar traditions were followed in other parts of the ancient world as well. Ahmed writes that in Classical Athens, “respectable” women stayed at home, and “their clothing concealed them from the eyes of strange men: a shawl was worn that could be drawn over the head as a hood.”
Judith Lynn Sebesta, editor of the book, ‘The World of Roman Costume’, notes that in ancient Rome, women were required to wear a veil as a symbol of her husband’s authority over her. “Indeed the black scarf worn for centuries by women in Greece, Corsica, Sicily, Sardinia, and other nations of the Christian Mediterranean is nearly indistinguishable from that of rural Turkey, Egypt or Iran,” writes Heath.
In the contemporary world, the veil is most frequently associated with Islamic communities. A large variety of head dresses worn by Muslim women across different parts of the world, are referred to as the veil. While most Islamic traditions do not enforce the wearing of the veil, some like the Salafi movement, a reformist tradition within Sunni Islam, consider it obligatory for women to cover their faces in front of non-related males.
The burqa is banned in public spaces in several countries and territories including Austria, the Canadian province of Quebec, Denmark, France, Belgium, Tajikistan, Latvia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Netherlands, China, and Morocco. The Sri Lankan order mentions a ban on covering of the face, but is silent on the scarf.
A public debate had emerged in France when the burqa was banned in 2010. Arguments in favour and against the law centered around issues of nationalism, secularism, sexuality and security. Those in favour of the ban consider the veil to be a security risk, and an emblem of gender inequality. Those against the ban on the other hand, consider it to be an encroachment upon the religious freedom of individuals.
The veil’s intimate association with Islam was underlined recently again when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donned a black headscarf when meeting members of the Muslim community after the Christchurch shootings in March.
In large parts of Europe and America, the Islamic veil is perceived as an object that separates the West from Islam. In most of South Asia, on the other hand, the veil is seen to be the marker of Islamic identity and values. Under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were required to cover themselves in a burqa at all times in public.
Pakistan does not make it mandatory for women to wear a veil. However, the Council of Islamic Ideology which is a constitutional body in Pakistan, maintains that covering of face, hands and feet is preferable.
India has seen intermittent protests for and against the wearing of the burqa. In August 2016, a Mangalore pharmacy college banned a first-year female student from wearing the hijab or the burqa on campus. Soon afterward, a Muslim students’ group began protesting against the ban, citing the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. A group of Hindu students then protested by wearing saffron scarves in class.
The judiciary, however, has repeatedly upheld the personal choice of Muslim women to wear the hijab or the burqa.
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