How Does Veiling The Face Empower Some Women?
“Nudity empowers some women. Modesty empowers other women. It’s not your place to tell what a woman should wear.”
It’s one of the most popular quote shared across social media in defence of veiling and hijab. It’s only natural that nudity empowers some women. Being proud of our body, just the way it was created liberates us from various societal expectations and norms. However the second sentence of the quote can be rather fascinating. With relevance to veiling, how does covering the face, hair and neck in particular empower somebody?
The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BC. In the patriarchal society of ancient Rome, married women were often chiefly clothed than unmarried women. Apart from survival and modesty needs, a new motive of clothing was furnished in Roman era – a moral protection on a man’s property (read: women). Roman women were expected to wear veils as a symbol of the husband’s authority over his wife; a married woman who omitted the veil was seen as withdrawing herself from marriage. In 166 BC, consul Sulpicius Gallus divorced his wife because she had left the house unveiled, thus allowing all to see, as he said, what only he should see. It is significant to note that it was in the same period that women’s clothing (gender specific clothing) came into existence as opposed to unisex clothing worn prior to the period.
Concept of veiling found its way into every Abrahamic religion which united together the masculine virtue of modesty and prescription of sexual abstinence. Rise of Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam thereby cemented the survival of veil for centuries to come. However, it is remarkable to note that Asian religions like Buddhism & Sikhism strongly condemned and opposed seclusion and veiling of women.
The sexist attitudes that led to origin of veiling are quite evident within religious texts. Based on 1 Corinthians 11:4–16, St. Paul wrote that any man who prays with his head covered (with hat) brings shame upon his head whereas any woman who prays with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head. St. Paul goes on to explain, “A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man.”
The veil (purdah) found prominence into Hindu households in India after Mughal conquests in Medieval era. Many Indian Hindu men often boast about how women in their household won’t attend guests unless their faces are veiled. Of course, jealous husbands of the past had a significant contribution in protecting the custom of veiling, overtly emphasizing on chastity, modesty and purity of a woman.
While the origin of veil has sexist roots (like many other items of clothing), is the veil itself oppressive? No. There is nothing inherently liberating or oppressive about the veil, much like there is nothing inherently liberating about going naked. Liberation or oppression depends on having or not having a choice. Is veiling their choice? Do they have a choice to wear a veil or not? Social liberty comes with freedom of expression – freedom to veil or not veil.