Uncovering the facts: The story behind the veil

It is the year 1988. I am in sixth grade. There is a teacher at my elementary school who wears the hijab, a head-covering veil or scarf. The hijab is a rare sight where I live on Prince Edward Island and I’m not sure what it means. Is she a nun? One day, another teacher explains to me that the woman in question is not a nun – she is a Muslim who has chosen to wear the hijab. This is my earliest memory of seeing the Muslim veil.

Fast forward 27 years to 2015. The veil has become a very hot topic of debate in Canada. But what are we talking about when we talk about the veil? Do Canadians who choose not to wear a veil understand where it comes from and what it means? Or are many Canadians still confused and uncertain about its meaning, as I was back in 1988?

It is important to know that the veil did not originate with Islam. Statuettes of veiled priestesses date back as far as 2,500 B.C.E., more than 3,000 years before the time of the prophet Muhammad.1 Ancient Assyrian, Roman, Greek, Zoroastrian, Indian and Jewish women all practiced veiling. Today, some Jewish women still wear a veil called a tikhl (scarf) to cover their hair and some Orthodox Jewish women wear a sheytl (wig) to cover their real hair.2

Andrea Grinberg is a Jewish-Canadian woman who chooses to wear a tikhl. She is the creator and administrator of the blog https://wrapunzel.wordpress.com for women who choose to wrap their hair. Photo: courtesy of Andrea Grinberg Andrea Grinberg is a Jewish-Canadian woman who chooses to wear a tikhl. She is the creator and administrator of the blog https://wrapunzel.wordpress.com for women who choose to wrap their hair. Photo: courtesy of Andrea Grinberg

Early Christian women also used the veil and continued to do so until the middle ages.3 Some scholars believe that Islam borrowed veiling from Christianity, which had itself borrowed it from the ancient Greeks.4

Christian veiling was sometimes based in scripture – specifically, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, which instructs women to veil their heads while in worship.5 There are Christians who still choose to wear a veil or headcovering. Some, but not all, Catholic nuns wear a habit. Amish and Hutterite religious communities – where women wear head-coverings in public spaces – are yet another example.6

Of course, not all veils today are connected to religion – in the West as well as the rest of the world, most women wear a veil on their wedding day. In fact “nuptial,” which is another word for marriage, comes from the Latin word “nubo”, which means “I veil myself.”7 Veiling as a practice is also not solely restricted to women. In the Sahara, Tuareg men wear a veil that covers everything but their eyes. It is seen as a mark of maturity and also of nobility, only worn once a boy turns about seventeen.8

Amish women on a beach wearing head coverings. Photo: Pasteur. Amish women on a beach wearing head coverings. Photo: Pasteur.

Of course, not all veils today are connected to religion – in the West as well as the rest of the world, most women wear a veil on their wedding day. In fact “nuptial,” which is another word for marriage, comes from the Latin word “nubo”, which means “I veil myself.”7 Veiling as a practice is also not solely restricted to women. In the Sahara, Tuareg men wear a veil that covers everything but their eyes. It is seen as a mark of maturity and also of nobility, only worn once a boy turns about seventeen.8

In Islam, the history of the veil is no less complicated – the popularity of the veil has ebbed and flowed over time and space. Today, not all Muslim-majority countries have laws about veiling. Pakistan, for example, has no laws banning or enforcing the veil. In Tunisia until 2011, a woman could be arrested for wearing a veil. In Saudi Arabia, a woman can still be arrested if she does not.9 Both veiling and unveiling can be forms of oppression when they are forced on women by the state.

In Canada the decision to wear the veil is very much an individual choice. Many Muslim women choose not to wear the veil. Those who do decide to wear it often face discrimination and sometimes even violence. The organization Justice Femme says it has received 200 complaints of assaults against Quebec Muslims since 2014, about half of them verbal and half physical. Many of these assaults are against women wearing head coverings. A recent survey in Quebec revealed that nearly half of all respondents said it bothered them to be attended by a woman wearing a hijab.

In such an environment, choosing to wear a veil can be a brave act of self-expression. In 2013, I had the opportunity to conduct an oral history interview with Dalila Awada. She was participating in a project called Ce qui nous voile (What Veils Us) that talks about Canadian women who wear the hijab. She told me how many people make assumptions about her based on her veil. They assume she is not from Quebec (she is). They assume she is oppressed by her religion (she isn’t). Some even assume that her father or husband must control her (her father is very loving, and no one controls her). These assumptions mean that people often treat her differently. At her work, customers sometimes refuse to be served by her because she is wearing a veil.

Dalila told me why she is speaking out about her choice to wear the hijab. "I don't defend the veil, I defend individual freedom” she explained. “I defend every person's right to be who they want to be, without feeling discriminated against or judged."

What I have learned is that the veil is a complicated piece of clothing. Different people have worn it at different times, in different ways, for countless different reasons. For many women in Canada, veiling is a choice freely made and a source of identity and strength. To learn more about the veil and why some Muslim women choose to wear it, visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and discover the story of Dalila and Ce qui nous voile.

 

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1 Mohja Kahf, “From Her Royal Body the Robe Was Removed: The Blessings of the Veil and the Trauma of Forced Unveilings in the Middle East,” in Jennifer Heath, Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 27.

 

2 Barbara Goldman Carrel, “Shattered Vessels That Contain Divine Sparks: Unveiling Hasidic Women’s Dress Code,” in Jennifer Heath, Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 53.

3 Kahf, “From Her Royal Body the Robe Was Removed,” 27-28.

4 Jennifer Heath, “Introduction”, 19. See also Désirée G. Koslin, “He Hath coured my soule inward”: Veiling in Medieval Europe and the Early Church, 160-170, in Jennifer Heath, Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), as well as BBC2 Television, The Ascent of Woman – Episode 1: Civilization, 2015. http://www.ascentofwoman.com

5 1 Corinthians 11:2-10, Holy Bible, New Standard Revised Edition.

6 Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 90-98, and Lauren M. Lafontaine, “Out of the Cloister: Unveiling to Better Serve the Gospel,” also in Jennifer Heath, Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 75-89.

7 Sarah C. Bell, “Nubo: The Wedding Veil,” in Jennifer Heath, Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 173.

8 Jennifer Heath, “What is subordinated, dominates: Mourning, Magic, Masks and Male Veiling”, in Jennifer Heath, Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 110.

9 Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed, “Dress Codes and Modes: How Islamic is the Veil?” in Jennifer Heath, Ed., The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 297.  

 

This article was originally published on humanrights.ca


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