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The Seven Veils

By Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Hindustan Times
28 October, 2003

The veil is a fascinating piece of clothing. It seems to be present in almost all cultures throughout the centuries. I grew up seeing women draped in veils and saw them in more than 40 countries around the world while working. Sometimes it was funny when I saw a veiled lady in Anne Summers, sometimes it was a bit of a fright when me and my friend AJ saw this lady completely veiled, top to bottom in black, but having a pair of spectacles perched over the veil (something like cousin Itt in the Adam's Family Values). Sometimes it was pity when I saw a woman wearing very tattered, therefore, revealing clothes, carrying a load of bricks on her head, but still amazingly very conscious of her veil down to her shoulders. Then again it was religious awe which struck me in Eastern Europe, looking at veiled women pouring into church. Wondering about it, I decided to take a bit of a deeper look at what drove women to hide their faces.

In Corinthians I 11:3-10,16, St. Paul's views on the veil come across pretty strongly and I quote: "Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head - it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil... That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels... If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God."

That seems to be the start of the entire issue of the veils. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, it is clearly stated that women must cover their heads. It has come down since the ages, but it was mainly in the last century when the strictures were slightly relaxed in the hallowed precincts of the Vatican around 1960. Archbishop Annibale Bugnini lead a group, which significantly reformed the liturgy relating to Catholic mass. This was during the time of Pope Paul VI and besides other rationalisation of the rites, the requirement to be veiled was dropped. This Vatican II reform was picked up by other churches as well, and now it seems that the veil is only required in church and that too only for communion and weddings. Mind you, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini was chucked out of the position of power in the Vatican and sent to Iran for being a suspected mason. Go figure.

So a man (St. Paul) decreed that man was created for God and woman was created for man and, umm, somehow the veil comes into the picture. I did not quite get the connection, but it was a bit of a long time back, 2000 odd years to be precise. So, women have been wearing the veil to show submission to authority, to God and men! The veil was supposed to be a sign of modesty and chastity. Even in the Old Testament, removing the veil was seen as a way to humiliate a woman, punish adulteresses etc. (Numbers 5:12-18, Isaiah 3:16-17, Song of Solomon 5:7). Some Christian sects such as the Amish and Mennonites insist on females being veiled to this day, as a way of being modest and chaste and as a symbol of the woman's subjection to man and to God. This modesty and chastity bit will be a recurring theme in other religions too, as we shall see.

Then again great men like Moses also wore a veil. The Talmud says in (34:29-33) "...and when Moses had finished speaking with the Israelites, he put a veil over his face". Apparently he was very humble and wore a veil to hide the light of his face. The book of Isaiah in the Torah relates how a husband has to provide his wife with the basic necessities such as food, shelter and a head-dress (veil).

In ancient times, Jewish women would go out in public in a full veil as well, as a bare head was considered "nudity" and the woman could be fined a serious amount (Numbers 5:18, Isaiah 3:17, II Maccabees 4:6, Sus. 32). A man could even divorce his wife if she was found bareheaded in public. While most Jewish communities have moved on since then, there are still some where Jewish ladies would go as far as to shave their heads and then cover it with a wig or perhaps a handkerchief or a small veil. Currently, only during weddings is a veil required, but that too is observed more in the breach than stringently.

Moving to India, the status of women was right at the bottom of the totem pole of society. Sanskrit literature is replete with instances where women have to wear veils. It is not surprising, as the laws of Manu clearly state that the status of women is completely dependent on the man. The various religious texts have got a bewildering array of proscriptions and rules for the behaviour of women, all for modesty and chastity's sake. Scholars such as Bhavabuti, Grants, Vakaspati and Sriharsh all have mentioned how women have to dress, behave and generally conduct themselves in public, which was generally under a veil, figuratively and literally. India is a huge country and traditions relating to women differed significantly from place to place. Women were right oppressed across the board, horrible practises such as Sati, shunning of widows, discrimination etc. was rife.

With the British rule and then following on with independence, many atrocious practises were eradicated from the rule book and slowly died away in real life as well, although if one walks around in certain parts of the country it still looks like the dark ages to me as far as the status of women goes anyway. Still, veiling as a measure of modesty and chastity seems to be pretty much prevalent across the country. Even now, going into the remote rural areas, one would find that veils are very common indeed. In the urban areas, it has pretty much disappeared from day to day life, but in weddings (specially the bride), the veil comes on.

So that was the Hindu woman, reasonably emancipated but still a long way to go yet compared to her western counterparts. What about the Muslim woman? Growing up in a Muslim town, I will remiss, if I do not mention the other great religion, Islam. Well, needless to say that is making most of the waves these days. France and Germany want to ban them, stories circulating in the media about photographs of faces not being allowed to be taken for driving licences in the states, Turkey an Islamic country and its reaction to veils in schools, women getting acid thrown on their faces and threats made if they aren't veiled in Pakistan and Bangladesh and so on and so forth. What does the scripture say about this?

Sura 24:31 in the Quran is the key to this entire debate. Shakir's translation of this sura goes as follows: "And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers... and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! So that you may be successful." This is the crux of the matter and reading this translation, its pretty clear that veiling is compulsory and the woman is not to show herself except to her husband or close relatives. There are also many other verses which talk about modesty like 33:59 and 24:30. This url, gives a good overview of the various opinions and discussions around this issue (skip the "foaming" bits in the beginning). Even in Islam great men have also been known to wear a veil, the Prophet wore it at times and the Tuareg men wear it all the time.

For a non-Muslim like me, the question which comes up is - Why is there such a huge hoo haa about veils when it comes to Muslim women? It has suddenly taken up such a huge significance that it is almost impossible to discuss this issue logically. If you look at the above mentioned url, the discussion is arcane, dependent on interpretations of Arabic words, the juxtaposition of words into sentences, references galore to other verses, sura's and hadith's, and by the time you come to the end of the long document you are no longer sure of where they stand or what they mean. Mixing my metaphors and phrases horribly, Salome had an easier time with the seven veils than me dancing around this topic.

For another perspective of this issue, look at what Professor Ibrahim Syed of the University of Louisville, Kentucky, USA says in He explores the history of the hijab (veil), how only the prophet's wives were explicitly enjoined to wear it, how modesty and not the veil is a requirement for all women. All in all, a bit difficult to make out who to go for. Looking at actual implementations around the Muslim world doesn't help either. Iran, which is a theocracy, had Ayatollah Khomeini insisting that women wear the full veil and chador. The Iranian women revolted and there were huge demonstrations. The sainted Ayatollah quickly shifted gears and said that the chador was not necessary but modesty is. The position of various Islamic countries differ as to their requirements for women to be veiled. Malaysia doesn't ask, but most have a head covering, India doesn't have any requirements, nor does Bangladesh or Pakistan. The gulf countries have requirements, but Egypt does not. We all know about Afghanistan, but seems like it is driven more by tradition than Islamic injunctions and its very tribal to boot. Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon are quite liberated and no requirement is there for any kind of head covering or veils. Turkey had a reverse requirement for schools, so who is right?

Reading the stories of the women who have freely and voluntarily taken the veil, it seems like their motivations range from a desire to be seen separate from the mass of other women, to portray their faith, to affirm it in a visible manner and in certain cases, to fulfil cultural traditions. There are other reasons as well. The current western backlash against Islam has been reported as one of the bigger reasons why more and more women have been veiling themselves, defiance and thumbing their noses at their western interlocutors. For example, prior to the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban, the western news would be full of how oppressed the women of Afghanistan were and the veil was particularly held up as a very visible symbol of oppression. Now that the dreaded Taliban have gone with their religious police and strange requirements, women are still wearing the burqa in Afghanistan. Cultural factors? Traditions? Tribal customs?

Needless to say, the veil for the Muslim woman is far more prevalent than the others. I am sure somebody will ask and has asked why this is so? Man supremacy? Religious edicts? Cultural traditions? Modesty? Chastity? Better people than me have tried to explain this and I would not like to get into that discussion but I would say this, pushing people to stop wearing the hijab is not going to work (are you listening, Europe?), pushing people to wear the hijab is forcing one's religious beliefs down somebody's throat and may well give rise to oppression (very easy to do so, as I found out during my research for this piece). I will end with a quote from the good Professor Syed, which stuck me as a wonderfully sculpted and a beautiful way of looking at God and life: "In the matter of hijab, the conscience of an honest, sincere believer alone can be the true judge, as has been said by the Noble Prophet: Ask for the verdict of your conscience and discard what pricks it." This goes for all religions, your relationship with your god (s) is your own, you define it the way you want according to the degree of faith in your heart, but using the name of God to oppress women is cowardly and should be shunned, may your conscience be pricked.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently working on a doctorate at Kings College in International Relations and Terrorism, also holds a Doctorate in Finance and Artificial Intelligence from Manchester Business School. He works in the City of London in various capacities in the Banking Sector. He also lectures at several British Universities.)