The Veil

Straight from the current issue of Selvedge, featuring almost every aspect of lace, Niloufar Haidari explores the cloth held hostage by the Western Gaze...

Historically, the practice of veiling has been predominantly associated with women and sacred objects, leading, unsurprisingly, to something of a Venn diagram in which women themselves have often taken on the role of sacred object. In recent years, the veil has come to be associated with Islam and the supposed objectification of the Muslim women who choose (or are in some cases forced) to wear it. Somewhere along the line, the rich history of this piece of material was lost and turned into a socio-political bargaining chip, accompanied by reams of orientalist essays titled ‘Behind The Veil’ that sought to exoticise rather than understand the women whose lives they were purportedly trying to better. Western discourse has become obsessed with ‘liberating’ these ‘faceless’ women, often without ever even asking them if they need saving in the first place.

Throughout history the veil has been used to symbolise many things: religious belief, political conviction, virginity, modesty, grief, glamour, cultural identity, class, wealth. Its origins lie in ancient civilization and predate the Judeo-Christian religions it has become associated with: women in Zoroastrian, Byzantine, Greek and Roman cultures wore veils as a sign of respectability and a symbol of their upper-class status. In Ancient Persia, wealthy women wore veils as an unspoken communication of their social status and to differentiate them from the hoi polloi; a woman who wore a veil was a woman whose husband could afford to keep her idle. The earliest reference to veiling is found in Assyrian law and dates back to between 1400 and 1100 BC – Assyria had explicit laws detailing which women were allowed to veil and which were not. Female slaves and sex workers were forbidden from doing so; thus veiling was not only a marker of social rank but also served to differentiate between ‘respectable’ women and those who were publicly available.

Veils have also historically been used in more practical ways: as a method of concealment for women who were doing things they did not wish for others to find out about (such as travelling to meet a lover), or to protect the complexion from the elements: sun, wind, dust. In Western modernity, the veil has become associated with weddings and funerals. In the 19th century bridal veils symbolised virginity and modesty, but they have come to take on a more secular meaning, or at least are no longer seen as a strictly factual statement. In some parts of South East Asia such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, men are also veiled as part of the wedding ceremony. A sehra or male veil is usually made from either flowers, beads or dry leaves – most commonly it is made from marigolds, and the groom wears it throughout the wedding ceremony to keep his face concealed...

You can read this article in full in Selvedge 83: The Lace Issue.

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