What do we mean by it? I was catching up recently with Amanda Foreman’s ‘The Ascent of Woman’, and was very disconcerted by two things in particular: firstly, the sudden leap (à propos ancient oppression of women) from the Assyrian empire via steppe nomads to classical Athens, without so much as mentioning the Aegean Bronze Age, where the iconography alone suggests that women (very definitely unveiled!) were something of a force in society and religious activity – though this is unlikely to be proved until more Linear B tablets, and/or (the Holy Grail) vellum or parchment documents that are not just ‘laundry lists’ come to light.
Secondly, the judgment, based largely on a selection Tanagra figurines, that Athenian women were confined to purdah in the home (except for the three days of the Thesmophoria) and had to be veiled outside it.
The status of Athenian women has long been debated, and it is clear that they had few legal rights (but nor did British women until the twentieth century). But the evidence of the plays of Aristophanes (whose plots would not make sense if women never got out in public), and of ceramics and gravestones does not completely support the view of female seclusion or veiling.
Indeed, Tanagra figurines (moulded clay stauettes, so called because many were made in Tanagra in Boeotia) show women wrapped in the cloak or ‘himation’, but relatively few have them draped over their heads, and a very small number indeed have the lower part of the face covered. One might as well assert that Roman men wore a veil from the evidence of a sculpture of the emperor Augustus as pontifex maximus.
But this brings us back to the question of what we use the word ‘veil’ to mean. I think it (noun) means something which covers or obscures the face, or (verb) to cover or obscure the face. Other people seem to think – and this is of course rather important these days – that you are veiled if you are (a) a Muslim woman and (b) wearing a headscarf which covers your hair but not your face; and this confusion of terminology bedevils all sorts of discussions and arguments about the significance of the hijab as a religious or cultural artefact.
(‘Taking the veil’ is another example: it means ‘becoming a nun’, but images from the last 1500 years or so don’t show nuns with their faces covered, just their hair (again). The veil hangs down the back, and could be pulled over the head to conceal the face: but this is not how nuns are depicted.)
I am old enough to remember the days when the wearing of a headscarf when going out of doors was completely normal for English ladies, and magazines had fashion pages showing how to twist your headscarf to best effect.
Netting ‘veils’ were in those days occasional appendages of hats – though I am not old enough to remember when respectable ladies would not leave the house without wearing anything on their heads.Real veils were reserved for very, very formal mourning, as in the famous picture of the three queens (mother, wife and daughter) at the funeral of George VI.
Meanwhile, the boys at my primary school were often kitted out with balaclava helmets (so called) in winter, usually knitted by mothers or grandmothers: in terms of what they covered, they were almost identical to the hijab, though nothing like as graceful. I was astonished to see that they are still available, if you want to drive your child insane with woolly itchiness.
I don’t have a problem with the hijab as a religious statement, any more than I do the wearing of a cross. I am concerned, however, that the wearing of the hijab (or indeed a cross) by an individual woman should be that woman’s own decision, and not coercion by father, mother, brother-in-law, priest, teacher, or the community at large.
But as to the actual covering of the face, I am dead agin it. I never cease to be surprised that it is claimed in justification that even a woman’s body shape, never mind her facial features, has to be concealed so that she does not inadvertently provoke lust in men – is the idea that the men in these societies are so little under (self) control that a glimpse of hair, or of an ankle, will provoke sexual assault? Keeping the men indoors might be a better solution to that particular problem …
There is the whole question of whether this sort of veiling is voluntary or imposed, which will vary from case to case. But I think it is quite ludicrous that a woman who insists on her face being covered at all times should believe she is being discriminated against if she doesn’t get a job looking after children, for example; and disgraceful that a witness in court should expect to keep her face concealed (except of course in instances where her whole identity is concealed for her own safety).
These are massively complicated and sensitive issues, upon which any stance will have its opponents and supporters. But it seems to me that it would simplify life a little if we were all in agreement as to what we mean by ‘veil’?