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Veiled in history: how women have been covered up

A contest for the most beautiful eyes, held in Paris, France, around 1930. (Keystone/Imagno Archive)

On Sunday March 7, when Switzerland voted to ban the burka, many were quick to see it as a matter more of symbolic value than of political effect. But symbols of women do matter in the political arena, and the veiling of female faces and bodies has long been a contentious issue – long before the birth of Islam.

This content was published on March 11, 2021 - 18:05

In recent years it has mainly been Christian countries, especially in Europe, which have had issues with women wearing the veil, seen today as a form of radicalised Islam. Historically though, it was Christian and Jewish women who were the primary wearers of the clothing before the birth of Islam.

Study, No. 23145, around 1935. Here the transparent veil placed on a naked woman, submitted as a study of form, light and shadow. Imagno/schostal Archiv

In Christian tradition, the veil was a symbol of dignity, chastity, and virginity. More generally, the question of the female dress code – and its relation to piety and the observance of moral codes – is part of Christianity and has been imposed throughout the centuries by heads of Churches.  

In the Middle East, several countries have attempted to regulate the clothing. In Turkey, the veil was banned in public institutions from the 1930s. For many years, in urban areas across the region, the veil was a rare sight. During the 1970s, however, mass migration from rural areas to towns and cities brought with it women who wore the veil, albeit more for reasons of tradition than of religion.

Left; young Egyptian woman with a veil or niqab, in Cairo, around 1930. While the need for women to be modest is mentioned in the Koran, the area women must cover depends on the source. Right: In England, ‘Brides of Christ’ – nuns on the day of their wedding to God wear the ‘Mantilla’ or chapel veil, 1965.  Scherl/sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos

In 2018, the Vienna Weltmuseum addressed different aspects of the veil with the exhibition, Veiled, Unveiled! The Headscarf’. The collection illustrated many facets of this simple piece of cloth which continues to divide opinion and schools of thought. Its carefully crafted catalogue brought together curious examples of the veil throughout the centuries.

‘Veiled, Unveiled! The Headscarf, Vienna Weltmuseum

Before the exhibition in Vienna, Susanna Burghartz, professor of Renaissance and Early Modern History at the University of Basel, had already approached the subject through a cultural-historical perspective, resulting in the essay “Covered Women? Veiling in Early Modern Europe” (2016).

In light of the recent vote in Switzerland, SWI swissinfo.ch asked Burghartz to shed light on the veil and its significance. After all, the symbolism inherent in the debates has not been resolved with the result at the polls.  

Spanish woman of the 14th century, and a woman of Biscay (Basque country) from the later middle ages. Florilegius / Alamy Stock Photo

For a start, Burghartz shows that women’s “liberation” from covering up in the West was not straightforward, and that the historical development of “unveiling” women was not a linear process. Emptied of its religious aspects, even in the secular world, she says, “its subjection to the vagaries of fashion was by no means a sign that the veil had entirely lost its meaning”.

SWI swissinfo.ch: How do you view the transformation of the headscarf and veil from the issue of morality, religion, and sexuality to the political dispute we see today?  

 Susanna Burghartz: Dress in general, and especially headscarves and veils for women, were and are still, often charged with far-reaching cultural meanings that have been and continue to be used politically. For example, clerics in various cultures have declared headscarves and veils to be objects of morality.  Time and again, the headscarf and veil have been styled as issues of power through which certain groups can gauge their influence (for example, the clergy in Basel around 1700, or in Iran today). 

Tennis professional Madona Najarian of the Islamic Republic of Iran in action at the Federation Cup Asia/Oceania doubles match in Perth, Australia, February 6, 2009.  Keystone / Tony Mcdonough

SWI swissinfo.ch : Does this mean that those wearing such coverings were and are only concerned with the political implications of their dress? 

S.B.: Not at all. Coverings can also offer protection, while revelation can expose. In recent years, the headscarf and veil have increasingly been used as a conspicuous symbol of a bitterly fought struggle between “the secularised West” and “Islam”. If we look at the many different veil fashions over the course of history, however, the question arises whether such talk of a “clash of civilisations” doesn’t actually restrict women’s options for action rather than expand them. Accordingly, dress codes – whether compulsory or banned – are problematic for a culture that relies on the freedom of choice for individuals.

Left: A fully veiled woman in Morocco, Africa, from the early 20th century. Right: A girl from Japan uses a veil practically, as part of her warm winter clothes, early 20th century. United Archives/carl Simon

SWI swissinfo: To what extent have European women fought against ‘body covering’ dress codes, and are there any examples where they made a breakthrough before the 20th century? 

S.B.: The history of fashion and regulation is too diverse to be told in a few sentences. However, there are certainly historical examples of women not only being subject to dress regulations, but also developing forms and materials of their clothing themselves, changing them and adapting them to their needs.

‘The headgear of a woman on the way to church who is not in mourning’, (left). ‘This is how a woman appears when in mourning’. Both wear 'sturz' and 'tüchli'. Illustration by Johann Jakob Ringle, 'Amictus, 17th century'. Historische Museum Basel

The example of the Nuremberg patrician women has become famous. At the beginning of the 16th century, with the help of Archduke Ferdinand, they succeeded in getting rid of their traditional headgear – the elaborate and stiff “sturtz” – against the will of the city councillors. In Spain, on the other hand, women were forbidden to wear the veil at the end of the 16th century because, in the eyes of male critics, they used the so-called “tapado” body veil in an obscene way to seduce men.  

Morisco women in outdoor dress, 1530, wearing a so-called “tapado”. The Morisco woman on the left holds up the amalafa (white veil) to reveal both eyes, and the Christian Castilian woman on the right, uses the mantle to cover one eye. Heritagepics / Alamy Stock Photo

SWI swissinfo.ch : Although the veil has been wielded as a symbol of piety and moral righteousness, hasn’t it also created new forms of sensual or sexual codes? 

S.B.: I already mentioned the “tapado” as one form of playing with veiling. If we look at the long history of head coverings there are many examples of fashionable forms of veils – whether the “huyk” of the citizen women in the early modern Netherlands, the ambiguous use of the veil by Venetian courtesans who wanted to attract their clients and present themselves as respectable women at the same time, or the new fashion at the end of the 18th century when fashionable women used delicate veils to enhance their attractiveness.

Style icon Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy attends the funeral of John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated November 22, 1963, with his brothers Robert Kennedy, left, and Edward Kennedy, right. Keystone

In the West, too, the veil remained fashionable until almost the present day. Fabrics were produced in leading textile regions like northern Italy, around Zurich, or Silesia, for the whole of Europe, as reported by Krünitz, an important encyclopaedia at the beginning of the 19th century. Famous women like the Princess of Monaco, or widows like Jackie Kennedy, used such veils well into the 20th century. It was only in recent years that the compulsion to unveil took hold in the West and almost completely supplanted the use of coverings. 

Susanna Burghartz

Prof. Dr. Susanna Burghartz europa.unibas.ch

Prof. Dr. Susanna Burghartz, author of “Covered Women? Veiling in Early Modern Europe” (2016). She is Professor of Early Modern History at the Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel. 

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