The Veil

The veil and wearing the veil or niqab has become somewhat controversial in Western societies, with even attempts to ban it by law in some places. Westerners have, somewhat hypocritically, an especial antipathy to veils and veiling, which arouses suspicion about someone having something to hide. Ironically, some Muslims feel the same way about Westerners who wear perfumes and scents. We might find it humorous when Rumi repeatedly states that he knows someone by their fragrance or odour, but there’s good reason for that. The nose knows, as it were.

The Westerner “knows” by the perspectivising eye, and the Sufi “knows” by the intimacy of smell. There’s lots of opportunity for mutual misunderstanding there. Basically, it goes back again to the invention of perspective. Perspectivism or perspective illusionism was banned in Muslim countries as “competing with God”. It was equated with making images or idols. The emphasis in knowing remained on the other senses, whereas it shifted to the eye in Modern Era. “Seeing  is believing” doesn’t necessarily make sense to someone from the Middle East who knows the dangers of the mirage.
A perspective painting is also a mirage.

Middle Easteners sometimes complain that Westerners are distant and aloof and have something to hide. But that’s an effect of perspectivism also, or of trying to find the proper “distance” or “point-of-view” to properly “frame things” and take things in. We’re quite uncomfortable with intimacy, whereas many Easterners do the exact opposite. They get right “in your face” because they “take you in” by your fragrance. How you really smell is more important than how you look or what you say, because you can’t mask fragrance unless you bury it under perfumes and things. That arouses suspicion that you are hiding something.

This is, of course, habitual, even instinctual, and happens more or less unconsciously. It’s the culture of the ear and nose, or the culture of the eye.

So, to the culture of the eye, veiling arouses the equivalent suspicions. It would be interesting to do a history and interpretation of the veil in order to further our understanding of it as a symbol.

It goes back to the Old Testament, of course. Salome and her “dance of the seven veils”. In practical terms, I suppose, the veil was necessary for a desert-dwelling people, although latterly it has acquired more than practical significance. During Mohammed’s time, apparently, women did not wear the veil as a matter of course, and the practice may have arisen from a misunderstanding. During his sojourn in the oasis at Medina, Mohammed (and his wives) were frequently visited by others who would simply barge into his living quarters. Mohammed ordered a curtain or veil erected in his dwelling to protect the privacy of the women who might be in various states of undress. If that’s the origin of the ritual or compulsory wearing of the niqab, it’s actually pretty silly.

In his later years, Mohammed also complained that the voice that gave him his inspirations no longer spoke clearly, that he heard it as if coming through a curtain or “veil”. That’s pretty significant admission, which means he may no longer have interpreted the words clearly (perhaps the reason for the so-called “Satanic verses”?) I don’t fault Mohammed for that. After all, it’s fully the equivalent of St. Paul’s admission in 1 Corinthians that he saw things “through a glass darkly”,

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

It was also this same St. Paul who ordered women to wear headscarves in church. And for millennia, even until very recently, it was considered improper for women to be seen without headscarves. It’s still mandatory amongst some current Christian sects. The headscarf also acquired more than practical significance, but was considered even the equivalent of the veil as a symbol of modesty. You may have all seen those movies from the 50s and 60s in which the heroine removes her headscarf. In those priggish times, it was practically the equivalent of removing her clothes — the music would swell or soften romantically. Salome, removing one of her seven veils.

Of course, we don’t credit the dictates of St. Paul any longer, for which reason some Christian philosophers say we are presently “leaving the Pauline Era” of Christianity behind and entering the “Johannine Era”. Others call that “the Age of Aquarius”, or even “New World Order” and what not. Still, there’s a lot of hypocrisy in condemning the niqab when we only recently relaxed the rules, formal or informal, against women going scarfless.

“Apocalypse” has the meaning of “unveiling”. Revelation is dis-covering or unveiling. That fact brings us closer, perhaps, to the real issue about veils and veiling — the veil as potent symbolic form. Like an onion, it has multiple layers of meaning. The “practical” things of everyday life may often have such multiple aspects to them, not just functional but also symbolic form. Many Muslim women insist that they feel utterly naked, exposed, or vulnerable without the niqab, just as a Hutterite or Amish women might consider it highly improper and immodest to go without their scarves or head-coverings, even if it looks somewhat “quaint” or antiquated to others.

Let’s not insist on double-standards in this respect.

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One response to “The Veil”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    I’m not sure about the veil (i.e. niqab) per se, but I read in “A History of World Societies” by John P. McKay that ancient Sumerians had a rule for distribution of grain that gave women half of what was due to men. This and other laws like it seemed to have seeped into the Abrahamic religions when they emerged later on.

    Now, I’m not sure if the Sumerian culture required women to wear niqab, but if they did, it might be a Sumerian custom that stuck around.

    Whatever the source for the custom, to be sure, I think it is a relic of the mythical structure of consciousness.

    My personal take on it is that the veil seems to be part of societies where women were traditionally marginalized. So, irrespective of why some Muslim women might wear the veil now, the origin of the custom seems to have been obligatory.

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