Saturday, 27 June 2009

Other veils, other places

A couple of postscripts to last week's burqa debate, illustrating the rather surprising history of the veil. First, here's a diary entry from Charles Darwin, dated August 1st 1835, when the Beagle made a stop in Peru:


There are two things in Lima, which all Travellers have discussed; the ladies "tapadas", or concealed in the saya y Manta, and fruit called Chilimoya. To my mind the former is as beautiful as the latter is delicious. The close elastic gown fits the figure closely and obliges the ladies to walk with small steps which they do very elegantly and display very white silk stockings and very pretty feet. They wear a black silk veil, which is fixed round the waist behind, is brought over the head, and held by the hands before the face, allowing only one eye to remain uncovered. But then that one eye is so black and brilliant and has such powers of motion and expression, that its effect is very powerful. Altogether the ladies are so metamorphised; that I at first felt as much surprised, as if I had been introduced amongst a number of nice round mermaids, or any other such beautiful animal. And certainly they are better worth looking at than all the churches and buildings in Lima.


Leading Saudi cleric Sheikh Muhammad al-Habadan would surely have approved - of the veil, that is, not Darwin's reaction to it.

And here's Samuel Pepys, 12th June 1663, treating his wife to the latest fashion accessory:

At noon to the Exchange and so home to dinner, and abroad with my wife by water to the Royall Theatre; and there saw “The Committee,” a merry but indifferent play, only Lacey’s part, an Irish footman, is beyond imagination. Here I saw my Lord Falconbridge, and his Lady, my Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as well as I have known her, and well clad; but when the House began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play; which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face. So to the Exchange, to buy things with my wife; among others, a vizard for herself.


A footnote in the 1893 Wheatley text of Pepys elucidates:

Masks were commonly used by ladies in the reign of Elizabeth, and when their use was revived at the Restoration for respectable women attending the theatre, they became general. They soon, however, became the mark of loose women, and their use was discontinued by women of repute. On June 1st, 1704, a song was sung at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields called “The Misses’ Lamentation for want of their Vizard Masques at the Theatre.”


Far from protecting the women's modesty, these masks enabled some to engage in illicit assignations without being found out. Pinchwife, a character in William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife, comments that the vizard "makes people but more inquisitive, and is ridiculous a disguise as a stage-beard... tis dangerous; for masks have made more cuckolds than the best faces that ever were known."

I also found this picture of some tribal women from Chad, who appear to have missed the point of veiling somewhat.