The veil functions on a metaphorical level as an important prop of three monotheistic religious institutions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This relationship is not coincidental since both Islam and Christianity have been deeply influenced by Judaism. In the three religious institutions, women have essentially been singled out as the wearers of the veil.1 While the use of veils within Islam and the territory most commonly associated with Islam, the so-called Middle East, has been well publicized in the fundamentally Christian West, there seems to be little consciousness of Christianity's, or even Judaism's, use of physical and metaphorical veils. Furthermore, much can still be done to build upon the works of Muslim and/or Arab women's (and men's) writings on the veil in order to problematize the use of metaphorical veils in Islam in relation to Judeo-Christianity. Drawing upon a personal perspective and interpretation of different texts, various metaphorical uses of the veil will be examined in relation to religious institutions, in general and in specific. Emphasis will be on women's bodies as a site of gendered power relations. The intention is to demonstrate the potential power of metaphor as it is utilized within hegemonic institutions for the purpose of controlling specific groups of people.
Although this paper is written from a feminist stance, it does not suppose the definition nor categorization of metaphors and/or the use of metaphors as inherently negative or positive. Instead, the purpose is to emphasize the complexity of symbolism and encourage readers to consider and question metaphor in terms of power dynamics. Specifically, who uses metaphors, what are the metaphors being used, whose purpose do the metaphors serve, and how are people affected by these metaphors?
This essay can be divided into four parts. It begins with an introduction that serves as an overview for some of the main ideas in the paper concerning religious institutions, myths and stories and metaphor. Next, it examines certain metaphorical uses of veils within Christianity, and its influences from and upon Western culture. In particular, it focuses on Judeo-Christian, Greek, Latin and pagan metaphors as concerns Christianity and gendered power relations. Then, it expands upon metaphorical interpretations of the veil in terms of Islam and women's bodies. The focus here is on various symbolic ways in which veils express power issues using women's bodies and sense organs as the point of departure. Finally, conclusions will be made in the effort to pull together the central ideas of the text.
One of the most influential foundations of a culture is the religious institution. Religion functions as an institution, among other reasons, by being a form of social control.2 Religious institutions are at once delicate and dangerous, for their development initially depends on the power a particular society chooses to give them. However, once they have grown enough to take on an independent identity, power--in its power-over form3--is generated from within, influencing and affecting and even controlling those nearby. (Because religion is a form of (social) control, I consider the power used within religious institutions to be of a negative power-over type.) As it becomes larger and more powerful, a religious institution becomes farther removed from the spirituality that had motivated its early stages of existence. Increasing power is directed towards greasing the wheels that keep the Thing in motion (pushing to stay alive for better or worse) rather than focusing on the original source of inspiration. Power as an entity in itself becomes the coveted treasure, while spirituality is remembered less often.
Like the genie in the bottle, power may be maintained only so long as it is contained. Religious institutions may use power but that power must be returned frequently to a source where the power can be stored. If a religious institution grows larger, it must ensure that interpretation of the religion remains uniform so that the institution may continue to control the growing number of people it influences. Uniformity, then, is the genie's bottle. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC), to use an example, has a body of interpretations of religious material. As long as they are able to convince people that their interpretation is the right one, they will remain in power. In fact, the more people they convince, the more power they will have. However, as soon as people (whether individually or as subgroups within the religious institution) allow their own creativity to influence their interpretation of religion, they are bound to change the RCC's interpretation to more appropriately fit the circumstances of their lives. The RCC has invested interest in stunting these changes, for it is because of different interpretations of a religion that sects and then new churches are created. As a result of people subscribing to the religious doctrine of other churches, the RCC as a religious institution shrinks, thereby losing power. By suppressing individual creativity and change in religion, religious institutions consciously take interest in oppressing spirituality in its raw form. For honoring spirituality means to allow the nature of the spirit to act, in fact, creatively. This cannot be done if people must stunt the growth of their individuality by simply following a religious institution's inflexible formulas of spirituality.
However, successful religious institutions are clever, and when necessary, flex according to a given society in order to ensure power. This they do by soaking up, and in some cases, incorporating local myths and legends and ancient folklore into the larger body of religious material to satisfy the public's insistence on the implementation of its cultural traditions. While sometimes the religious institution simply turns a blind eye to the unorthodox but harmless actions of certain communities, in more conspicuous situations, they simply coopt the tradition under that of the institution's, and vary the story in order that it comply with the institution's religious essentials.
Over time it becomes difficult to distinguish religion from local culture, and in this way, the religious institution becomes strengthened and meets with public support, while influencing the nearby population to give the institution increasing power. If, later, a particular group in the community objects to the institution's control over society, they are quickly overruled for the institution is backed up by the majority of the public's own interest in defending their now incorporated, though partially altered, traditions. Furthermore, since religion, like culture, is based upon stories that help to shape people's senses of identity, the areas where religion and culture overlap become increasingly grey. In these situations, after some generations go by, local culture can become practically inseparable from religion.
Myths and stories, whether transmitted through religious or secular modes, are powerful in their ability to influence their audience. Upon first appearance, a story may seem entertaining at most. Fairy tales, for example, are often dismissed as amusing but mundane time-passers for children. Yet, it has been argued that these stories are actually more appropriate for adults because adults are more capable of understanding what children may not: the hidden message(s). Fairy tales, as with myths and stories, are commonly used to pass down moral traditions. Often there is a motto or moral story within the bigger story. When this is the case, stories have a dual purpose. While entertaining, they also serve to teach, set an example for, remind or warn the audience about prescribed ideas or social issues concerning behavior and etiquette. This is also the case concerning myths and/or creation stories. Religious institutions use myths and stories to explain the unknown. They are helpful in answering or, at very least, dealing with existential questions such as where people come from and where they are going. Myths and stories shared by multiple religions, are particularly fascinating for they are often the most representative of the common issues or preoccupations of a large body of people. In such cases (for example, Genesis in the Jewish Bible), we find echoes of a basic story in variant forms across different cultures. Through the shaping of people's consciousness about their existence, the institutions influence the audience in their perceptions of the universe and how people (should) fit within it. For those who are not yet converted, myths and/or creation stories, within this context, serve as possible doors that lead to a person's religious indoctrination.
A story is often most effective for the very reason that its message is covert. While a fairy tale may be most appropriate for an adult, it is possible that the story is meant for children for their very inability to understand and therefore rationalize and deal with the message that is transmitted to them. If, for example, a mother tells her young daughter to stop playing and come in the house before the sun sets, the daughter, wanting to play longer, may pay her mother no mind. However, if the mother tells her a story about goblins that come out at night and swallow up little girls, the daughter may internalize a fear of hungry goblins and go inside before dark of what she believes to be her own accord. Without ever questioning why her mother wants her inside before dark, whether her mother's reasoning is, in the daughter's mind, legitimate, and whether or not there is another possible solution to this concern, the daughter does as her mother wishes. Most importantly, the daughter remains unaware that her actions are manipulated by her mother's will.
Metaphor is often the covert force that lies behind a story's effectiveness. The user's power lies in her/his ability to bridge ideas, thereby making connections between seemingly unrelated issues. In the previous example, the dark of night served as a metaphor for hungry goblins. The symbolism was strong enough to convince the girl to go inside before nightfall. While the mother's intentions may have been good, nonetheless, it is important to understand that the mother's power was based on her daughter's fear, and this power was catalyzed through the use of metaphor. Although this example may seem rather innocuous, it is suggestive of ways in which metaphors can be used to manipulate people. Within the context of religious institutions, metaphors can be very effective as a form of social control. For instance, by lending symbolic meaning to objects or physical attributes and bridging these metaphoric concepts to ideas about specific people and/or groups of people, religious institutions may manipulate the public into thinking in essentialist ways or depending on stereotypes to understand others.
As previously discussed, stories may demonstrate the use of various symbols while failing to explain their intended significance. Whether or not within the context of stories, metaphors are fundamental because they provide a key to understanding religion's significance. Significance, in turn, is presumably important in religion for its ability to establish authority/authenticity by answering such questions as (in monotheistic religions, for instance): What do God's words mean? Who is the authority on God? What do the authority's words mean? Are they authentic? Since God is not available for consultation, the public must depend on God's interpreters for an understanding of religion. When interpreters claim to represent someone other than themselves, there is danger. When they authorize themselves as the interpreters of God, The Authority, they claim supreme power, for, God's words equal theirs. Thus, power (interpretations of God) is up for grabs, and authority is established through dominance. Therefore, it is the dominant factor that wins, and winners (grabbers) take all.
The influences of Christianity in Western cultures concerning the status of women.
Christianity, whether in its Catholic or Protestant form or otherwise, has been the dominant religion influencing Western cultures. No matter which branch of the religious institution Westerners identify with, all groups seem to use the Bible as a major source of religious doctrine. The Bible, in turn, is divided up into the Old and New Testaments, of which the former is Jewish. Therefore, Judaism figures prominently in Christian theology. In fact, Christianity has such deep roots in Judaism, that one could go so far as to suggest that Christianity is but a form of Judaism filtered through Greco-Latin lens. Therefore, though my focus will be on Christianity, when discussing stories from the Old Testament, I will be referring to Judaism as well.
To understand what roles veils play within Christianity, it is necessary to understand where women stand within the religion, for veils are unique in that they have been reserved for use by women only.4 Therefore their use within Christianity functions as a severe division between the sexes, particularly because the physical placement of the veil (over the head) is in an easily identifiable place making a division that much more facile.
Within Genesis, the creation story of the Old Testament of the Bible, Eve, the first woman, is made by God from Adam's, the first man's, rib. By using the human body as a metaphor for a power structure, this story becomes the rationale for woman's inferior position to man and God in Christianity's hierarchical system. This becomes quite obvious when we refer to the Christian marriage ceremony which is considered to be a symbolic enactment of the original marriage between Eve and Adam.5 For, while the marriage of Adam and Eve seems somewhat distant from reality, contemporary Christian marriages are not only framed by symbolism but also very much entrenched in a reality which is based on the marriage of Eve and Adam as portrayed in Genesis. Therefore, when, at the turn of the 20th century, Rev. J. Foote Bingham writes Christian Marriage: The Ceremony, History, and Significance, he analyzes the significance of the placement of bride and groom in the Christian marriage ceremony (the man on the right hand and the woman on the left) like so:
For she was taken, says an old divine, not from his head to rule over him, not from his feet to be trampled by him, but from under his arm to be protected and cherished, from his rib to be the object nearest his heart, from the center of life to be indissolubly united into oneness with his whole being.6
By surveying the evident symbolism in this passage, we can conclude that the head signifies the power to rule over, the part of the body under the arm means that which is to be protected and cherished, and the feet stands for that which may be trampled upon. Indeed, upon first interpretation, one might assume that, by placing Eve at the side of Adam, she becomes his symbolic equal, for, by being born neither from his head nor his feet, she is born in a position that is neither above or below him. But, in fact, Eve is born from below Adam's arm, and therefore, metaphorically, under his protection and care. By depending on him for protection, Eve becomes Adam's inferior. Though God creates both Adam and Eve, instead of directly creating both of the same material (and thereby giving them potentially equal status), at first, God creates only Adam. Then, deciding Adam needs a mate, God creates Eve from Adam's rib. Therefore, Eve was created for Adam's comfort.
If the head signifies the power to rule over, and yet man cannot claim this power because the first man (Adam) was not born from the first woman's (Eve's) head, using the metaphorical terms of the human body, how can the male sex justify its right to superiority and authority? The answer is surprisingly simple: disregard the woman's head. The obscuring of woman's head, realized through woman's utilization of the veil, is a powerful concept, for it allows men full authority over women in all aspects. Without a metaphorical head, woman cannot contest man's ability to rule over her. In fact, woman's headless state provides man with the very rationale that is needed in order to assume control over woman's body. The rationale is this: man must make decisions concerning woman's body because she is incapable of making them.
Paul's ordinance concerning the use of veils in the Bible, and general power issues.
In Chapter Eleven of the Corinthians in the New Testament, one of Jesus Christ's (son of God's) apostles, Paul, delivers an ordinance (usually dated between 52 and 60 C.E.7) that specifically deals with woman's use of the veil:
- But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is man; and the head of Christ is God.
- Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.
- But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
- For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
- For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
- For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
- Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
- For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
- Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
- For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
- Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
- Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
- But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
- But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.8
This passage contains various aspects of interest. In 11:7, Paul suggests that, while man is the image and glory of God (a concept taken from Genesis), woman is not (she is the image of man). (No use in pointing out that if woman is the image and glory of man who is the image and glory of God, then woman must be the image and glory of God. This is a binary matter of 1 and 0.) Paul implies that it would be an insult should man cover himself because to do so would be to cover the image and glory of God [h]imself (which must be heresy or, at least, an insult to God). Because man is the imitation of God, he should be proud rather than hide himself.
Woman, however, is merely an imitation of man--and according to the Christian church, a bad one at that. Therefore, she is something to be ashamed of. Indeed, Paul brings up the issue of shame as a justification for the covering of woman's head. In 11:6 and 11:15 he discusses woman's shame in a rhetorical way. He begins by saying that, if a woman goes uncovered, she should also be shaved of her hair. However, if it is shameful for her to be shaved of her hair, then she should be covered. Then he says that long hair is the glory of woman because it has been given to her as a cover. This is a circular argument. If long hair were to serve as a cover for woman, like he says, then there would be no need for her to veil herself.9
According to Paul's argument, the problem of the unveiled head, and therefore, woman's metaphorical right to equality, remains unresolved. Therefore, despite his imperfect rationale, Paul further struggles to certify his claim. In 11:3 the vertical line of the Christian hierarchy structure is drawn: God is the head of Christ who is the head of man who is the head of woman. According to Paul, a woman should have a power, that is to say, an authority, on her head.10 And since man is the head of woman, both literally and figuratively, who better to be that power? If there was any previous doubt about Paul's use of the head as a metaphor for the power to rule over, 11:10 affirms his intent.
Paul, relying on Genesis for authority, attempts to reason that woman should have a power over her head because woman was created to serve man.11 In other words, man should rule over woman because woman was made to serve him. But here is, perhaps, the most interesting and most astounding part of Paul's rationale. In 11:8 Paul proclaims, "For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man." Because she is born of him, man (Adam) takes on the role of mother and creator, thereby subverting any possibility of the female sex's (Eve's) maternal claims to Creation. We have seen how, in Genesis, Eve is made from Adam's rib, thereby explaining Paul's words. Though it be possible to imagine that, once, symbolically, a woman was created from a man's rib, it is simply unrealistic to suggest that woman, meaning all women, comes from man, that is to say, men. This fantasy, for that is undoubtedly what it is, is the Christian church's attempt to deny woman her birthing power.
It is understandable that the Christian church should wish to appropriate woman's reproductive powers because human existence depends on those powers. By attributing these powers to women, the church would have to accept the crucial and active role women play in creation. In turn, this would raise the status of woman to a more important role in religion as the sex chosen to reproduce the world's people. Not surprisingly, the church is continually looking for new ways to validate men as creators.12 Furthermore, Christianity depends on such an appropriation by the male sex for the basis of its hierarchical ideology.
Paul, as a representative of the religious institution, Christianity, attempts to influence women to veil. He utilizes myths/stories (in this case, Genesis) as the justification for his reasoning. Within Genesis' story of Eve and Adam, the figurative head, authority (man), is equated with the literal head. These are some of the story's basic metaphors. Paul exploits this symbolism in order to bolster his agenda, the veiling of women, through his attempt to turn metaphor into reality. According to him, women should don the veil as a way of symbolically submitting to the "natural order," which insists upon man's authority (head) over woman (headless body).
Western wedding veils: Christian virginity and Greek metaphors for sexuality.
Paul attributes woman's need for the veil to the necessity of her being under man's authority. However, he largely fails to deal with the sexual aspects of the veil. By examining the meaning behind the wedding veil, in particular, a crucial link can be effectively made between power and sexuality within the religious institution of Christianity.
In contemporary Western society, one of the most common sites for encountering the use of veils is wedding ceremonies. This is not an arbitrary occurrence. If we look at Christian weddings within the context of its synthetic history of Judaic and Greco-Latin roots (among others), the rationale for using veils within the wedding ceremony becomes quite obvious. Christian wedding ceremonies are enacted in order to celebrate the joining of a woman and man in marriage. In doing so, a woman, like Eve, is expected to serve her husband. Her ability to offer sex is possibly considered the most important way she may serve her husband because it is only through procreation that a man achieves his most exalted role as father (just as God as the Creator is called God the Father). As a father, a man ensures the security of his bloodline, and by having sons, his patrilineage (only the sons pass on the father's surname). Therefore, in Christianity, it is absolutely necessary that a woman maintain a monogamous relationship with her husband. By her doing so, a man is assured of being the father of her child/ren. In other words, while there is never any doubt about who the mother of a child is (for obvious reasons), it is not always clear who the father may be. Christianity attempts to allay a man's fears about the passage of his bloodline by controlling women's sexuality.
One way in which a woman's sexuality is controlled is through her virginity. Placing emphasis on the importance of her virginity, beginning at a young age, helps a girl to become initiated into her future role as a gender-defined woman. In this way, she learns that she is valued for her sex, and therefore, her role as future wife and mother. By remaining a virgin until married, a woman enables her husband to claim her sex as his possession. He proves that he, and no other man, has been with her when he devirginizes her. As earlier mentioned, this ensures (at least up until that point in time) that a child she may have is not from a previous union but, rather, by him. Later, as his wife, she undergoes vigilance by her husband, whenever possible, so that he may be assured of her faithfulness.
Christianity's use of the wedding veil as a symbol of virginity has roots in Judaism, as well as Greco-Latin cultural tradition. Bingham describes how a woman's hair is utilized as a kind of veil in Jewish tradition--a tradition that has also been employed in some factions of the Christian church:
Just before assuming the Marriage Vows, the hair of the virgin bride was untied and spread flowing over the shoulders. If she had been previously married, the custom was omitted. It signified, partly, like the vail1314
Apparently the comparison that Paul makes between veils and hair is not new. Bingham gives two meanings for the symbolism of the untied hair: the husband's power over the wife, and the bride's virginity. Though both meanings are obviously valid, I believe the second one holds more prominence. Bingham mentions that, if a woman has been previously married, she does not let her hair down. Undoubtedly, a wife is expected to submit to the power/authority of her husband, regardless of whether or not she has been married before. However, it is clearly impossible to yield one's virginity more than once.
In the Jewish tradition, a bride lets her hair down as a sign of virginity. While this ritual has a very similar significance to the contemporary Christian use of the wedding veil, it does not explain how the veil came to be used in Christianity. In Greece's Classical era, however, the wedding veil was used.
The very name, Classical, used to describe the era of the Greeks and Romans between 500 B.C.E. and 500 C.E., demonstrates the homage paid by Western culture to its supposed Golden Age. Furthermore, it was at the meridian point of this period when Christianity was born. Roman and Christian cultural traditions grew fairly concurrently, but Greek traditions preceded and deeply influenced both. By focusing on Greece's use of the wedding veil, an attempt shall be made to discover some of the likely effects its cultural traditions had on Christianity.
In Greek weddings, veils were central to the marriage ceremony. In Greek Virginity, remarking upon this importance, Giulia Sissa writes,
The veil is there for the groom to raise: though functionally superfluous, it is indispensable for marriage, because the man who receives a woman as his bride must discover in the marriage ceremony a previously unseen face.15
It is when the groom, lifting the veil that covers his bride's face, gazes upon the bride that the marriage becomes official. Though it is the (male) gaze that symbolizes the couple's (sexual) union, it is the veil that facilitates the act. This act of raising the bridal veil, as well as that of the male gaze upon a previously unseen face, portrays the symbolic sexual union between a virgin bride and her groom. Concerning the lifting of the veil, rather reluctantly, Sissa explains,
According to Sissa, the raising of the veil by the groom is symbolic of the undressing and even devirginization of the bride. In fact, it seems that the poet who refers to the bride's "defloration" is not the only one to make this suggestion. Sissa writes:
With his hand the groom lifts the veil that covers the mouth and eyes of the woman he is marrying so that the guests may see not only the bride but also this very gesture of his, this first act of disrobing, which one obscene poet was cruel enough to describe as an equivalent of defloration.16
Pollux, citing Amphis, points out that the gifts of greeting, unveiling and apparition were also referred to as diaparthenia, or gifts of the deflowered virgin."17
The gifts of greeting, also known as the gifts-of-the-lifted-veil, were given by the groom to the bride at the time of the unveiling.18 It is possible that the groom gives these gifts to the bride in compensation for the virginity she loses. In any case, the equating of the gifts-of-the-lifted-veil with the gifts of the deflowered virgin make the symbolism of the veil seem evident.
Barbara Walker, author of The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, writes that the Greek word, hymen, means "veil" or "membrane," and refers to the maidenhead, and that the rending of the hymen is, even now, symbolically enacted when the groom lifts the bride's veil.19 It would seem obvious to make a comparison between lifting the veil and symbolically tearing (away) the vaginal membrane we know of, today, as the hymen. However, it appears that Walker is at least partially mistaken. The Greeks seem to have been unaware of the existence of a vaginal membrane until much later when the word, hymen, was already well-established.20 Their use of the word, hymen, was, in fact, used in the marriage ceremony but, rather than referring to the vaginal membrane, appears to relate to a myth about a God named Hymenaeus who, depending on the version of the myth, dies, disappears or rejoices on his wedding day.21 Therefore, the marriage hymn: Hymen, hymenaios! was supposedly sung at the marriage ceremony in his honor.22
Though Walker may have incorrectly surmised the Greeks' original use of the word, hymen, the vaginal membrane, after it was discovered, eventually did take on the name. Soranus, a celebrated physician of the first century C.E., hears of the vaginal hymen but, unable to find it, claims that it does not exist.23 By the fourth century, the word, hymen, is attributed to the unofficially recognized vaginal membrane when Servius mentions the "so-called virginal membrane."24 However, it is not until the ninth and tenth centuries when a Catholic scholar, referring to Servius, assumes that "hymen" is the Greek word for the vaginal membrane.25 It takes several centuries for the word, hymen, to gain new meaning as a vaginal membrane but, indeed, as Walker mentioned, by this time, the wedding veil had taken on the added metaphor of the vaginal membrane.
As previously mentioned, the veil functions as an object that obscures the female head, thereby rendering woman a (headless) body. Furthermore, it serves as a vaginal hymen, which is symbolic of woman's sex. By comparing the veil to the hymen-that-is-veil, a direct connection is created between the headless body and the body as sex. Thus, woman as body becomes further reduced to woman as sex.
Tertullian's interpretations of veils and virgins.
Around the year 211 C.E., Tertullian, an influential Carthaginian theologian who broke away from the Catholic church and became involved in the Montanist movement of early Christianity, wrote De virginibus velandis (On the Veiling of Virgins or That virgins must be veiled). In this text, which was to be cited by future theologians as a rationale for woman's use of the veil,26 he argues (using Paul's previously discussed ordinance as part of the basis for his discourse) that virgins should be veiled.27 Tertullian appears not to distinguish between virgins and women, as does the Catholic church, but rather, believes that all females should wear the veil.28
In "Veils, Virgins, and the Tongues of Men and Angels," Mary Rose D'Angelo points out two interrelated aspects of Tertullian's discourse that are particularly interesting: The dangers of the gaze and of honor.29 D'Angelo writes, "In Tertullian's view, for a virgin to be seen or to be distinguished by any sort of honor nullifies her virginity."30 This is remarkably similar to the Greek wedding ceremony in which the virgin bride is symbolically devirginized with the lifting of the veil and also, as will be seen, the gaze of her groom. D'Angelo emphasizes,
Especially it is the gaze, the eyes, of men that violate virginity, and the eyes and aspect of virgins (as of other women) also endanger men."31
Tertullian takes symbolism literally by embodying the gaze with (dangerous) power. Though the gaze causes virgins to lose their virginity, Tertullian does not specify how men are endangered. Instead, he only comments that the eyes and aspect of virgins are the cause of endangerment. However, he does seem to suggest that the men are the ones most in danger because, while virgins may lose their virginity, the men potentially risk losing themselves (and their souls?) to lust--lust being associated with sin. If this seemed previously unclear, D'Angelo confirms,
Tertullian explains his strictures on women's dress as protection for men, who are susceptible to this sin of concupiscence in response to women's beauty. But they are also a protection for women, who may not be allowed impunity when they have been the cause of another's perdition.32
By arguing that the virgins/women are the ones who should cover themselves, rather than the men, Tertullian makes the implication that, because woman is--whether or not by choice--a temptress, should anything happen between a man and an unveiled virgin or woman, she is culpable.33 In the name of the religious institution of Christianity, Tertullian, like Paul, utilizes myth/stories as justification for the veiling of females. According to Tertullian, woman is the cause of sin as Eve, in the Genesis story, is the cause of Adam's temptation by the forbidden fruit, humankind's downfall.
Man's authority over woman results from woman's head being discarded, thereby leaving her with a headless body. Then, does this discarded head become reincorporated as man's "second head" (phallus)? There are symbolic messages whether they be that the head (man) dictates to the body (woman), or man's head "takes" (over) woman's body/sex. Tertullian affirms the metaphorical binary opposition within Judeo-Christianity between the male head as authority and the female body as sex. Moreover, while the Greeks empower the gaze with sexuality, Tertullian exaggerates the concept. As a result, the male gaze, an expression of the male head's power (via the eyes), dominates the female body, epitomized by the virginal vagina. Woman is subjugated on two levels: authoritatively and sexually.
The veil as an object that obscures the gaze.
Having touched upon the issue of the gaze in Tertullian's writing, it seems appropriate to return, briefly, to a discussion of the Greek marriage ceremony. Sissa remarks upon the importance of the gaze as the officializing act of a wedding. As referred by Sissa, concretely, Euripides' Alcestis can be examined in connection with the importance of the gaze in the marriage ceremony. In this story, Admetos, a mourning widower, initially refuses to accept Herakles' offer of a new wife:
- Nobly spoken, my good Admetos. Well, then, (taking the veiled girl by the hand and bringing her forward) make this woman welcome in your generous house.
- By your father Zeus, I beg you, please, no! Anything but that...
- Friends share and share alike. When I am winner, you are winner too, Admetos.
- Splendid, Herakles. Then make this woman leave. Immediately.
- If she must. But look at her first, Admetos. See if she should go.
- (not looking) She must go. You won't be angry with me, will you, Herakles?...
- Courage, Admetos. Welcome your guest. Here, reach out your hand. Now take her hand in yours.
- ADMETOS (reluctantly stretching out his hand, but carefully averting his face) Here is my hand.
- Good gods, man, the way you act you'd think she were some Gorgon to turn you to stone...
- He raises ALCESTIS' veil.
- Now, Admetos, look. Look at her. Doesn't she look a little like your own lost Alcestis?34
Within this myth, the gaze clearly signifies the power to wed. Believing himself to be widowed, unaware that his wife is before him, and not wanting to be unfaithful to her memory, twice, Admetos is very careful to avoid looking at the veiled woman before him. He understands that gazing upon her face means marriage to her. Notably, it is the male gaze, rather than female gaze that consecrates the marriage ceremony. Therefore, the power to gaze remains with the man, and this act precedes and establishes the unequal footing to be held between man and woman in their matrimony.
Euripides introduces another element to his story which, at first glance, may seem of trivial importance but, in fact, proves to be revealing about the Greeks' understanding of the gaze: Medusa. Herakles compares Admetos' unwillingness to look upon Alcestis to Medusa, or the Gorgon whose gaze turns those who look at her to stone. Medusa is a key figure in Greek mythology, in part, because she serves as a possible bridge between ancient goddess lore and the more current patriarchal myths. This connection may be made through a discussion of the power of her gaze and its relation to veils. Most importantly, goddess lore points to interpretations of the veil which provide alternative and more empowering conclusions about the status of women. While associations of the head with power and the body with sex pre-date the Hellenic (ancient Greek) era (and therefore the birth of Christianity), and even possibly Judaism, as shall be seen, the power relations involved in these ideas are gendered differently.
Greek mythology relates that Medusa was once very beautiful. However, she lay with Poseidon in one of Athene's temples and so outraged Athene turned her into "a winged monster with glaring eyes, huge teeth, protruding tongue, brazen claws and serpent locks, whose gaze turned men to stone."35 In patriarchal Greek society, the moral tale would be that 1) Medusa should not have been having sexual relations with Poseidon (they were not married) and therefore 2) she was punished for her sexual availability (by being given "looks that kill"). Similar to Tertullian's rationalization for the use of the veil, Medusa, the female, rather than Poseidon, the male, is punished for their affair. As a result of punishment, her face is covered with ugliness. In fact, Medusa's monstrous face is often portrayed as a mask (of ugliness) in Greek mythology.36 In metaphorical terms, masks and veils serve the same function: they both obscure the face.
The myth of Medusa, as told by the Greeks, reminds its audience that sexuality, represented by the gaze, is punishable by death and ostracism. Medusa is punished for representing her own sexuality by consorting with Poseidon of her own free will. Her punishment is that she kills with her gaze. As the gaze represents sexuality, the myth suggests to men and women that Medusa's sexuality (gaze) is dangerous, even deadly. To men, her sexuality is lethal. To women, it signifies death through auto-ostracism because Medusa inevitably kills anyone she sees, and therefore, she remains alone. The moral conclusion, later to be echoed by Tertullian, is chillingly clear: women's gazes should be covered because the autonomous expression of their sexuality, which is in their eyes, is deadly. Through the interpretation of symbolism as reality, veils come to signify sexual possibility, wherein the gaze that is covered is chaste and the uncovered gaze is sexual.
The Greek cultural traditions that prove so influential to Christianity, like the latter, are based on patriarchal thought. The essential difference between ideologies is that the Greeks believed in the existence of multiple deities while Christianity insisted on belief in monotheism. The myth of Medusa demonstrates the obvious patriarchal tendencies within the story and in its moral lesson. In particular, it emphasizes the importance of denying women their sexual agency, meaning the loss of their personal power, and the sexual objectification of women by men, signifying men's domination of women. Once again, the placement of male head over female body is justified. With these male-favoring, hierarchically gendered qualities, it is easy to understand why Christianity takes so well to Greek cultural traditions.
Nonetheless, Greek myths do not need to be taken at face value. If it seems odd that a woman of Greek myth should be "punished" with the gift of power, albeit in a destructive form, Medusa's case becomes explicable within the context of her history. Medusa was not always portrayed to her disadvantage. The myth of Medusa existed before the patriarchal Greeks knew of it, and it was only during the Hellenic period, when the myth of Medusa was revised under the rule of Zeus, that she came to be viewed negatively. The Greeks did not create the myth nor did they choose to give Medusa her destructive power. When they incorporated the myth into their cultural traditions, rather than altogether cheat her of her essential character as the destroyer, they subverted and reinvented the myth of Medusa so as to portray her existing strengths as negative. Then, they created tales supporting this new portrayal of an old goddess.
Robert Graves, knowledgeable in poetic myth, identifies both Medusa and Athene with the pre-Hellenic Libyan Triple Goddess Neith, whom the Greeks came to know as Lamia, or Libya.37 Whereas, in the Greek version of the myth, Medusa and Athene are considered enemies, in pre-Hellenic times, they are simply different aspects of the same goddess, the Moon-goddess or Goddess of Wisdom. As Graves explains, the Moon-goddess's trinity has the following significance:
[T]he New Moon is the white goddess of birth and growth; the Full Moon, the red goddess of love and battle; the Old Moon, the black goddess of death and divination."38
While Athene represents the goddess of love and battle, Medusa is known as the death or destroyer aspect of the Triple Goddess.39 According to the Triple Goddess ideology, Medusa, embodying the death aspect, is considered a realistic and necessary aspect of the birth-life-death cycle. As reflected in nature, only death can make way for new life, and "she" (death) is honored in goddess lore for this reason.
In contrast, the Greeks fail to offer a comforting vision of death. In Homer's The Odyssey, referring to Death's underworld, one of the unhappy shades asks, "[W]hy leave the blazing sun, O man of woe, to see the cold dead and the joyless region?"40 The underworld is characterized by a lack of warmth, death and misery. This description contrasts with Homer's reference to Olympos in The Iliad:
...the gods who live forever turned back to Olympos, with Zeus in power supreme among them. Thetis...soared aloft in heaven to high Olympos."41
Olympos is high in heaven, not low in the underworld. Furthermore, it is the home of the immortal gods rather than the mortal dead. This Greek polarity between heaven and the underworld (hell) is a concept that has many similarities with and likely influence upon Christianity. In both cultures, the ultimate prize is immortality, whereas death is a disgrace. Just as the Greek gods are immortal and the dead shades of the underworld are unhappy, in Christianity, God, too, is immortal, and human beings are punished with mortality.42
Examining the myth of Medusa through the lens of goddess lore largely changes the perspective taken on women and the use of veils. With the spectre of death lacking in essentially negative qualities, the myth of Medusa opens up to the possibility of new moral stories. According to goddess lore, Medusa's lethal gaze is not considered a punishment but rather an awesome power to be respected or even feared. Within this context, perhaps the moral lesson focuses on Medusa, not as punished, but rather, punisher.
Graves not only demonstrates how the Greeks (Hellenes) subvert myths concerning Medusa in order to shed the Moon-goddess (of which Medusa is an aspect) of her powers, but also reveals one of Medusa's previous functions:
Perseus killed the monstrous Medusa with the help of winged sandals; Bellerophon used a winged horse, born from the decapitated body of Medusa, to kill the monstrous Chimaera. Both feats record the usurpation by Hellenic invaders of the Moon-goddess's powers, and are unified in an archaic Boeotian vase-painting of a Gorgon-headed mare. This mare is the Moon-goddess, whose calendar-symbol was the Chimaera; and the Gorgon-head is a prophylactic mask, worn by her priestesses to scare away the uninitiated, which the Hellenes stripped from them.43
According to Graves' interpretation, Medusa, as a metaphorical mask, guards the sacred Mysteries of the goddess from pryers.44 She serves as a protective force that destroys those who try to breach the forbidden. The moral lesson is this: "Do not enter." As priestesses, the wearers of the mask direct their warning towards uninitiated women, and all men. Whereas the Greek interpretation of Medusa objectifies her as a woman punished with a petrifying ugliness, Graves offers a pre-Hellenic analysis of Medusa that portrays her as an active and daunting woman in a protective role. Medusa is not simply a harmful female monster (a concept that may suggest wickedness). She is a guard who wisely metes out punishment to those who trespass where not allowed and/or while unprepared.
The veil that guards the Mysteries.
While Medusa is demonstrative of how the veil serves as a keeper of the Mysteries, she is not a singular example of this metaphor. Medusa is representative of many goddesses, and possibly women, who wear the veil. Nonetheless, while Medusa's relation to the Mysteries has been at least partially examined, certain questions still remain unanswered.
Walker records, `According to the Goddess's [not Medusa's] inscription on the temple at Sais [an Egyptian city existing from 663-525 B.C.E.45], "No man has ever lifted the veil that covers me."' This inscription comes across as a dare, thus portraying the image of an indomitable goddess. The veil is a metaphor for her power which cannot be breached by any man. Like Grave's interpretation of Medusa, it is also a reminder of the hidden Mysteries. Curiosity inevitably leads one to ask: What is behind the veil? What are the Mysteries? Walker gives this hint:
The ancients believed that a peek behind the veil often meant a view of one's own death, which is why the Goddess's hidden face was dreaded and thought deadly, like the face of Athene-Gorgo, or Medusa.46
As will be seen, Walker indicates two possible answers to the question of the Mysteries: death and the future. Both of these relate to Medusa. The goddess ideology often functions in triplets. Gorgons (of which Medusa was one), represent the mysteries of birth, life and death even as they symbolize past, present and future. Therefore, Medusa, the destroyer aspect of the Triple goddess, is a symbol of death and the future. Indeed, it is understandable why the patriarchal Greeks would demonify the myth of Medusa and that which she represents, death.47 For, death is almost certainly associated with women: that which they are capable of bringing forth they may also take away. The view, which Walker refers to, of one's own death is actually a view of one's future. For a living person's death is always in the future. It is appropriate, then, that a look at Medusa (who symbolizes the Mysteries) signifies--literally--a look at one's death. In this sense, those who dare to look at that which they are not initiated/meant to see, meaning the Mysteries/Medusa, get what they deserve: a view of their future at the cost of death.
It follows that, if death and the future are what lie behind the veil, then the concept of the veil folds in upon itself. Medusa, who symbolizes the veil (or guard) of the Mysteries, also represents the very Mysteries she, herself, veils (guards). In effect, Medusa veils/guards herself. Even within Greek myth, Athene wore Medusa's head upon her aegis as protection.48 Though the concept may have escaped the Greeks, during pre-Hellenic times Athene and Medusa are known as different aspects of the same goddess. Therefore, Medusa as Athene's protector is, in fact, an expression of one's ability to protect oneself. Within this context, the metaphorical veil is one that empowers women as guards of the Mysteries, which are the unknowns that religious institutions strive so fervently to control.
Andrew Lang, a fairy tale collector, records a story that further connects the metaphorical veil to the Mysteries. Lang writes that "Story of the King Who Would See Paradise" is "a Pathan [Afghan; especially one of Indo-Iranian stock and Moslem religion49] story told to Major Campbell."50 It goes like so:
Once upon a time a king comes upon a poor fakeer in the mountains who is reading the Koran. When the king makes an inquiry and discovers that the fakeer is reading about Paradise, the king asks if the fakeer might show him a glimpse of Paradise because he has trouble believing in its existence. The fakeer warns him about the dangers of unbelief and curiosity, but agrees to show the king if he takes care of the fakeer always. Just before the fakeer dies, the king reminds the fakeer of his promise to show him Paradise. The fakeer begs the king to have patience and be content to see Paradise when God calls him there, but the king is stubborn in his curiosity.
After the fakeer is buried, the king lays his hand on the grave as the fakeer previously instructed, and a stairway opens, leading down to the fakeer who sits, as before, reading the Koran. He leads the king down a dark passage where he draws aside something like a heavy curtain. What is revealed is unknown, but the king, having glimpsed Paradise, staggers back up the stairs and into the light of day.
It appeared but a few minutes ago that he had descended, passed along a few steps to the place where he had peeped beyond the veil, and returned again after perhaps five minutes of that wonderful view! And what was it he had seen? He racked his brains to remember, but he could not call to mind a single thing!51
The king returns to his palace to discover another king on his throne. As he passes through the halls, he sees his reflection in the shield of a soldier only to find that he has become a decrepit old man. When he offers his signet ring as proof of his sovereignty, the king looks in the palace archives and realizes that it is the ring of a former king who had disappeared mysteriously seven hundred years earlier. It is then that the king understands that he has met with judgement for failing to wait patiently until it was his proper time to see Paradise.
And he turned and left the hall without a word, and went into the jungle, where he lived for twenty-five years a life of prayer and meditation, until at last the Angel of Death came to him, and mercifully released him, purged and purified through this punishment.52
This story has moral messages that warn readers against doubt of faith and uncontainable curiosity, which is unsurprising since it is a Muslim tale. For the people of Islam, whose religion is partially based on prayer, unbelief or lack of faith is a serious concern. Furthermore, Islam, a religion created several hundred years after and greatly influenced by (Judeo-)Christianity, incorporates the Judeo-Christian creation story of Adam and Eve, wherein humankind is "punished" for Eve's inquisitiveness. The lesson in both Genesis and "Story of the King Who Would See Paradise" is that the inquisitor should be careful of what s/he wishes.
In the myth of Medusa, death and the future are expressions of the Mysteries that lie behind the veil. Similarly, within "Story of the King Who Would See Paradise," it is Paradise that lies behind the veil. No longer within the boundaries of goddess ideology, but rather, using Islamic concepts, Paradise can be seen as a metaphor for death and the future. After all, Paradise can only be attained through death which, for a living person, is an event of the future. Also, like Medusa's mysteries, in "Story of the King Who Would See Paradise," a view of Paradise (the future) is only obtained at the cost of death.
While the concept of the metaphorical veil as a potential source of female power (in the form of Mysteries guarded by female figures) is understandable within the context of goddess ideology, it is unexpected in Greek or Islamic stories. Medusa is demonified, yet retains immense power. In "Story of the King Who Would See Paradise," the veil appears to be indirectly connected to the female principal. Though the symbolic meaning of veils within Western culture is largely understood in terms of the regulation of women's sexuality, goddess lore has also provided veils with a more woman-empowering existential significance that has survived long enough to influence both Greek and Islamic cultures.
Through an understanding of the veil (which is almost exclusively associated with the female principle) as a keeper of the Mysteries, woman, in effect, regains her agency. Under these circumstances, man does not control woman's head or body or even, for that matter, necessarily his own. Rather, the unveiled female, as is represented by Medusa, retains her gaze. No doubt, man is "petrified" by this overpowering female gaze, for he understands that it is the keeper of (his) fate.
III. EXPANDING METAPHORS: POWER AND SEX
The body as a metaphorical site for the use of veils within a Muslim and/or Arab context.
Various metaphors of the veil have been discussed as they relate to the religious institution of Christianity within the context of Judaism, Greek and Latin cultural traditions, and goddess ideology. However, these ideas can be expanded upon in terms of their connection to another powerful religious institution, Islam. Through consideration of certain aspects of the veil in relation to Islam, certain bridging similarities can be discovered between Judeo-Christianity and Islam, resulting in a better understanding of the power of metaphor, within hegemonic institutions, to control specific groups of people.
Islam was not formed by its founding prophet, Mahomet, until the seventh century A.C.E., that is to say, some six hundred years after the birth of Christ.53 Therefore, the practice of veiling clearly did not originate in Islam. It had long been in use by people within the groups previously mentioned in this paper: Jews, Greeks, Romans and Christians. Including, but not limited to, these groups, there are a number of cultures in the world that utilize or have utilized the veil. Yet, there seem to be few that veil so completely as those which are sometimes expressed within Muslim and/or Arab cultures. Homa Hoodfar, writing "Return to the veil," remarks:
The practice of veiling and seclusion originated in non-Arab culture and predates Islam. Nevertheless, because of its presumed sanction by the Koran, it is more widely observed among the Muslim community. Contrary to popular belief, however, veiling is nowhere specifically recommended or even discussed in the Koran. At issue, rather, is the interpretation of the two passages concerned with women's clothing in which the Koran says that women should cover their bodies. In any case, strict veiling and seclusion became an accepted ideal and a sign of status among Muslim communities.54
Veiling is also sanctioned and practiced by non-Muslim Arab groups such as the Egyptian Coptic Christians.55 As a result, the diverse variety of veils and wearers of veils (Muslim and/or Arab women) cause the subject of veiling to be a complex one. While taking into consideration the overlapping boundaries of Muslim and Arab culture, veils within this section will be discussed within an essentially Islamic context.
Discussion of the veil in symbolic terms can change drastically according to the type of veil in question. This in no way suggests that, depending on religion, region, ethnic group or otherwise, a given group of women wear one type of veil, or even a veil at all. Different types of veils are often worn according to class or interpretation of a religion (not necessarily Islamic) and can as easily vary within a household as between countries. Here, two specific types of veils will be discussed. In all cases, the veil in question covers the whole body except for the hands and feet. In the case of the veiled body and the veiled mouth/ears, the veil also covers the face. Whether or not the eyes are covered is not at issue within this context. Discussion that deals specifically with the eyes will focus on the veil which covers only one eye. Veils that cover the body from head to wrist to toe, are the main focus of this section for the purpose of examining metaphors as they relate to the nearly fully covered body.
Veils communicate the division, separation and differentiation of space. Specifically, they cover, conceal and secrete the physical space of a woman's body from everything else. These notions of space and communication are juxtaposed when interpreted through the body and the senses. This is done using space as a medium and the veil as a symbolic--as well as physical and sensorial--divider of distinct spaces through which communication may permeate.
Though facial expression is essentially hidden due to the veil, bodily expression is a form of communication that relates to the spatial metaphors of the veil. Furthermore, the senses--sight, sound, taste, smell and touch--are some of the essential tools that the body uses in order to interact with its surroundings. Especially the first two senses are used by humans for the majority of communication because human culture in modern society seems to be essentially visual and vocal. It is improbable that taste relates much to human communication; unlike for certain other animals, smell does not appear to be commonly used for human communication; and touch is, in many ways, unaffected by veiling because the hands--a part of the body largely associated with touch--(and also feet) go unveiled. Therefore, in order to discuss the veil--which covers the head almost completely--in terms of space, communication, and their metaphors, a three-fold area of interest can be delineated: that of the body as a whole, that associated with the eyes and sight,56 and that which pertains to the mouth and sound.
The dialects of veiled space.
Whether or not one's claim is based in reality, a person in modern-day U.S. society, for example, may use warm or cold weather as a pretense for wearing a pair of sunglasses or a hooded sweatshirt. These seemingly mundane items serve a second and often more immediate function--they render the wearer inaccessible. Facial expressions tend to give away a person's thoughts and/or emotions. If they are hidden, it makes it more difficult for another person to judge or criticize the wearer. This can even be done without covering the face or head. One only has to make one's facial expression remote, disinterested or blank in order to discourage someone else's approach. The rich and famous often seem to depend on sunglasses as much as inner city kids make use of hooded sweat shirts. These items can go so far as to become a part of a person's personality, so that the wearers become unsure of how to function without them.
Inaccessibility seems to be the primary function of the veil as well. Hoodfar writes:
According to Islamic doctrine, a woman should cover her hair and body (except for the face and hands) when in the presence of men who are not members of her family or certain categories of kin.57
Veiling makes women inaccessible to all men other than a woman's father, husband, and possibly brothers or close cousins. These men are usually not considered a risk to the woman because a husband is considered to have the right to be with his wife sexually, and it is considered a taboo for the other men mentioned to have sexual relations with a close family member. Therefore, as in Judeo-Christianity and Greco-Latin tradition, veiling occurs in order to control women's sexuality.
Furthermore, Islamic and/or Arab traditions in which use of the veil is sanctioned, like Judeo-Christianity and Greco-Latin tradition, appear to place high importance on a woman's virginity before marriage. As a result, women are commonly encouraged to veil at puberty as an expression of their modesty.58 Later, as wives, they are often expected to continue to wear the veil, supposedly in order to discourage men from sexual temptation.59
Farzaneh Milani, in her essay entitled, "The Concept of Veiling," appropriately broadens the concept of inaccessibility to fit the situation of veiled women:
The details of veiling may be a point of contention among theologians of different sects, but the function of the veil is beyond any dispute. It is to hide the woman from the view of forbidden men.60
Whereas inaccessibility implies that which is unapproachable, something that is forbidden is that which is entirely prohibited.61 This latter term is more general, encompassing a larger idea of that which cannot be had in any shape or form. Milani probably structures her sentence intentionally in order to place doubt as to who is forbidden to who. If the woman is hidden from view, then it is likely that she is forbidden to men. Nonetheless, the term Milani uses, "forbidden men," also implies that the men are forbidden to the woman. Men are also supposed to express modesty in their actions and avoid the gaze of women. However, women appear to be the only ones actually expected to veil or criticized if not veiled.62
"The forbidden," enforced through use of the veil, serves to split private space from public. Mernissi specifies the difference between that which is behind and that which is before the veil in terms of "the interior universe (the household) and the exterior universe (public space)."63 In other words, the household, or private, space becomes associated with the feminine principal, whereas that which is outside the home becomes thought of as male. Therefore, when women leave the household, they don the veil as a way of entering male space without actually being in it. The veil effectively becomes a metaphor for the household so that, when a woman leaves the household, she symbolically carries the home with her on her body (in order to avoid being in public space).
Two things happen as a result. First, to an extent, the woman cheats the system, for she enters the forbidden male space albeit veiled. Interestingly enough, she does so by bringing private space into the public one. This is done not as a woman (who is considered part of the household or private space)--the woman wears a veil for the very purpose of hiding that space. Rather, she enters the public as a person wearing a veil, and the veil, in itself, is a symbol of that which is behind it, namely, the household.
Second, this intrusion into a forbidden space is met with resistance. When women enter the male, public space, their presence is simultaneously denied and emphasized. In "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," Zora Neale Hurston explains, "It is thrilling to think--to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame."64 Women are expected to cover themselves in public, in the effort to deny that they are in male space. However, through the very act of donning the veil, they call attention to their presence. Rather than blend in with the crowd, the women, in their long, unicolored clothing, stand out starkly. Though the presence of the women is equally ignored and proclaimed, the purpose of veiling seems only to include the former. In other words, the presence of women who wear the veil is emphasized, yes. But, nonetheless, Islam's intention is to bar women from public space. Through the denial of their presence in public spaces, they render women invisible. Symbolically, the veil hails the erasure of women and the private domain from male/public space.
The erasure of women's presence, and therefore that of a space for women outside of the private sphere, has decided metaphorical consequences for women in terms of gendered power relations. The situation of women within an invisible space results in the stripping away of female identity. When women are encouraged to disappear through use of the veil, in fact, they become swallowed up in anonymity. This happens when women become grouped together as "veiled women." In this way, a new identity is created for them which defines them as a group rather than as individuals. Of course, it must be considered that much more importance is probably placed on individuality in Western culture than in Muslim and/or Arab culture. However, in Muslim and/or Arab cultures, as in Western cultures, a person who is denied or completely without her or his individual identity, risks being essentialized as the "other" by the powers that be.
Essentialism is a powerful mechanism used by hegemonic institutions in order to subjugate groups of people. It is utilized for its ability to create stereotypes, or generalizations, about an individual or group of individuals, through the reduction of a person's character to specific traits, regardless of whether these traits are based in reality, and while conveniently ignoring the complexity of people's characters. When a group of people are essentialized, all of their characters become defined by one or a few traits. Therefore, they become a singular and faceless identity stripped of dignity and individuality. (For, individuality stems from difference which, in turn, precedes change, and (r)evolution cannot happen without change.)
The concept of the "other" is equally oppressive. In Orientalism, Edward Said points to `the construction of opposites and "others" whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from "us."'65 In short, the concept of the "other" is based upon the differentiation of one group of people (or person) from another. By definition, a hegemonic institution, believes in its superiority to "others" because it claims authority (authenticity), meaning the right to direct those who supposedly do not know better. Therefore, in adopting this concept, the hegemonic institution inevitably defines the "other" as inferior. For women, to become essentialized as the "other," means to be denied one's creative agency, or individuality, and reduced to one's sex. In this way, once again, women become passive, sexualized bodies which, in turn, contributes to the invisibility of their presence.
Here, again, the veil serves as a metaphor for the ruling of women's bodies by male authority. Women's existence is only useful in terms of its service to men. Specifically, as in Judeo-Christianity, Muslim and/or Arab women are defined in terms of their sex. The division made between the male head and female body/sex is further deepened through a separation of public and private space. The veil, as a marker of space, encourages the decentralization of women wherein they always remain at the threshold between public and private domains. Veiled, they can never truly gain access to the forbidden male/public space. Furthermore, as "veiled women," they are categorized and grouped into the invisible space of "others." Indistinguishable, and "essentialized" out of sight, woman is literally "out of (her) mind."
Nowhere is the concept of the forbidden expressed better than through examination of the gaze. For, the eyes, more than most any other part of the body, have been sexualized. Like the picture that is worth a thousand words, without so much as one spoken word, the gaze is believed capable of transmitting infinite feelings, thoughts, desires and so on. Thus, the gaze becomes endowed with the power of silent communication.
Islamic doctrine does not specify that women's eyes should be veiled.67 However, both women and men (who are not close family members) are expected to keep their gaze lowered in each other's presence. Therefore, women's eyes are veiled, if not physically, at least metaphorically. Like the Christian Tertullian, Milani writes that one well-known Muslim philosopher named Ghazali (1050-1111) believed that the gaze was imbued with actual sexual powers. She quotes him as saying, "The look is fornication of the eye."68 In particular, it is the female gaze that is singled out for its sexuality because, women, represented as headless bodies, are viewed in terms of their sexuality. Milani remarks,
Much time and energy are spent to establish woman's special aptness for lust. Arguments range from the allegedly scientific claim made by the first president of Iran, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, that some sort of rays exude from her hair and excite men to lose control, to the more traditional argument that women have overwhelming sexual power and unquenchable sexual needs and desires.69
Even though official Islamic doctrine does not insist on the physical veiling of women's eyes, in many places, women are expected to cover one or both eyes.70 Assia Djebar, in the essay, "Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound" of her book, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, discusses the subject of women who have one eye veiled: "She appears there above all as a fugitive outline, half blinded when she can only look with one eye."71
The one eye that is covered is most probably the left eye, the reason being that the left side is often considered feminine, evil and/or sexual. Walker writes, "The evil eye was generally the left or "female" one."72 In the example of the Christian wedding ceremony described by Bingham, the woman always stands to the left of the man. Woman, as a representation of Eve, is therefore also a symbol of the evil committed by eating the forbidden fruit. In light of the concept of the forbidden gaze, it seems probable that the left or "female" eye is also veiled for its metaphorical association with sexuality.
Djebar explores the idea of the "eye-that-is-sex, the one who has given birth."73 Here, Djebar plays with the idea of the sexual eye as a metaphor for the vagina, probably because of the similar shape in organs as well as the popular belief that both organs are representative of sexuality. Djebar comments, "Only the birthing mother has the right to look."74 Again, the gaze (looking) seems to contain sexual agency. Thus, a woman may show her sexual eye (with its double connotation of left eye and vagina), only while she is giving birth. As Milani points out, "Like the veil, this line of argument denies a woman her individuality, categorizes her, and assigns to her one major role: motherhood."75 The result is that a woman's sexuality is expressed in her duty to her husband as a child-bearing mother. Once again, through the metaphor of the left eye as female, evil, and sexual, women's bodies become sexualized.
As previously mentioned, women and men who are not closely related, according to Islam, are supposed to avoid each other's gaze. However, it is more than likely that, in practice, women are generally the only ones condemned for gazing. Again, as in the case of Judeo-Christianity, the male gaze tends to be tolerated because it is an expression of male authority, which is sanctioned by Islam. He, as gazer, is subject, while she, as the one gazed upon, is object. On the other hand, the female gaze is sexualized or demonified, that is to say, objectified, thereby losing its agency. As object, or "other," woman is relegated to the status of body/sex yet again.
The veil as a metaphor for the inability to see may also be understood in terms of creative self-expression, such as a lack of vision. By forbidding woman her gaze, she is sentenced to blindness. Unable to envision the future, woman loses the possibility of becoming a leader, an inventor or a creator. Vision, as an expression of ideas, is another aspect of communication which, when veiled, impedes the seer from participating in the creation of new things.
Notions of veiled voices and stifled sound.
The veiling of women's faces, as mentioned before, is not officially sanctioned by Islam. However, the fact remains that women's faces, whether physically or metaphorically, are often covered. The eyes, in relation to the veil, have been discussed at length. However, the mouth is another fundamental aspect of the veiled face that deserves examination. It becomes significant when examined in terms of its active role in communication, as the keeper of the voice.
The veil that covers the mouth serves as a metaphor for silence. In definitive terms, the veiled woman is rendered mute. As the headless body ruled by the male head (authority), woman is "spoken for" in a very literal sense. Symbolically, if space is measured by how far the voice carries, then a woman's space goes no farther than the veil that covers her body. In short, woman's metaphorical invisibility becomes furthered through her silence.
In Fantasia: An Algerian Calvacade, Djebar examines the relationship between veiled women and voice. She writes about the popular views during her childhood concerning women who speak loudly:
Yes, there is a difference between the veiled women...: between the one who shouts, sending her voice soaring over the confined area of the patio, and the one on the other hand who never speaks, who contents herself with sighing or lets herself be interrupted until her voice is permanently stifled.
I recall one familiar expression used to condemn a woman irrevocably: worse than the poor (wealth and luxury were relative in this restricted society), worse than the widow or the repudiated wife (a fate that depends on God alone) the only really guilty woman, the only one you could despise with impunity, the one you treated with manifest contempt, was `the woman who raises her voice'.76
It is interesting that, considering the emphasis placed on the veil and upon ensuring that women steer clear of the forbidden gaze, a woman who speaks loudly appears, in fact, to be the worse of the two evils. According to Djebar's account, there is no greater insult for a woman than to call her `the woman who raises her voice'. Djebar does not qualify this statement by describing what kind of raised voice is condemned. Therefore, the assumption is that joyful laughter, when loudly announced, is as unforgivable as angry shouts. Nor does Djebar emphasize, for example, the outspoken woman. Simply, to raise the voice is forbidden. She further states:
To refuse to veil one's voice and to start `shouting', that was really indecent, real dissidence. For the silence of all the others suddenly lost its charm and revealed itself for what it was: a prison without reprieve.77
The manner in which Djebar puts the word "shouting" in quotes seems to confirm that any type of voice that is raised is viewed as negative by the people, and therefore labeled as shouting. Furthermore, to raise the voice is considered improper, and even dissident. These adjectives are demonstrative of the moral etiquette expected of women. Clearly, it is not "right" for women to raise their voices. To do so signifies rebellion against "tradition," in the oldest and most respectable sense of the word. As Djebar points out, the woman who raises her voice does so contrary to the other women. Thus, she goes against the silent norm.
If women must speak, they do so in whispers and secretive ways. Djebar details the varied ways in which women "should" speak (if they must):
Similarly they [the women] are made to guess at causes for merriment or happiness; by means of understatement, proverbs, even riddles or traditional fables, handed down from generation to generation, the women dramatize their fate, or exorcize it, but never expose it directly.78
Women, it seems, are expected to excuse their way through life. No one knows better than the women, the power of metaphor. All is insinuated and nothing is blatant. In effect, their very lives are focused on metaphor.
The whispers embedded with veiled meanings contribute to women's invisibility. Yet, there is another level to the issue of the forbidden voice that further facilitates an understanding of women's erased presence. Djebar writes:
How could a woman speak aloud, even in Arabic, unless on the threshold of extreme age? How could she say `I', since that would be to scorn the blanket-formulae which ensure that each individual journeys through life in a collective resignation?79
The female voice diminishes from "the voice that is raised" to, simply, "the voice which is spoken aloud." And only then is the voice that is spoken aloud acceptable when emanating from an older woman, a matriarch. One might query as to whether the voice of the elderly woman is allowed because she is no longer of child-bearing age, and therefore, considered a "real" woman. Does she become "sexless" with the passage of time?
Djebar also mentions the taboo use of the first person pronoun, I. Here, again, is another tradition in which women not only are made invisible by others, but are also encouraged to participate in their own anonymity. By avoiding the use of words that define themselves as individuals, the women lose their autonomous voice, and become one of the voiceless whispers of an undefined group.
In relation to the body and, in particular, the eyes and mouth, the veil signifies the metaphorical prohibition of women's individuality, both in terms of space and communication. While women are spatially restricted to the private domain, their ability to communicate is limited by the forbidden gaze and stifled sound.
Considering many of the various similarities Judeo-Christianity and Islam share concerning metaphors of the veil, it is intriguing that Westerners appear to know so little about the former while being seemingly well-informed about the latter. Said suggests:
Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident."80
In light of Orientalism, it may be proposed that Westerners/Occidentals, whether as an institution(s) or individually, purposely avoid comparing themselves (of which the majority are (Judeo-)Christians) to "(Middle) Easterners"/Orientals (of which the majority are Muslims). This seems particularly true within the context of monotheistic religions, wherein each institution bases its existence on its exclusive authority (authenticity) as the representative of the "one true God." Said reasons that this is because:
...Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient--dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.81
By "otherizing" the Muslims and Arabs, the Christian West distinguishes itself as the dominating factor, or authority (head). This happens not unlike the manner in which men, whether Christian or Muslim, "otherize" women. In metaphorical terms, this means that the Christian West portrays the Muslim "Middle East" as a veiled woman, or headless female body. In "otherizing" the Muslims, the religious institution of Christianity attempts to differentiate itself as unveiled, despite its own authorization of the veil upon Christian women, and Islam's basic sanctioning of unveiled Muslim men.
In the effort to establish dominance, the Christian West tends to view veiling as "Oriental," and therefore, with criticism. This negative attitude towards veiling helps to explain and justify the Christian West's over-awareness of Muslim and/or Arab veiling, and lack of awareness (whether ignored or conveniently forgotten) of its own use of the veil.
While the veil and its many metaphors serve as a useful tool for furthering the exterior and/or interior agendas of religious institutions, it is only one of the myriad props being utilized. Anything from objects to people to ideas can be exploited for their metaphorical value so as to bolster an ideology. Myths and stories are veritable treasure troves of metaphorical possibility. Of course, depending on the version, the moral, and consequently, the metaphors, of the story may change. In fact, metaphors, in and of themselves, are not necessarily harmful. It is when they are used by hegemonic institutions, in the quest for power and at the expense of others, that they are damaging. The veil, intended almost exclusively for women, has been an example of this notion.
The attempt has been made to demonstrate ways in which religious institutions, and even cultural traditions (as a power structure), use metaphors of the veil, particularly in relation to myths and stories, in order to shape and influence ideologies concerning women. Especially, the male-dominated hegemonic institutions gain power through the extension of their control over women. In contrast, women experience objectification as a non-individualized group of headless, sexualized bodies dependent on men for direction.
The Judeo-Christian metaphors of the male head as a symbol of authority and the female headless body as sex are relatively simple in concept. Yet, they wield great power. This is possibly due to the very ability of these meanings to become easily ingrained in the minds of the public. Since these concepts are covertly embedded within cultural traditions, as has been demonstrated through an examination of the wedding ceremony and its use of the veil, the public enacts these highly symbolic rituals, oftentimes without realizing the significance of their actions. Indeed, the use of metaphors, which is monitored by hegemonic institutions, is so subtle as to influence people's thought processes. Like advertising in modern society, if people are told enough times that they need a certain product, they begin to believe it. Similarly, because of covert metaphors, the public is deeply influenced to think of men in terms of authority and women in terms of the body/sex.
Similarly, in Islam, as a result of metaphors of the veil, women are limited both spatially, and in terms of communication. Relegated to the private sphere, and "otherized" when veiled in public, Muslim and/or Arab women become marginalized, if not invisible. Furthermore, they become deprived of their sensorial abilities. Made to be blind and dumb, these women lose any opportunity for creative expression. Instead, they become essentialized as bodies/sex in the service of the institutions of marriage and motherhood.
Myths and stories offering more woman-empowering metaphors of the veil are helpful for their ability to demonstrate alternative ideologies and ways of thinking. They exist despite much effort on the part of Judeo-Christianity and Islam to have them covered up, subverted and/or reinvented. The myth of Medusa is an example of a story from goddess lore that has been changed and adapted by the Greeks in order to justify a patriarchal ideology. Now a symbol of sinful sexuality, Medusa once represented wisdom. In "Story of the King Who Would See Paradise," the veil serves as a metaphor for the sacred Mysteries. While it is told within the context of Islam, nonetheless, the story explains that the power of Paradise is not to be underestimated. And this is not the only instance within Islamic tradition where that which is veiled is respected and considered a power with which to be reckoned. The Kaaba, the shrine of Mecca and one of Islam's holiest symbols, is surrounded by four curtained walls. Indeed, it, too, is a sacred Mystery whose power is guarded by veils.
Metaphors are often deliberately promoted or obscured depending on how they reinforce or destabilize the user's argument(s). Because powerful hegemonic institutions, such as Judeo-Christianity and Islam, control, to a large degree, the metaphors being used, metaphors that do not conform with the dominant ideology tend not to be expressed.82 Discovering alternative metaphorical possibilities serves as a reminder that symbols are not written in stone. Knowing this, authority (authenticity) may be questioned, thereby opening the path to new thought. Most importantly, having understood the power of metaphor, the following question must be put to the test: why blindly follow religious or cultural institutions or traditions if they only serve to control and veil one's--anyone's--creative agency?
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