The Present in the Past: Reflections on Veiling Practices and Practicing History

by Grace Stafford (University of Vienna)

I first became interested in practices of veiling and head-covering during my PhD, when I stumbled across one of the single most beautiful portraits to survive from antiquity (in my opinion at least!). It is a marble bust of a woman, rendered with such sensitivity and plasticity that seems almost impossible for stone. She gazes just past us with heavily lidded eyes, her face calm, and her voluminous hairstyle enveloped by a delicate cover that creases and bunches with spectacular realism. She was made around 400 CE, probably somewhere near the east Roman capital of Constantinople, and represents a woman from a prominent family, or at least one rich enough to have a portrait like this carved. She is truly a triumph of late antique artistry, sitting right at the end of a 1000-year tradition of ancient portrait sculpture.

Figure 1: Marble bust of a woman holding a scroll, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image in the public domain).

What really attracted my attention though, was the way in which she was described in the catalogue of Roman portraits in which I found her. After a long and detailed description typical of such books, the final paragraph turned to the issue of her covered hair. It stated directly that this garment was not simply a matter of fashion, but rather the result of early Church leaders promoting women covering their hair as a symbol of religious modesty. It then went on to affirm that despite apparently adhering to these ideas, the thin, delicate material of the covering showed the lengths to which women would go to show off the beauty of their hair by choosing the sheerest possible covering. Into this one portrait had been read a complex narrative of oppression and resistance, modesty and vanity, all triggered by the presence of a simple hair covering.

Looking through the rest of the catalogue, there were other portraits of women with covered heads from earlier, pre-Christian centuries, but none of them drew the same level of analysis. Those head-coverings were deemed to be ‘traditional’ or simply a marker of the woman’s married status. It seemed to me that the only difference between these portraits and the late antique bust was the date: being made around 400 CE allowed it to be connected to the rise of Christianity. This in turn prompted a very specific reading which saw this head-covering as the result of a collision between emerging Christian expectations of female modesty and dress driven by zealous churchmen, and one woman’s attempts to resist such requirements.

To my eye, this interpretation of the bust appeared inextricably – if unintentionally – linked to the way in which Islamic veiling practices are often presented in modern Western media and political discourse. The practice of covering the hair, as well as parts of the face and body, is routinely presented as a tool used to oppress women and as a symbol of religious fundamentalism. Not veiling or veiling in a manner considered subversive or not fully compliant with requirements is in turn presented as a liberal act of defiance against religious authorities. In some contexts this is true, as recent events in Iran have demonstrated with protests against legally enforced hair-covering. However, it does not accurately reflect the experiences of the millions of women worldwide who cover their heads and hair. Veiling and head-covering is a deeply complex and diverse set of practices that differs between countries and religious traditions as well as between families, communities, and across the lifespan and experiences of individuals.

Figure 2: Marble bust of a woman holding a scroll, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image in the public domain).

This got me thinking about the early Christian world of Late Antiquity. In the popular imagination the early Church does not have a great reputation when it comes to women’s rights. A common narrative is one of increasing social restrictions, new limitations on women’s actions and appearance, and ultimately a move towards a society that was dominated by narrow-minded religious teachings. While this narrative was first popularised by Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, it has been reinforced more recently by popular books like Catherine Nixey’s 2017 best-seller The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World – a book that was incidentally was roundly criticised by historians of Late Antiquity. It seemed to me, then, that this late antique bust was stuck between the two expectations: that the early Christian Church was religiously repressive, and that veiling is used by religions deemed repressive as a tool to repress women in particular. But if modern veiling practices are far more nuanced and complex than they are often presented in the media, what does that mean for late antique practices? Were things really as black and white as the text of the catalogue suggested?

In my recent Open Access article, “Veiling and Head-Covering in Late Antiquity: Between Ideology, Aesthetics, and Practicality”, Past and Present No.263, I argue that insights from research into modern Islamic veiling can fundamentally change how we understand veiling in the past. Using these insights and the examination of visual representations of late antique women, I show that veiling in this period was also complex, responding to women’s practical needs, fashion trends, and the demands of particular occasions as well as religious ideas about modesty and piety. We cannot know why exactly the woman in the bust was shown wearing her beautiful head-covering, or how she felt about it. But we can situate it within wider patterns of veiling drawn from sources beyond the diatribes of churchmen. When we do so, we can see that style probably played a significant role in the choice of garment: around the time that the bust was made at the turn of the fifth century, such head-coverings were the height of fashion among the Mediterranean elite. Beyond this bust, the visual record preserves a huge diversity of veiled and non-veiled styles of dress for women, who seem to have used head-coverings as a tool that could be employed when it was deemed appropriate, being used and removed in different circumstances. While some women may indeed have felt pressured by religious leaders to cover their heads, this is far from the whole story, and does not do justice to the nuanced relationship between dress, gender, and faith.

Writing this article also forced me to reflect on one of the cardinal rules of being a historian that I learned as a student: try not to let your ideas and experiences of the present impact how you interpret the past. The intentions behind such objectivity are of course noble, but they are also – to be frank – impossible to live up to. For better or worse, how we look back at the past will always be shaped by how we move through the present. To some readers, how I interweave discussion of Islamic veiling through my article might seem like an unwelcome intrusion of the present into the past. But such intrusions are inevitable, and so I think it is better for us to explicitly recognise them and use them critically to enhance our scholarship.

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