The Honor of the Veil
The Middle East has a tradition of veiling deeply rooted in history. Veiling was already practiced in the second millennium BCE, long before the coming of Islam. It was considered an honor for women to wear veils. It represented her group identity and personal anonymity. The veil is a garment by which the person wearing it bestows honor to herself, other members of society and to God. The veil also shows a person’s wealth, her marital status, and provides protection against the harsh desert climate. But the veil became much more-- a means of protection that was far beyond the apparent, and in a manner that made them true works of art.
In Africa many different forms of veils may be encountered; body veils in which the head and parts of the body are wrapped, head cloths, and different face veils or burqa’s. Along the entire North African coast women wear some form of veil, although there is a general division between indigenous African tribes and peoples with an Arab background. Africans often wear wrapped body veils, while ethnic groups originating from the Arabic peninsula are accustomed to wearing a burqa. In Egypt, the veil was introduced only after the Arab conquest. Nowadays in the desert surrounding Egypt, highly decorated veils are worn by Bedouin to protect the wearer from evil and serve as an ornamental garment at the same time.
In general the burqa consists of a headband tied around the forehead, and a piece of textile is attached to this band, covering the face or part of it. On the Sinai Peninsula, different tribes may be recognized by the varieties of forms and patterns on the burqa. Of course, these veils are made of materials available to Bedouin, like camel hair for instance, dyed in shades of red or yellow. On the top half, the veils are often covered with cross-stitch embroidery, characteristic for the area. At the bottom half, below vertical lines of embroidery, different rows of (silver) coins are sewn. Some veils hold century old coins used by travelers a long time ago, and new coins at the same time. It represents a woman’s dowry and therefore her status and wealth. This wealth is the personal possession of the women and she may use it for the benefit of herself or her family in difficult times.
The Bedouin face veils of the Sinai are lively and almost animated pieces of cloth. They are worn on what is considered the most important part of the body, and most susceptible to evil. To ward off evil and bring good fortune at the same time, amulets are sewn onto veils. Amulets may be composed of finds from the desert, but may also be purchased especially for a purpose. Bad influences such as those aroused by the Evil Eye—an age old believe that envy will attract evil—are evaded by these amulets. It is said that by confronting the Evil Eye with amulets in the shape of an eye, evil may be diverted. Also sound, glittering, movement or a combination may divert evil. For this purpose tassels, bells and metal items are attached lavishly to veils. Since the wind blows daily in the desert, tassels will move freely, silver will glisten in the sun and bells may rattle effectively.
Each amulet tells its own story of protection needed and each coin may tell a history of trade and desert journeys for which the Bedouin are famous. The veil is therefore a very personal object that can be seen as protecting the wearer at different levels, against wind and sun, against the eyes of strangers, or against evil and illnesses. With this rich decoration on the Sinai veils, it is hard to interpret these pieces of dress as mere modesty garments or as garments worn primarily out of religious motivation. The veils from Sinai are rather elaborate jewels, pieces of art and means of communication that add to the social identity of the wearer.
Jolanda Bos is an archaeologist and heritage consultant. During seasons of archaeological fieldwork in the Egyptian desert, her contact with the Ababda nomads shifted her archaeological field of interest towards ethnology and the study of ancient beadwork, jewelry and personal adornment from the West Asian and North African region. Please visit her at www.wearableheritage.com.