During a recent dinner conversation in London I was asked, as is predictably guaranteed, about Saudi Arabia, the abaya and hijab. “A mark of oppression and ignorance,” bemoaned a professor of history. “Their tailored clothes adorned with dangerously thin strips of cloth tied around their necks,” the history professors surely deserved a proper lesson of the past.
An abaya was plainly uncomfortable for women, they insisted. Roasting in their wool three-piece suits by an early-season open fire with their now-full waistlines being crushed by further perilous straps of leather restricting their breathing capacity, it was a bit hypocritical to claim Saudi women were “obviously” not dressed for comfort.
The earliest records show that it was the Chinese who kept women veiled thousands of years ago, extending the custom throughout multiple dynasties. White was the preferred color, red reserved for weddings as is still done today. The reason for Chinese concealment was wealth: Hiding one’s jewelry and finely embroidered silk clothes from potential thieves was a necessity. Women of a certain societal class were forbidden to leave home without being covered from head to toe. For members of the aristocracy, they additionally were hidden underneath layers of curtains surrounding carriages suspended upon wooden poles, hoisted by servants. Even if merely traveling to another house next door, women were never seen. Moreover, every man, woman and child on the street was required to turn and look away from the procession until it had passed, under penalty of death. Until the end of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century, this process remained the custom in China.
Hittite and Persian women also dressed by status, the veil the most visible classification. Under ancient Assyrian law, upper-class women were required to veil, whereas punishments were imposed upon commoners who covered-for emulating a noblewoman. In the Tannaitic period in Jewish history (0-200 CE) a woman’s uncovered hair was considered ‘nudity’, and she would be heavily fined if not veiled.
Between the Near and Far East, Arabians wore veils to fend off blistering heat and violent desert sandstorms; Afghan women wore warm clothes to protect against harsh cold and snow, and adopted light, breezy fabrics to cool in summer. African, Amazonian, and Aboriginal tribeswomen would be naked, but wore additional animal skins, feathered head-covers, stones and jewels the higher their rank.
When Byzantine Christian women reached Afghanistan after the 4th century AD, they wore full coverings long previously adopted from ancient Greece and Macedonia. An uncovered Byzantium woman signaled loose behavior, thus clothing was a mark of honor versus shame. In the Greek and Roman Empires, veils had been used for centuries for the same reason as in China: It demonstrated high societal rank. The Byzantines then extended the veils’ symbolism as representative of the switch from paganism to the ‘purity’ of monotheism.
Soon Afghan women adopted the Chinese and Greco-Roman practice of covering to denote status, particularly to hide their emerald, ruby, lapis lazuli, sapphire and topaz gemstones abundant in the northeast Panjshir region.
As Christianity grew in Europe, covering the body decently became mandatory, bare skin no longer exposed. By the Middle Ages a married woman was not permitted outside of her house unless every single hair was secured tightly under a wimple — a tightly wrapped complete head covering. Nuns — who were ‘married to Christ’ — emulated this style, and until recently still kept shorn heads bound by wimples. In the 16th century, the European fashion became one of hoods, ear-coverings and conical headdresses (hennin), the more elongated the better to signal rank. Until the mid-20th century, hats and gloves remained standard women’s dress, and Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Gina Lollobrigida were still making scarves glamorous well into the 1960s.
When Islam came to Arabia in the 7th century AD, women were told to be decent, to ‘cover their bosoms’ and ‘draw their outer cloaks around them’, a drastic change from being typically half-naked in the searing heat during the jahillya.
The overall purposes of veiling and covering throughout history have been for three reasons: To denote wealth, to protect from the elements, and to convey modesty.
Although the majority in the West are unaware of the veils’ history, likewise it is worth examining why there is much discomfort with coverings in the present day. Let us observe the abaya and hijab from the Western perspective.
In the West, there is an ongoing “war” with Islam. As the tone increases in pitch, the pervasive notion that Muslims will “take over by force” is understandably frightening to those remaining ignorant of Islam. Conservative 80-year-old ladies steeped in a tradition of delicate hats and dainty gloves are genuinely convinced that Islam would mandate them into wearing full black abayas and niqabs.
Not true obviously, but there is little reassurance from Muslim leaders. It is one thing to defend the veil, but another to ignore these unjust beliefs. Westerners are not going to tune in to Islamic television in hope of clarity, and in fact would resist putting faith in explanations from Muslim men. Too often the rhetoric is harsh. Coupled with Islamophobic messages by super right-wing pundits, confusion abounds, fear sells, and some Muslims with agendas other than faith confirm the worst stereotypes. France has now banned the niqab, as Ataturk of Turkey and Reza Shah Pahlavi of Persia had done.
The bigger picture of the risk of such should be considered. Islam’s message is too-often being drowned out in the West, supplanted by heavily funded propaganda for an alternative.
If Muslims could see that, to the older generation of Europeans especially, it is indeed quite frightening to see large swathes of black-clad Muslim women walking London’s parks, might the presentation be re-evaluated?
A huge proportion of Saudi women on flights out of the country immediately remove their abayas, and many keep their hijabs. But many women in Europe do the opposite — converts especially — insisting a full black abaya is the only acceptable form of Muslim clothing.
In fact, Islam was not brought by extremes, it was spread slowly and gently, with grace.
* Tanya Cariina Hsu is a British political analyst specializing in U.S.-Saudi foreign policy.
(This article appeared on the Saudi-based Arab News on Nov. 4, 2012.)