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  • Covered Women?Veiling in Early Modern Europe
  • Susanna Burghartz (bio)
    Translated by Jane Caplan

The veil and the headscarf have become deeply controversial signifiers of identity in recent years. In a conjuncture which is rather too hastily described as ‘a clash of civilizations’, in Christian-secular western Europe wearing the veil or scarf in public has come to epitomize a fundamentalist and antimodern Islamic culture that is opposed to freedom and emancipation. Fierce debates about banning the scarf and veil have taken place in France and Germany, as also in other countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The way in which this issue has escalated as a theme in the debate about identity politics is nowhere clearer than in the July 2010 decision of the French National Assembly to categorically ban the wearing of the full niqab or burka, in the name of human dignity and equality. In the opinion of many commentators, this amounted to a highly questionable readiness to enforce dignity and equality at the expense of the rights of individual freedom.1 The vehemence of the debate, and the ease with which the basic rights of individuals were overridden, demonstrate a preoccupation with questions of identity that far exceeds the material question of dress alone. In view of this vehemence, it is not surprising to find an ostensibly stark dichotomy of values in play: tradition as opposed to modernity, progress as opposed to reaction, religion to reason, and emancipation to oppression.

But if we look at how the question of veiling has been negotiated in Europe since the Reformation, it becomes clear how deeply invested the West has been in this history of uncovering and concealing. It also becomes clear just how complex and contradictory are the criteria, and thus also the values, that have been applied to both the enforcement of veiling and its prohibition. This essay will offer a history of veiling regulations in Catholic and Reformed societies of early modern Europe that are often as unexpected as they are stereotypical. The chequered history of the demarcations this has involved will hopefully help us to challenge the false polarization of allegedly sharp distinctions in the current debates about veiling.

In 1827 Johann Georg Krünitz’s Oekonomische Encyklopädie was still well aware of the volatile history of the female veil in western European societies. [End Page 1]

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Fig 1.

‘Moorish women in the streets of Granada look like this’.

From Christoph Weiditz, Trachtenbuch, 1530/40, p. 97.

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Fig 2.

‘Virgo Veneta’: Unmarried Venetian woman, wearing a cappa.

From Jean Jacques Boissard, Habitus variarum Orbis gentium, Köln 1581.

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Fig 3.

‘Turkish woman of middling condition’.

From Cesare Vecellio, De gli habiti antichi, e moderni di diverse parti del mondo, Venice 1590.

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Fig 4.

‘Citella Spagnuola’ (Spanish virgin).

From Cesare Vecellio, De gli habiti antichi, e moderni di diverse parti del mondo, Venice 1590.

[End Page 2]

Under the entry ‘veil’ (Schleier), the encylopaedia observed that ‘In the countries of the east, the veil is a normal part of women’s dress; in those of the west, in recent times, it has been alternately worn [and not worn, SB], that is to say it has been fashionable and then not fashionable; at present, it is again ranked among the finery of the opposite sex’.2 Here two different treatments of women’s head-dress are proposed: the general (and ‘permanent’) enforcement of veiling in Oriental societies is contrasted with the Western rule of fashion, with its changing vogue for concealment and exposure. This also invokes two lines of interpretation that were characteristic for the perception, evaluation and representation of women’s facial and head coverings in early modern Europe. Veils could serve as an explicit ascription of cultural belonging and of an identity that was at least implicitly constituted by differentiation. But they could also be read as an index of social change and moral decline that was the creature of fashion.

The rest of this essay accordingly aims to examine the varied ways in which...


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