Saturday, April 16, 2016


The montage accompanying this diatribe is doing the rounds of social media these days. In juxtaposing the veiled Catholic and Orthodox nuns, along with manifestly Muslim women wearing the burka against the parade of nubile, healthy young women clad in what purports to be the ancient Greek style among the ruins of Olympia, the monteur is attempting to both hold up the ancient Greek tradition as one of progressive enlightenment, worthy of emulation, while dismissing modern Abrahamic religious traditions as being dark, reactionary and oppressive; all the conditions precedent for making the imposition of a sumptuary injunction upon female adherents to wear the veil. The monteur of course assumes that the viewer, consciously or subconsciously accepts that the veil is a garment closely associated with female subjugation and oriental "otherness." In short, it is not 'Greek.'
Of course, the monteur, for the purposes of his argument, completely disregards the fact that the religious ritual he has captured his desirable ancient Greek caryatids in the process of performing is a complete fabrication, created in order to add colour to the modern Olympic Games. Furthermore, in deliberately choosing to associate ancient Greece with the absence of the veil, the monteur is ignoring an extremely important fact: that the veil was widely worn by ancient Greek women since Homeric times. In the Odyssey for example, Penelope is referred to as wearing a veil, on no less than five separate occasions. A reading of the Homeric epics leads one to draw the conclusion that in the early archaic period the veil was the prerogative of elite women and their personal attendants. Iconographic evidence suggests that exclusive use of the veil by elites came to an end in the late archaic period and points to a broader adoption of the veil in democratic Athens and even more widespread use of the veil in the Hellenistic world.
Scholars maintain that the wearing of the veil by ancient Greek women was a component of a prevailing male ideology that endorsed female silence and invisibility. While women who veiled their heads subscribed to this ideology, the act of veiling did not simply entail female powerlessness in the face of male authority. Instead, veiling allowed women a certain degree of freedom of movement and provided them with opportunities to comment on their social standing, their sexuality, and their emotional state. If these arguments sound familiar, it is because they also appear in modern debates about the use of the veil within Islam and its relationship with the western world.
Just as in the Islamic world, a variety of words and definitions for the veil exist in the ancient sources, further demonstrating that the veil was a familiar and important garment in the ancient Greek world. A plethora of archeological evidence exists to prove the prevalence of veil wearing in ancient Greece. In surviving statues and vase paintings, some of the women merely have their hair covered. In others, the women have drawn the veil across their mouths in a manner reminiscent of Islamic usages today, a style which scholars such as Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones consider to have become fashionable in the late classical period.
The dichotomy between the literary evidence of veiling and artistic depictions of women uncovered and on display can be explained by the fact that except in the case of the late fifth-century terracotta figurines of veiled women and the occasional representations of veiled women on vases the veil appears to be absent in many female-related artistic compositions. Nonetheless, scholars have convincingly shown that Greek vase-painters often created scenes that allude to the veil by means of a variety of elements, including female veiling gestures and the presence of garments such as the pharos or himation, which could be used as veils. In particular, much is made of the "anakalypsis (unveiling) gesture." This gesture in Greek art is usually performed by a female who raises part of her veil in front of her face, or simply touches the veil. This gesture, which seems to accord with the abundant textual evidence supporting the habitual veiling of women, when out of doors, appears to be a motif reminding the viewer of Greek art of the female figure's aidos without obstructing the view of her physical beauty.
Proving that certain attitudes can become entrenched for millennia, veiling, like sexual separation, was employed to preserve the Greek female's chastity, thus ensuring both the legitimacy of her husband's offspring but also, the highly valued honour of her menfolk. As in modern Islamic cultures, when the woman emerged from her home and the protection of her male guardians, the veil rendered her both socially invisible and sexually inviolate and marked her as the property of the male whose honour was reinforced by both her invisibility and chastity. It is important here to consider the ancient Greeks' view of the veil as a barrier against women's naturally dangerous miasma and uncontrolled sexuality, both of which posed serious threats to the social order. The veil shielded males from the female's dangerously sexualized gaze and controlled her sexually enticing hair.
Llewellyn-Jones has shown that the veil would first be worn by girls who had reached puberty and had experienced menarche. Evidence for this is found in the fifth-century stone-inscribed catalogues of textile dedications to Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian acropolis and the fourth-century clothing inscriptions from Miletus and Tanagra, where young women dedicated their veils to the goddess.
Confining women and on the other hand creating a "safe" domestic" space for them in which to operate, the veil's seemingly contradictory ability to both control and liberate women also assists in explaining the counterintuitive appearance of the face-veil known as the tegidion in the Hellenistic world, in an era marked by increased participation by women. Scholar Llewellyn-Jones argues that the tegidion, by making the female even more socially invisible, allowed women correspondingly more freedom to go out in public. Increasing female freedom of movement and the growing control over female sexuality were thus intertwined in ways again eerily reminiscent of the practices of the Islamic world.
Proving again how ancient women negotiated the male ideology of veiling and found ways to express themselves and gain control over their movement and status in the male domain, veiling could be used to express a wide gamut of emotions. The rendering of the veil could be used to express anger or grief, while it could also be used to accentuate sexuality, in a manner akin to the Orientalising movement of the nineteenth century.
Making use the veil as the symbol of the enlightenment of 'Greece and the West' compared with the darkness of the 'East,' is thus unhelpful, as well as historically inaccurate. Instead, the tradition of female veiling, with all its ancillary issues of sexual mores, gender relations, and the construction of personal identity, must be placed within the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, which includes ancient Greece.
Re-evaluating the place of the Greek veil within Greek history and society (and there appears to be a diachronic continuity since the veil was present also in Byzantine and Ottoman times, right up until the present, under differing conditions but largely using the same rationale), is to view a complex cultural icon in its proper historical and social context. Such a perspective, rather than obfuscate issues of gender repression under an imagined and unrealistic illusion of a past based on equality or intellectual superiority, will serve as one of the necessary steps in identifying the historical roots of misogyny within Greek society, and one would hope, lead to their excision.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 April 2016