Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Veiled: The Psychology of Distance

    Women have worn veils of one sort or anther in Western culture for over 2000 years, probably longer.  But we have scant written or pictorial evidence to support many earlier claims.  They have a profound psychological, as well as sociological effect on us.  We are instantly taken to an emotional place within the mind and heart of the wearer.  We empathize right off. A veiled person is speaking a strong, loud, emotional statement. And since, (whether we like to think so or not), we are interested in what our fellow humans are up to, we find ourselves thinking and feeling about what their state of mind is. We Want To Know.
    That said, we see veiled hats, and veils on their own so infrequently now, we tend not to think of the deep held, and strong motivations and meanings behind them with any real conscious thought.
    A woman veiled could be in mourning for lost loved ones, entering a Catholic church,  about to give herself in marriage, flirting ferociously with someone, or proclaiming loudly, "don't touch".  There is no analog in the Attire language for men. Menswear has tended to be more direct, less subjective, and so, less prone to broad application of meaning.  The veil has been the province exclusive, of women.
    The fact that men do not veil themselves is a significant one.  What does it mean, though?  To me, this says that our culture feels that women must be hidden, they are lesser, damaged, dangerous, or lastly, and most heinously, property to be kept away from prying eyes.  But there are other meanings too, even more powerful, potent ones.

    The veil is also an object of flirtation, even a challenge of sorts to men.  Do you dare to lift my veil and face the consequences?  Can you handle what you will find?  Careful, this is potentially destructive.  And so, the veil has a secondary layer of meanings that are connected directly to sex, sensuality, and the perceived roles of women and men together.
    Keeping a man at bay is a place of power for a woman in this culture, and one of the few that women commonly possess.  So, staring smokingly through a veiled hat, is an erotic suggestion that has immense power. You can get to me, but only on my terms.  So when we see women in film in veiled hats looking at men, they are often issuing a challenge, not an acquiescence.
And finally, conversely, the veil is a symbolic object of subjugation.  When a woman marries and lifts her veil to her now husband, she gives herself over to him, symbolically.  She becomes, "his".  Sure, in this day and age the idea of becoming someone elses property is not only an absurdity, but almost beyond comprehension for a contemporary woman of any education. And for a woman entering into a religious life, the prospect of "taking the veil" though no longer as onerously physical as it was, is still in 2014 a reality that must be met, and addressed. A nun gives herself over to God.  The veil is both a symbol of that connection, and a statement of ultimate subservience to another, ostensibly higher power.
So, veils. Wow.  Veils.  Who knew that they could hold such massive amounts of meaning? So many layers of expression, in their filmy stuffs.  They do, though.  Deploy your veil carefully, ladies.
And gentlemen, if you dare to, this is undiscovered country. Be warned. Here there be dragons.


  1. I believe the basic notion of "veil" goes back to the ancient archetype of Eve as Temptress, which explains much of the subjugation of women throughout history, the idea being that a normal, healthy male can only endure so much temptation to give in to his "baser," i.e., sexual, self, and that women are primarily responsible, either innocently or knowingly, for this temptation. Thus, for a man to remain in control of himself, he must be protected from a woman's virtually irresistible gaze. I also believe this to be at least partly the reason why gay man have been revered at certain times in certain cultures: they are immune from the temptation, and hence can be relied upon to remain their "higher" selves at all times. Ha. There's some nonsense.

    1. This also goes a long way to explain why men are NEVER veiled. We en-helm ourselves, wear hoods that cover our faces entirely, but the sheer perceptions provided by a veil are denied to men, by men themselves.