The Power Behind the Veil: Symbolism from Ancient Greece to Muslim Societies in France and Germany

By Kenneth DelCastillo

Europe has erupted into a battleground against the attire of Muslim women. By 2004 in France, veils were banned in public elementary and secondary schools and by 2011, full face veils fell under the ban as well. The bill was passed in the National Assembly by a vote of 335-1. Arguments in support of this proposal perceived the veil as sexist, against French social norms, and discriminatory towards individual freedoms. More recently, after the country unleashed another ban on the “burkini”, Germany has followed suit by outlawing the veil in schools and universities. What about this covering bring about such a contentious environment for Muslim women in these countries? Europe’s reasoning behind these bans may stem from European –stereotypes surrounding the imagery of the veil seen as far back as Ancient Greece. This essay will present how the veil’s symbolism has become distorted through the passage of time from Ancient Greece to present day France and Germany and a rigorous analysis for the rational behind these intrusions on the veil in Europe.

Although the veil did not derive Ancient Greece, its symbolism during this time holds a distinct resemblance to the Islamic veil today. The Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes captures the woman’s veil under the motif conservatism, domesticity and chastity. In one scene where the chorus of women confronts the magistrate, he refuses to listen to “someone with a scarf around her neck? I’d sooner die”. The magistrate’s response paints the common interpretation of how the veil “supported the male ideology that advocated female subordination”. Lysistrata recognizes how the veil renders her “socially invisible” (Millender) and subsequently responds that if “this scarf of mine really bothers you, take it and wrap it around your head”. Although the veil’s role in this scene may be interpreted to be a reflecting of female oppression, it is actually used as both an armament and potent influence. The veil in Ancient Greek society also served as a way for women to “express themselves and gain control over their movement and status in the male domain”. In Lysistrata, what the women achieve with the veil is limited compared to what they accomplish without it as they capitalize on the beauty of the natural body. To bring the men under submission, Lysistrata suggests her comrades wear “all our makeup on and in those gowns made of Amorgos silk, naked underneath” . Here, the women were able to “manipulate the sexual allure of the veil [and] could send powerful sexual signals” despite its intended role of female concealment.

Although Lysistrata manages to capture Ancient Greece’s representation of the veil, its purpose would undergo drastic changes in today’s societies. Under a male-centric ideology, the covering supported the concepts of “female modesty, chastity, silence, and invisibility” and subsequently leading to female segregation and seclusion. This view is still being used today by German conservative leader Lorenz Caffier who called it “a cloth cage.” These perspectives of the veil also coincide with its supposed purpose of preserving chastity, marking the woman as “sexually inviolate” and chattel to her husband. European leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy, Fadela Amara and Dalil Boubaker who proposed these bans interpreted the veil as a source of backwardness in reference to its functions in Ancient Greece. While the veil may be perceived as serving some of these functions in some Muslim societies, it especially ties with religious as well as political barriers under both French and German governments. Male politicians in France often defended their bans, claiming these restrictions will maintain a separation of church and state and German male leader Mr. de Maizière remarked how “We want to make it a legal requirement to show your face in places where that is necessary for the cohesion of our society”. However, this is contradictory for France as the veil in Ancient Greece was not fixated for religious purposes but rather for social and state standards of what a woman was required to wear. Nevertheless, how the veil is identified not as a source of separation between genders and sexism but rather a fuel for xenophobia and racism truly divides the veil’s purpose between Ancient Greece and present-day Europe.

The image of the veil has been distorted from what was once a proud symbol of Muslim faith to a spreading cause of anxiety and state-wide fear. These public feelings have been growing more rapidly in Germany “particularly after a series of terrorist assaults and a gun rampage last month” and such is a similar case in France. In comparison to Ancient Greece, where society would disapprove for women to remove their veils, Muslim women today in these countries are afraid to dawn theirs as it “only highlights and stigmatizes them”. Despite this difference, the outcome is unchanging: while Ancient Greek women remained in the confines of their homes under the belief that their lives were bounded to a domestic sphere, laws today forbidding Muslim women from wearing their attire “is effectively forcing them to stay home” as well as being denied job opportunities. Whereas the veil once primarily represented gender differences, it now signifies a surging xenophobia and religious marginalization. The veil might be subject to further alteration in the future depending on the prominence of Western views of Islam and its apparent association with terrorism and violence. Most Western citizens no longer see a woman behind a veil. They only perceive an anonymity that could be a potential threat.

Most Muslim women in these countries intended to bear the veil to define who they are religious, as well as to uphold their image for modesty and conservatism in terms of their sexuality and abstinence. The veil can be just as commonly interpreted today as a representation of oppression and backwardness as exposing the body but the crucial underplaying behind such a simple piece of clothing may tie back towards the public emotions of fear and anxiety. Western society today is no longer directed to the veil’s aspects in terms of sex but rather religion. Fear of the unknown has now become the veil’s oppressor.

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