What does the veil mean to you?

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1. Uncovering the veil

The niqab, or full face veil, arouses strong feelings around the world. Wearing one in public was banned in France in 2011. In 2013 a judge ruled that in England and Wales women must remove them to give evidence in court.

The veil has never been limited to one religion, place or time. Veils have played a part in human culture since time immemorial. They are even mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in 2100BC and considered the first great work of literature. Women have been forced to both veil and unveil over the centuries as traditions have changed. For as we will see, a head covering can carry many layers of meaning.

2. From weddings to wimples

Veils are worn for many reasons and come in lots of different styles today. Click on the arrows to explore how they are worn around the world.

Millions watched Kate Middleton marry Prince William in a long wedding veil. They are traditionally viewed as a symbol of purity from a time when brides were the currency in a contract between families. The veil is lifted after the wedding ceremony.

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Mourning veils were worn for months on end under Queen Victoria in the 19th Century but later were limited to the funeral. They have been rarely worn since the 1960s. Actress Shauna Rappold wore one to honour the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

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Catholic nuns have worn veils for centuries as 'brides of Christ'. Today women who become nuns are still said to 'take the veil' but since the Vatican's decision of 1964 nuns can decide whether or not they want to wear them.

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Worn by pious women during Mass and Holy Week, mantillas are silk or lace headscarves often draped over high combs. Originating in Spain in the 16th Century their use later spread across the Catholic world.

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In rural areas of northern India many Hindu women wear a ghoongat over the head that can also cover the face. They wear it in front of male family elders and guests as a sign of respect. Its use has declined in India since the 1930s.

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Many Muslims believe that girls should begin wearing the headscarf, known as a hijab, at puberty as a sign of modesty. This is the age when they are thought to be responsible and accountable for their own behaviour.

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In Afghanistan the chadri envelops a woman's body with a net or grille for the eyes. When in power, the Taliban forced all women to wear it in public. It is not legally required today but can still be seen throughout the country.

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3. A status symbol

The first written laws that mention veiling had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with status.

In 2000BC the Assyrian Empire required married, richer women to wear veils. However, servants or prostitutes who wore them were punished by caning or had pitch poured over their heads.

This is because the veil was also a sign of ownership – Assyrian husbands considered their wives their personal property while prostitutes were considered public property.

4. Leaky vessels

In Ancient Greece women were veiled in public to ensure they were kept under control and subservient to men.

The Greeks thought that women's bodies were wetter and more 'leaky' than men's, which made them vulnerable to sexual passion and irrational emotions.

The philosopher Aristotle (384BC-322BC) said this meant women were incapable of controlling their own natures and had less shame than men. Therefore a woman could only be contained by submitting to a man's control. A veil symbolised this submission as well as literally covering and plugging their leaky bodies or vessels.

5. What's God got to do with it?

While many people today think of veiling as a religious practice, it was actually adopted by different faiths from local customs of the time and then endowed with spiritual meaning.

Judaism

While there are a few biblical passages that mention women veiling, it was arguably a traditional custom that gained religious meaning later on. Across centuries, Jewish laws on modesty have called for the covering of women's hair. Covering the head could be seen as a way to reflect a woman’s inner soul by drawing attention away from her body.

Today some Orthodox Jewish women, in particular some from a Hasidic denomination of Judaism, practice various forms of veiling, from the use of scarves, wigs, snoods or hats.

Christianity

Early Christians adopted veiling from Romans and Greeks. St Paul called on women to cover their heads in church to reflect male authority and avoid distracting men from worship.

It was common for married Christian European women to wear veils until the 17th Century. Some Orthodox Christian women and members of sects like the Amish still wear head coverings. Many Western women will wear a veil on their wedding day if marrying in a church. Some nuns still wear them as ‘brides of Christ’.

Islam

Mentions of the veil or hijab in the Koran are ambiguous and open to interpretation. In the Verses of the Curtain the wives of the Prophet Muhammed are spoken to from behind a veil or curtain. Some scholars have interpreted this more broadly to include all Muslim women.

The hijab is a symbol of modesty, privacy and morality and thought to draw attention away from a woman’s body to reflect her inner soul. Islamic veils vary from headscarves to full-body coverings, such as the chadari, worn particularly in Afghanistan, which covers the eyes with a crocheted net. In some countries a veil is compulsory but in others it is the woman's choice. About half of American Muslims wear a veil.

6. How do you feel about the full-face veil?

The full-face veil has provoked much controversy in the Western media, with strong views both for and against it. How do you view the niqab?

Spiritual

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Spiritual

Blogger Hebah Ahmed in the New York Times

"The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face."

Troubling

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Troubling

Politician Jack Straw in the Guardian

"I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face-to-face' who I could not see… It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference."

Empowering

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Empowering

Campaigner Zunera Ishaq in the Toronto Star

"I don’t have to worry about my physical appearance and can concentrate on my inner self. It empowers me in this regard."

Controlling

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Controlling

Feminist Julie Bindle in the Daily Mail

"I am deeply aggravated by the casual acceptance of the niqab... Its presence should be challenged as a threat to the freedom of women."