By John W. Warnock
Act Up in Sask.
18 December 2011
The veiling of women is a patriarchal cultural practice that was widespread around the world before the beginning of Christianity and Islam. In her study of the origins of patriarchy, U.S. historian Gerda Lerner found that what seems to us today to be extreme misogynist laws and practices date back to the pre-state tribal and agricultural societies of the Near East. They are then codified in state regimes, including the Code of Hammurabi (1752 BCE), the Middle Assyrian kingdoms (15th to 11th BCE) and the Hebrew laws (1200 - 400 BCE).
Land ownership and the control of women
Common to all these societies was the private ownership of land by families, the man as the official head of the household, patrilineal descent, patrilocal residence, and the practice of land ownership going from father to son. Arranged marriages were the norm, the purpose of which was to expand family property assets. If the first wife could not produce a male heir, others could be purchased. If no wives produced a male heir, a concubine or female slave who had born a son by the head of the household could be elevated to the status of wife.
Women played a key role in this patriarchal system: they were sexual objects who had needed reproductive capacities. The purpose of any marriage was to produce a male heir. But within these households there was not only the recognized wife; for men with any property and status there were also concubines and female slaves. A very high priority was placed on virginity and chastity in order to ensure paternity.
This is where veiling is introduced. Respectable women, which included unmarried women, wives, and widows, were primarily restricted to the house, where they were not seen by other men. If they went into the streets, they were to be veiled. Women who were slaves or prostitutes were prohibited from wearing the veil. Women who appeared in the streets without a veil were most commonly judged to be prostitutes. Thus veiling was a cultural practice, a way of classifying women.
It should also be noted that in the Near East at this early time we first see the laws against same sex relationships and abortion. They were seen as obstacles to the social function of official marriage, the production of male heirs to inherit property. Under Middle Assyrian Law a woman who was suspected of having an abortion was impaled in public and not buried.
Veiling in western societies
Tahira S. Khan, who teaches political science at the University of Denver, has shown that the patriarchal practice of veiling was common in many other cultures, including Europe. In Athens during the period of “democracy,” married women were the property of men and were confined to the gyneceum. They were not permitted to go into the streets unless they were completely veiled. Public weddings were to identify which woman in the household was to bear the male heirs – to distinguish her from the concubines and female slaves.
In Rome at the time of Tarquin (616-578 BCE), men were the land owners and had complete control over their families. Property ownership went from father to son. Females were always to be under the control of men. The male head of the household had the right to kill his wife or daughter for sexual infidelity. If a wife appeared in public without being veiled, the man could divorce her.
It was a long struggle for women to gain recognition as persons and then to try to gain equal status with men. We should remember that the liberals who created constitutional government in Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries did not view women as citizens. Their role in life was to produce children and keep the house clean. Only men with property were to have political and civil rights. Indeed, Jean Jacques Rousseau, often seen as the most radical of the liberals at this time, insisted that women were biologically inferior to men.
It is no surprise that today the most influential women’s groups in Canada are in Quebec and that is where we find the strongest defence of women’s rights and the separation of church and state. It was not very long ago that the Roman Catholic Church was dominant in that province and supported the subordination of women.
John W. Warnock is retired from teaching sociology at the University of Regina and is author of Creating a Failed State: the US and Canada in Afghanistan (2008).