Women and Veiling: Two Admiring Views

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Lady Mary Wortley Montagu , 1717, Ottoman Turkey

Women who traveled to other lands sometimes made positive interactions with women in their host country. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to Ottoman Turkey, where upper class women were kept away from the eyes of men outside their families. In visiting the luxurious baths for women, and their separate quarters at home, Lady Montagu gained access to their lives in a way denied to men. Her writings describing womens’ manners, appearance, and clothing, as well as their incredulous reactions to her own stiff, unyielding attire, reveal enlightened views of Turkish women.

In a 1717 letter to her sister, Lady Montagu said: “I am now got into a new world where everything I see appears to some a change of scene. I went to the bagnio about ten o’clock. It was already full of women.....The lady that seemed the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I...was at least forced to open my skirt and show them my stays, which satisfied ‘em very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which connivance they attributed to my husband.....”

Later that year she wrote: “Now I am a little acquainted with their ways, I cannot forbear admiring either the exemplary discretion or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given accounts of ‘em. ‘Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank soever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that cover her face all but her eyes and another that hides her the whole dress of her head and hangs half-way down her back; and their shape are wholly concealed by a thing they call a ferigée ...You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady for her slave, and ‘tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery....Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the empire. Thus you see, dear sister, the manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe.”


Flora Tristan in Lima, Peru, ca. 1838

Flora Tristan was a socialist writer and lecturer arguing for the rights of women and workers everywhere. An illegitimate daughter of a French mother and aristocratic Peruvian father, She was raised in poverty in Paris. After fleeing an abusive marriage in France, Flora traveled to Peru. When she returned to France, she wrote about her adventures in Pérégrinations d’une paria, (Travels of a Pariah). In it Flora reveals her conflicted feelings about her identity. Was she French? Peruvian? Maybe sometimes Spanish? Was she a member of the French colonial power, or a colonized Peruvian? Or was she an Other, belonging to both and therefore caught in between?

One of the famous passages of her Pérégrinations describes focuses the dress of women in Lima. Flora observed that women there had the freedom of unrestricted movement in public by covering themselves with a traditional dress called the manto y saya. The manto included a kind of veil that completely covered the body and face, permitting the Peruvian women to roam the streets freely and to have greater access to public space than European women.

Flora tells us that the “manto” was always black and left one eye uncovered. She explained that in it the women were alluring and sexy, and while their identity is hidden, they have found sexual freedom in anonymity. “She puts on the saya without corset, lets her hair fall, encloses her body with the manto, and goes outside where ever she wants....She meets her husband in the street, who does not recognize her...”

Fearing that wearing the costume would lead to immoral behavior, the Spanish clergy condemned the manto in a series of edicts banning wearing veils. In 1586, a royal statute was published in Madrid upon a petition addressed to the Court which claimed that the father could not recognize his daughter, nor the husband his wife, nor the brother his sister. It is stated that serious evils had arisen both to God and the nation by permitting women to go about concealed. Flora, on the other hand, saw the veil not as a means of oppression, but rather of freedom and liberation, allowing women to move freely in society without the constant supervision of a man. Meanwhile, in Spain women mostly ignored the royal edits against it.


Classroom Discussion

 •  Do any of the views of Lady Montagu and Flora surpise you? Which ones?

 •  Has anyone noticed the same negative views regarding Muslim women who dress in accordance with the demands of their culture, or religion? If so, can earlier views like those of Lady Montagu and Flora Tristan help lessen these views?

 •  Who has information about the difference between wearing hijab, or the veil, or a burqa, or chador?

For some background, read this site’s essay, “Historic Perspectives on Islamic Dress.”    

   http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-01.html


Link Back to the Essay:  Crossing Cultural Borders


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Women in World History Curriculum