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Let Modesty Be Her Raiment: The Classical Context of Ancient-Christian Veiling

Issue: Vol 16 No. 4 (2013)

Journal: Implicit Religion

Subject Areas: Religious Studies

DOI: 10.1558/imre.v16i4.493


Our societal obsession with hair and how it looks seems to know no bounds. Consumers are bombarded with innovative advertisements telling us that our hair is always in need of a miraculous product that can change our lives forever. Contrastingly, sensationalized media reports, which accomplish little else than instilling fear of the “Other,” have no shortage of images of presumably oppressed and unhappy Muslim women, who are almost always veiled in a chador, burqa, or even simply the hijab. Often seen as the most poignant characteristic of the Islamic civilization, the veil is consistently portrayed as a symbol of repression, patriarchal tyranny, barbarism, and even anti-western sentiment (Heath 2008, 18). However, veiling also has a crucial place in the main religious tradition of the Western world, Christianity. In this article, I argue that early Christian women often understood this practice as indicating modesty and respectability. For many Christians, women’s veiling was an important part of their religious identity and moral values. As modesty was the dominant justification for women’s veiling in the Greek and Roman worlds, Christians who observed and promoted the veil were building on the values and practices of their cultural environment. Eventually, however, the Christian veil was reserved for consecrated virgins, and the Latin Church fathers wrote copiously to instill its observance. This article will examine the practice of veiling in antiquity, beginning with Greco-Roman cultural norms, followed by Paul’s instructions to Corinthian women, and concluding with Ambrose of Milan’s treatment of the subject in relation to consecrated virgins. This trajectory will demonstrate that the practice of veiling evolved these three periods; however, its core purpose of safeguarding modesty, remained embedded during each of them.

Author: Tahmina Tariq

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