By: Alexandra Kinias
Painting of Nineveh Women by: Paul Batou
With the passionate cries for wearing the veil, the controversy it is causing in the West and since it only shrouds the bodies, heads and faces of Muslim women, it left no shred of doubt that it is an Islamic dress code. And how can one dare argue that when clerics, based on their interpretations of the holy scripts, left everything else behind and are condensing their efforts to preach, direct and scare Muslim women to comply with it after reaching puberty. However, researchers who have tracked the history of veil proved that it was not introduced by Islam. But as it became today the symbol of the most zealous fanatical regimes, Islam is wrongly blamed for that. The status of the women in Afghanistan also confirms that Islam practiced segregation and seclusion of women, even though these practices were common in several ancient civilizations that existed in lands far away from Arabia, thousands of years prior to the rise of Islam: The Sumerian, Assyria, Babylonian and Persian.
Excavations at the site of the ancient city of Nineveh uncovered the glories of the Assyrian civilization that flourished in the lands of Mesopotamia several millenniums BC. Among the treasures found were the famous tablets of Nineveh that enabled archeologists to unravel the mysteries of this civilization. These tablets that are currently exhibited in the London museum described in details the lives of the people, the history, culture, sciences, literature, and religion of this civilization.
In Assyria, the status of women was deplorable. Assyrian men were harsh, violent, and cruel people to their enemies and their women. With the conquests of the neighboring lands, Assyria was flooded with enormous numbers of slaves. The males were used for labor work, while the females were used as concubines and domestic slaves.
To be able to distinguish between their free honorable women from the slaves or concubines, laws were issued. Respectable women were forced to wear the veil while those who were considered unrespectable were forced to go with their heads uncovered. Thus veil became an exclusive symbol of respect; a privilege that slaves, prostitutes and concubines were denied off.
And with their homes flooded with slaves to run their errands, free women had no reason to roam the streets and mingle with concubines, slaves and prostitutes. And hence, women seclusion was born.
The law for veiling the women was documented on one of the tablets that also stated the punishment for those who broke the veil code:
“If the wives of a man, or the daughters of a man go out into the street, their heads are to be veiled. The prostitute is not to be veiled. Maidservants are not to veil themselves. Veiled harlots and maidservants shall have their garments seized and 50 blows inflicted on them and bitumen poured on their heads.”
Modern Iranian women, especially the ones opposing the Islamic revolution and the enforcement of the veil, are pointing fingers at the Arabs and blaming them for introducing the veil and seclusion into the Persian society, even though historical evidence proves that it is the other way around.
In 539 BC, the Persians conquered Mesopotamia and it became part of the Persian state. The veil and the seclusion of women were among the social habits that the Persians adopted from the Assyrians and maintained over the years. In ancient Persia, women of noble families became also secluded and had to be covered when they went out in public.
And with the Persian conquests, the veil spread to neighboring Kingdoms and nations . It was introduced to the Levant region – currently known as Syria and Lebanon – and north of Arabia.
Arabs who were separated from these surrounding civilizations by sand dunes and vast uninhibited deserts were not introduced to the veil until the seventh century AD when they conquered the Persian lands.
Stay tuned for Part Two: Life in Pre-Islamic Arabia