The Chequered History of Veiling in the Abrahamic Tradition

Yvonne Owens, PhD
12 min readSep 5, 2022


I’m talking not about individual choices on the parts of women here, but the import and significance of the garment itself as an icon, and its roots in the oppression of women since at least the 1st millennium BCE.

Since the patriarchal revolution, veiling and/or head coverings have been adopted by women as a means of protective colouring, concealment and, even in many contemporary cultural settings, sheer survival. Meanwhile, there actually isn’t anything in doctrinal Islamic scripture, the Quran, about women having to veil, except one case-specific instance directed at and having to do solely with the Prophet’s wives.

Veiling and covering the head and face is mentioned exactly once in the Quran, in the context of the Prophet’s wives being advised to conceal themselves to avoid abduction or ransoming by Mohammad’s enemies as high value targets (Quran 33:59). It is is framed by the later followers who inscribed the Quran, long after the Prophet’s death, as such. Muslim feminists and scholars repeatedly point this out, both in disparaging and defending the custom as a choice on the parts of contemporary women having nothing to do with religious belief or the Quran.

Culturally, veiling was originally the regalia of the temple priestesses of Ashtoreth, The Asherah, Astarte, Isis, Ishtar and by many of Her names…

Goddess Ishtar (Astarte) terracotta figurine — circa 1.800–1.600 BC
Mesopotamian Terracotta moulded plaque of Astarte, side view
Mesopotamian Terracotta moulded plaque of Astarte, front view
ca. 1850–1500 BC, Old Babylonian period. Ur. Temple Priestess. British Museum
Votives of Temple Priestesses. Ur III or Isin-Larsa Period, ca. 2112–1763 BCE
Temple Priestess votive plaques, showing patterned veiling, Ur III or Isin-Larsa Period, ca. 2112–1763 BCE
Ur III or Isin-Larsa Period, mould and cast figure of Priestess of Ishtar/Astarte, showing veiling, ca. 2112–1763 BCE

Called ‘temple prostitutes’ by 19th-century religious historians, qedesha (also spelled qadisha, kedesha or kedeshah, Akkadian qadishtu or qadissu), representatives of the Great Goddess in ancient societies and religions of the Middle East were woman of special and revered status. “The exact function of the qedesha is unclear from the sources available, but it is known that the qedesha played a ritual role alongside priests and midwives. As with many classes of sacred status, the qedesha’s sexuality was at least partly regulated, but there is no reliable evidence that she engaged in prostitution as suggested by the Hebrew Bible (whence the word qedesha) and ancient Greek historians. The qedesha was typically born of high social status and could inherit and own property; her property could be passed on to her children after her death.” [1] Qedesha went veiled in public as they represented Great Mystery in the sacrament of the Hieros Gamos or Sacred Marriage, and could not be glimpsed except in a sacred ritual or ceremonial context.

This custom is referred to many times through the Old Testament, and was even cited as a means of a widow masquerading as a temple prostitute to entrap her father-in-law into providing a husband for her, as was his obligation under the patriarchy of the Prophets (she sat at the crossroads, veiled from head to foot, which far from tamping down lust in men, in those days was a terrific turn-on). In another tale, according to Genesis 38, another patriarch, the unsuspecting Judah, mistook his daughter-in-law Tamar for a veiled “prostitute” (Hebrew zonah). For her services, Judah promised Tamar a sheep and gave her his seal as assurance the debt would be honoured. “When Judah’s friend returned to redeem the pledge, he asked in a nearby village where he could find the qedeshah (a Hebrew word most Bibles translate as “cult prostitute”).” [2]

Later Old Testament prophets commanded veiling and covering of the female hair and face so as not to tempt men or angels, or exhibit exhibit female pride: “Because the daughters of Sion are haughty and have walked with stretched out necks and wanton glances of their eyes, the Lord will make bald the crown of the head of the daughters of Sion and will discover their hair” (Isiah, 8th century BCE, quoted at length by Innocent III in his ‘Miseria,’ or ‘The Misery of the Human Condition, as well as by Kramer and Sprenger in justifying femicide during the Witch Hunt in the 15th-century Malleus Maleficarum). Mosaic Law is reiterated in Sharia Law, sourced in the Abrahamic Tradition, and in other ascetic, Fundamentalist misogynistic, contemptus mundi (‘contempt for the world,’ ‘hatred for worldly concerns’) credos like Pauline strictures in Christianity (same tempting of men and angels bullshit and provoking lust etc.–reason why women had to cover their heads in Church for so many centuries–hats and gloves, polluted hair and feminine touch, prohibited from proximity to the altar and church regalia, etc.).

The full biblical text makes it clear that veiling was the cultural property of both men and women who served in the temples of Hebrew Asherah and Canaanite Ashtoreth and Ishtar as priests and priestesses, as well as reverent women in the general community. As we see in Ezekiel, when threatened and chastised for their faith, as they were, violently and hatefully by the prophets and patriarchs throughout the Old Testament, women’s veiling was singled out among the Goddess reverencers’ regalia, disparaged and shamed, only to be adopted by the patriarchs as sigils of ownership, chastisement and control of women a generation or two later:

‘A Warning to the Daughters of Zion’ by the prophet Isiah:

Beardless youths oppress Yahweh’s people, and women rule over them.
The LORD brings this charge
Against you, your priests and priestesses:

“Because the daughters of the city are haughty — walking with heads held high
and wanton eyes,
prancing and skipping as they go,

jingling the bracelets on their ankles —
the Lord will bring sores
on the heads of your women,
and the LORD thy GOD will make their foreheads bare and I will uncover their secret parts”

In that day the Lord will take away their finery: their anklets and headbands and crescents; their pendants, bracelets, and veils;
their headdresses, ankle chains, and sashes; their perfume bottles and charms;

their signet rings and nose rings;
their festive robes, capes, cloaks, and purses;
and their mirrors, linen garments, tiaras, and shawls.

Instead of fragrance
there will be a stench;
instead of a belt, a rope;
instead of styled hair, baldness; instead of fine clothing, sackcloth; instead of beauty, shame.

Your men will fall by the sword,
and your warriors in battle.
And the gates of your city will lament and mourn; destitute, you will sit on the ground.

“because you have forgotten Me and trusted in false deities
So I will throw your skirts up over your face,
that your shame may be seen.
Your adulteries and lustful neighings,
your shameless sacraments of the lust you call love upon the hills and in the fields. (Isaiah 3: 16–26)

Ezekiel aimed pointedly at the female priesthood of the Levantine goddess, with a passage that has fuelled misogynists for millennia, including the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, the ‘bible’ of the German Witch Hunt endorsed by Pope Innocent VIII, in their hunting ‘sorceresses’:

Reproof of False Prophetesses

Now, O son of man, set your face against the daughters of your people who prophesy out of their own hearts. Prophesy against them and tell them that this is what the Lord GOD says: Woe to the women who sew magic charms on their wrists and make veils for the heads of people of every height, in order to ensnare their souls. Will you ensnare the souls of My people but preserve your own? You have profaned Me among My people for handfuls of barley and scraps of bread. By lying to My people who would listen, you have killed those who should not have died and spared those who should not have lived.

Therefore this is what the Lord GOD says: See, I am against the magic charms with which you ensnare souls like birds, and I will tear them from your arms. So I will free the souls you have ensnared like birds. I will also tear off your veils and deliver My people from your hands, so that they will no longer be prey in your hands. Then you will know that I am the LORD.

Because you have disheartened the righteous with your lies, even though I have caused them no grief, and because you have encouraged the wicked not to turn from their evil ways to save their lives, therefore you will no longer see false visions or practice divination. I will deliver My people from your hands. Then you will know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 13: 17–23)

In other treatments, the penalties for feminine disobedience include dire threats of rape and destitution:

“Go down and sit in the dust,

O Virgin Daughter of Babylon.

Sit on the ground without a throne, O Daughter of Chaldea!

For you will no longer be called tender or delicate.

Take millstones and grind flour; remove your veil;

strip off your skirt, bare your thigh, and wade through the streams. Your nakedness will be uncovered and your shame will be exposed.

I will take vengeance; I will spare no one.”

“Sit in silence and go into darkness, O Daughter of Chaldea.

For you will no longer be called

the queen of kingdoms.

You said, ‘I will be queen forever.’ So now hear this,

O lover of luxury who sat securely, who said to herself,

‘I am, and there is none besides me.

I will never be a widow

or know the loss of children.’

These two things will overtake you in a moment, in a single day:

loss of children, and widowhood.

They will come upon you in full measure, and worse in spite of your many sorceries

and the potency of your spells.

You were secure in your wickedness;

you said, ‘No one sees me.’

Your wisdom and knowledge led you astray;

you told yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’ But disaster came upon you;

In the Ages to come, in your return,

you will not know how to charm it away. A calamity will befall you

that you will be unable to ward off. Devastation will happen to you

suddenly and unexpectedly.

So take your stand with your spells and with your many sorceries,

with which you have wearied yourself from your youth, from antiquity. Perhaps you will succeed;

perhaps you will even inspire terror, or love!

Your many counselors;

let them come forward now and save you — your astrologers who observe the stars, who monthly predict your fate.

Surely they are like stubble;

the fire will burn them up.

They cannot deliver themselves

from the power of the flame.

There will be no coals to warm them

or fire to sit beside.

This is what they are to you —

those with whom you have laboured and traded from youth — each one strays in his own direction;

not one of them can save you. It is Yahweh who is speaking.” (Isiah 47)

Modern artistic interpretations of ancient Biblical references to veiling in the New Testament, in mentions of Salome’s dance of the Seven Veils before Herod (granted in return for the head of John the Baptist), connect veiling to the idea of the transgressive women of the Old Testament.

Robert Fowler, Dance of the Seven Veils, 1885, oil on canvas
Salomé Dancing before Herod (1876) by Gustave Moreau
Opera director, choreographer, and artist Grethe Barrett Holby, ‘Dance of the Seven Veils, The Embassy, New York City, NY., 2003
Grethe Barrett Holby, ‘Dance of the Seven Veils
Grethe Barrett Holby, ‘Dance of the Seven Veils

In many Middle Eastern cultures, young unmarried women and girls can go with their heads uncovered by a hijab or veil, but married women not.

In their case, the hijab signals that they’re some male’s property so can’t be abducted, grabbed or raped as that’s a transgression against the man who ‘owns’ her, shaming him, necessitating honour killings, punishment of the woman whose ‘shame’ conferred the social and cultic ‘pollution,’ and such.

In this 2006 file photo, unidentified women are seen wearing a niqab during a demonstration outside the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, Netherlands. It illustrates an article published by the Religion News Service by John G. Stackhouse Jr., who holds the Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada. As he describes:

To be sure, I strongly dislike niqabs and burqas. When I encounter them, I cannot help but be repelled by what I take to be symbols not only of the subjugation of women, but of a refusal to participate properly in public life. They unnerve me, frankly, and I wish they weren’t worn.

Federal laws, however, aren’t supposed to be tailored to my preference and comfort. Laws against public wearing of such clothes amount instead to cultural chauvinism and, in fact, a compromise of women’s rights…To those who say, “Such clothes oppress women,” I reply that I tend to think so, too. But when women themselves tell us that they prefer to wear them — some as a proud statement of their faith, others as a device to preserve their privacy — it is simply condescending to accuse them of “false consciousness” and impose our form of enlightenment upon them. [3]

Refugees from Western Abrahamic patriarchal religious traditions that demand head coverings or some form of veiling for women–conservative Mormonism, Amish, Dukaboor, Catholic convents, certain Fundamentalist sects, etc.–have written about the issue, like the inimitable reformed Catholic feminist intellectual, Mary Daly and her groundbreaking work, ‘Gyn-Ecology: the Meta-Ethics of Radical Feminism.’

Choices women make today around whether to veil or not are their own and to be respected. They, and only they, know what they deal with and/or want to convey. But the commandment to women to veil with the full body chador, burqa, niqab, abaya or other shame-based garment of the Taliban, Isis, Wahabists, Islamic State of Iran or other such criminal states is another matter entirely and has nothing to do with the independent will of any woman involved, as that sovereign capacity is not recognized in them.

In these societies, if and when a woman’s free will is revealed or expressed, it is condemned as seditious and disobedient, the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament prophets being reiterated in Sharia Law (among other aescetic, Fundamentalist misogynistic, contemptus mundi credos). Islam represents, by its own account, a People of the Book in that it constitutes a faith within the Abrahamic Stem as one of the Three Main Orthdoxies.


[1] The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, revised and updated by Adam Zeidan, ‘Qedesha: Mesopotamian religion’ (

[2] Edward Lipiński, ‘Sacred Prostitution in the Story of Judah and Tamar? The influence of Canaanite Ashtoreth worship in ancient Israel,’ Bible History Daily (Biblical Archaeology Society: March 06, 2022).

[3] John G. Stackhouse Jr., ‘I don’t like niqabs and burqas — but they should be legal,’ Religion News Service, October 16, 2017. (


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Published by Yvonne Owens, PhD

Yvonne Owens is a past Research Fellow at the University College of London, and Professor of Art History and Critical Studies at the Victoria College of Art, Victoria, BC. She was awarded a Marie Curie Ph.D. Fellowship in 2005 for her interdisciplinary dissertation on Renaissance portrayals of women in art and sixteenth-century Witch Hunt discourses. She holds an Honours B.A. with Distinctions in History of Art from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, an M.A. in Medieval Studies with Distinction from The Centre For Medieval Studies at the University of York, U.K., and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in History of Art from University College of London. Her publications to date have mainly focused on representations of women and the gendering of evil “defect” in classical humanist discourses, cross-referencing these figures to historical art, natural philosophy, medicine, theology, science and literature. Her essay, “The Saturnine History of Jews and Witches,” appeared in Preternature (Vol. 3, №1) in 2014, her book chapter, “Pollution and Desire in Hans Baldung Grien: The Abject, Erotic Spell of the Witch and Dragon” appeared in Angeliki Pollali and Berthold Hub, Eds., Images of Sex and Desire in Renaissance Art and Modern Historiography, her essay “The Hags, Harridans, Viragos and Crones of Hans Baldung Grien” was published as part of the Hans Baldung Grien: New perspectives on his work, International Conference Proceedings (October 18–20, 2018), Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in 2019, and her book, Abject Eroticism in Northern Renaissance Art: the Witches and Femme Fatales of Hans Baldung Grien, Bloomsbury London, in 2020. She also writes art and cultural criticism, exploring contemporary post-humanist discourses in art, literature and new media. In 2022 she authored a critical essay for Gagosian Gallery’s artist’s catalogue for Rachel Feinstein. She is Editor for the anthology of essays titled Trans-Disciplinary Migrations: Science, the Sacred, and the Arts, forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.



Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.