In Mesopotamia, the region centered in present-day Iraq near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, a veil was a rectangular piece of cloth woven of linen, wool, or cotton and worn by women to hide their faces from public view. While the veils worn by the wealthiest women could be beautiful, veils were not worn for fashionable reasons alone. Veils were one of the first legally enforced garments.
The first use of the veil dates back to the Assyrians, the rulers of Mesopotamia from about 1380 to 612 B.C.E. The Assyrian empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea and reached into Egypt. Assyrian legal writings preserved on engraved stone tablets detail the first laws concerning the concealment of women's faces. The basis of these laws is found in the very different legal status of Assyrian men and women. Assyrian men enjoyed a great deal of power, while women had none. Women were considered property and legally belonged to their fathers until marriage, when ownership passed to their husbands. Assyrian laws about veils enforced the different status of men and women and also defined the differences between types of women.
Assyrian law dictated that wives, daughters, and widows must wear a veil, but prostitutes and slave women were forbidden from wearing a veil. The veil thus served as a way of protecting a father or husband's interest in his daughter or wife. The alluring face of a married or marriageable woman could not tempt men from beneath a veil. Wives, daughters, and widows would be severely punished for not covering their faces in public. But punishments also extended to male observers. If a man recognized a prostitute or slave woman wearing a veil and did not report her to an authority, he could be publicly flogged (beaten), mutilated (having his hand chopped off, for example), or imprisoned.
The tradition of veiling continues into the twenty-first century. The Muslim religion, which is practiced by millions of people across the globe, encourages the use of veils by women. Modern-day women who follow the Muslim religion customarily wear veils, and some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have Muslim governments that enforce laws concerning women wearing veils.
Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Payne, Blanche. History of Costume: From the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.