Veiled women – 13 August 2018

We learn so much from a face, and in some cases so much more when we can only see a little. This North African woman is beautiful and alluring. Most of her face is veiled, but not her eyes. Her look is steady and strong, inner depth and riches of character suggested by her headdress. She is mysterious, partly covered, but can see fully the one observing her. In the gaze, hers and the viewer’s, there is a power differential – but where does dominance lie?

This picture, ‘Veiled Woman, c1890’ , is by James Wells Champney (1843-1903). Born in Boston, he fought with the 45th Massachusetts Volunteers at Gettysberg. After the war he travelled in Europe and North Africa with his wife Elizabeth, working mostly in pastels. Politically he was an abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage. Much of the art of his travels is ‘orientalist’, understood today as examples of where a Western artist is part of an ‘outsider-tradition’, in which an Eastern subject is appropriated for the Western eye. The woman who sat for this picture has been presented so that she fits the requirements of the western gaze and imagination.

A bonus picture this week, the photograph below is by Saudi Artist Faisal Almalki.

Faisal took a series of picture from behind a veil, wanting to experience how sight and vision were affected by the wearing of a burka. He began thinking he was trying to understand the world from the perspective of those who wear the veil. What he found was that: ‘I realized I wasn’t trying to understand veiled women, I was trying to judge them.’ Where the project began as an effort to see through an Islamic woman’s eyes (and veil), it ended up revealing the biased mode of viewing that the artist himself possessed.

Those who wear the veil remain a mystery, sometimes a disturbing one, to those who look from elsewhere. We hear so much more from those who look upon the wearers of veils than from the women themselves.

There are many references to veils in the Bible. Interestingly, sometimes it is the face of God that is veiled, so that people cannot ‘see’ and are unable to receive blessing. In the Old Testament (Isaiah, Micah), the prophets become frustrated, asking for the veil to be removed to reveal God’s face. The people pray to be able to ‘see’ God again, but in vain.


These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

Psalm 104:27-30


Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;
here would we touch and handle things unseen;
here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace
and all my weariness upon Thee lean.

Horatius Bonar 1855