In France, debates about the veil hide a long history


A portrait, presumed to be of Madame de Soustra, by Marie-Denise Villers. In 19th-century France, women could use veils as expressions of luxury and tools of seduction. PHOTO/RMN-Grand Palais; Gilles Berizzi

Almost 500 years in the past, in 1518 or 1519, the Flemish artist Bernard van Orley sat down to color a portrait of Margaret of Austria, one of the vital highly effective ladies in Renaissance Europe. At age three, she was queen of France. At 27, she turned regent of the Netherlands, and Van Orley painted Margaret as a sturdy, composed politician in a portrait that will be copied throughout Europe.

Her lips are pursed. Her fingers are poised, a rosary between two fingers. She squints, as if analyzing one thing. On her head, framing a face as burnished as porcelain, is a supple white wimple. It arches from the crown of her head and encloses her ears and neck; it expresses her constancy to her late husband and, what’s extra, her declare to his political authority. All the validity of her rule lies in that veil. It is piety, and it’s energy.

Margaret is buried within the Monastère de Brou, a palatial mausoleum she ordered constructed right here in Bourg-en-Bresse, about 280 miles southeast of Paris. And her instance serves because the set off for a sparky and rangy exhibition there that takes a really wide-angle view on one of the vital enduring and dispiriting controversies in up to date French society.

The present, “Veiled and Unveiled,” steps again from France’s up to date obsession with Muslim ladies’s gown to contemplate the numerous makes use of of head coverings in private and non-private life. With greater than 100 artistic endeavors, from classical antiquity to the current, it reveals how the veil can serve contrasting and typically contradictory functions, whether or not to mourn or to seduce, to guard one’s physique or to indicate one’s allegiances.

Margaret of Austria, one of the vital highly effective ladies in Renaissance Europe, as painted by the Flemish artist Bernard van Orley round 1518.CreditDEA/G. Dagli Orti, by way of Getty Images

The veil may be spiritual or secular, a marker of patriarchal dominance or particular person distinction. Above all, the present insists that the veil is by no means a “international” incursion into Europe, a mistake made by each severe writers like Michel Houellebecq and by a motley assortment of populists, extremists and out-and-out racists. It’s omnipresent within the artwork and literature of Europe and the Mediterranean — and rediscovering its place in antiquity and in all three main Western religions would possibly take a little bit of the sulfur out of this nation’s fixation on head scarves.

Since 1905, France has been an formally secular nation, and it forbids all public workers from sporting outward indicators of religiosity. But the veil specifically has particularly exercised France since 1989, when three youngsters have been barred from attending center college after refusing to take off their hijabs, setting off months of anguished, typically hysterical public debate.

It was the primary of numerous “veil affairs,” and on this century successive French governments handed two legal guidelines: one from 2004 that forbids the veil (in addition to the skullcap and enormous crosses) in faculties, and one other in 2010 banning full-face coverings such because the niqab in all public areas.And the freakouts maintain coming, most lately throughout a warmth wave in France this week. After a bunch of girls defied the town’s ban on the hooded “burkini” bathing go well with at a group pool, a authorities minister for equality stated the burkini sends “a political message that claims, ‘Cover your self up.’”

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