Learning from Las Tapadas of Yesterday

Western writers have always had a fascination for veiled women. Read any explorers’ diaries on their experiences with “exotic” women who cover their hair and their face. But few people realize the parallels between the exotic veiled women of yesteryear and the veiled Muslim women of today.

An illustration of Las Tapadas. Image from La Biblioteca Nacional del Peru.

An interesting example of this is found in what is know as “las tapadas Limeñas.” Literally meaning “the covered girls from Lima,” las tapadas Limeñas walked through the streets of Lima on the nineteen century and attracted hundreds of curious visitors through their “exotic” clothing (pictured at left). Las tapadas Limeñas were women who covered all their body with long skirts called sayas, and covered their hair and face with a long veil called manto (Biblioteca Nacional de Peru). The manto was arranged in a way that would let the woman keep one eye uncovered, allowing her to see.

Although the tradition does not exist anymore, it has caught the curious attention of many Westerners, who see it as an exotic custom. French fashion substituted the tapada tradition, but Phillipe Bernes-Laserre explains that las tapadas Limeñas were common among the elites that arrived from Spain, probably escaping prosecution.

Something interesting to note is that Bernes-Laserre explains that las tapadas Limeñas are a legacy of Moorish Spain. Thus, the attire was not only meant to be modest and to protect women from unwanted attention, but also to conceal the skin color. In Bernes-Laserre’s article, Alicia Águila explains that the clothing also protected women’s virtue and allowed them to have an active role in public life. In addition, the Boletín de New York affirms that the attire was used as a seductive way that made men wonder about the girl behind the veil.How are these women similar to Muslim women in the West? The Boletín de New York explains that in the Limean context of the time, being so covered in Peru was against the protocol; thus, women were asked to uncover in order to protect the status quo. Las tapadas Limeñas were asked not to enter churches and temples, and the government tried to prohibit the attire in 1561. Nonetheless, as the article mentions, these women had enough self-assertion to make such a protest that the government had to back off.

Today, we still face these issues. Muslim women are asked to uncover for many reasons. For example, from secular perspectives, religious symbols have no place in the state; while from a security perspective, women put themselves and others at risk by threatening mainstream practices.

Something that collaborates with these perceptions is how the media talk about veiled women. While in the context of las Limeñas tapadas, outsiders wrote about them as exotic creatures and fantasized about them, Muslim women have stopped being exotic and instead have become threatening in the eyes of some outsiders. Today the veil has become a symbol of oppression and violence, and that has been reinforced by the media and sad stories about veiled women. Nonetheless, this is one more challenge, as it was for las tapadas Limeñas .

Just like the las tapadas Limeñas , Muslim women have fought for their right to veil in many settings. The veil has actually transcended the religious meaning, to become a political symbol of resistance. Unfortunately, veiled women cannot wear the veil in public schools in France and Turkey. In addition, European countries with large Muslim populations have begun banning the veil.

Something that Muslim women of today can learn from las tapadas of yesterday is that it was self-assertion and strong principles that led las tapadas to fight for their right to wear the attire and participate in public life; and at the end, they were successful. Therefore, it is up to Muslim women to decide what the veil means for themselves.

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