NEW YORK — Beginning this week Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City will exhibit Veil(s): A Photographic Overview. This striking series of photographs illustrates differing depictions (and perceptions) of veiled women in the Middle East. The exhibit will run through March 13.
The photo collection is the work of Lebanese American University's Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), which has been at the heart of the university's mission since the early1970s. The exhibit features veiled women from across the region from the 19th century to the present.
"There is no singular definition of the veil," explained Mona Chemali Khalaf, the Institute's director when Veil(s) was first assembled in 2005. "Veiling was, in fact, practiced widely in ancient Mesopotamia, Greco-Roman, Assyrian and Byzantine empires, where it was considered a mark of prestige and a symbol of status."
The women depicted in Veil(s) are Christian, Jewish and Muslim, challenging the notion that only Muslim women wear the veil. The women come from all walks of life; some are veiled for religious reasons, while others consider their veils part of a fashionable identity. Veils are not limited to one economic class; the wealthy, middle class and poor are all shown wearing some form of covering, just as they did in antiquity.
Veil(s) is part of a series of events underway at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church intended to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding. Information on the interfaith events—which includes a three-part film series beginning Feb. 3—is available at www.fapc.org.
"In this volatile world, flash points between the major religious faiths seem to pop up at least once a week," said the Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston, senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. "Interfaith conversations and experiences lay the foundation for respect and trust."
The exhibit also examines the reasons women use the veil. Some say they feel liberated or closer to their beliefs for donning their veils. Others criticize what they say is excessive exposure of women in the West.
"I am the only woman in my family who is veiled," says K.B., a young businesswoman in Beirut and one of the women whose testimonies are included in the companion guide to the exhibit. "I feel completely transformed. I am in a way liberated, protected, more mature; and definitely, more serene."
"Young Muslim women are reclaiming the hijab," says N.M., a Canadian-born Muslim woman, "reinterpreting it in light of its original purpose—to give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies."
This positive view of veiling is also challenged in Veil(s), however; many women recount the experiences of their mothers and grandmothers, whose lives were heavily restricted by their veils. Cultural tradition demanded these women to be almost completely covered.
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (FAPC) and Lebanese American University have had a long relationship before their collaboration on Veil(s). The church has provided benevolence grants to IWSAW as part of its efforts to improve the lives and prospects of women in Lebanese prisons. FAPC has often been at the forefront of inter-faith understanding. Ron Cruikshank, a former trustee and elder at FAPC, as well as a former trustee at LAU and a current member of the IWSAW advisory board, played an integral role in putting together the exhibit.
"What I love about both Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and LAU is how both institutions embrace the notion of inclusiveness, promote diversity and encourage dialogue." Cruikshank said. "These are extremely important attributes in this day and age and I'm proud to be associated with both of these great organizations and proud of the work that they do."
LAU's roots also extend to the wider Presbyterian Church. Sarah Lanman Huntington Smith, the wife of a Presbyterian missionary, founded the school that became LAU in the 19th century, during Ottoman rule, giving girls in what is now Lebanon a chance to improve their prospects through education. That legacy exists in the mission of the university to this day. Today LAU is a leading private higher education institution in Lebanon that operates under a charter from the Board of Regents of the State University of New York. It is fully accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. LAU has seven schools of study offering a dynamic range of academic programs taught by highly skilled faculty on two campuses in Beirut and Byblos, Lebanon.