When a Niqab meant Freedom: las Tapadas, an old Non-Islamic Tradition

The first women’s strikes in Modern History, a Spanish South American Story.

by Katia Novella Miller

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As veils covering women’s faces and heads have become today the symbol of the most zealous fanatical Islamic regimes, and a symbol of female oppression, Islam is wrongly blamed for introducing them. In reality women were forced to wear veils in many cultures before the appearance of Islam in the seventh century CE. But even more astonishing, women’s veils have also been a symbol of female freedom, an emblem of seduction, as shown by las tapadas: a typical and quite unique clothing used by the women of Lima, the oldest capital of Colonial Spanish South America (1), founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro, worldwide known as the conqueror of the Inca Empire.

Twenty-five years after the foundation of the city, in 1560, women started to wear veils that covered their heads, faces and most of their bodies called manto and saya. A dress that made men and local and Iberian authorities angry but impotent in front of women’s determination to wear their favorite clothing and defend their freedom of movement across the city. In fact women were even able to prevent a ban on their garments of choice on many occasions.

The manto and saya of the tapadas, as those women were called (tapadas meaning covered), were made of different fabrics depending on the social status and wealth. It was a clothing introduced in the city by European women, but worn even by black slaves.

Some people have argued it was not a fashion trend as women kept wearing these garments uninterruptedly for more than three centuries, from 1560 until 1860. It was a clothing typical only of the city of Lima as the manto and saya were not worn in any other city of Spanish America. It was perhaps for this reason that Limeñan women were convinced that only people born in the city could make them.

The traditional street dress of Limeñan women was composed of two pieces: ”the saya that was an overskirt with lace and embroidery designs, with silk shawls with big coloured embroidery flowers, worn tight at the waist with green, blue, black or chestnut silk belts and raised to show off feet and ankles. And the manto, a thick veil fastened to the back of the waist; from there it was brought over the shoulders and head and drawn over the face so closely that all that was left uncovered was a small triangular space sufficient for one eye to peep through”, explains James Higgins in his book ‘Lima: a Cultural History.’ It was a dress that connoted insinuation, flirtation, prohibition and seduction.

It was a time in which the women of Lima – at least the ones who belonged to the upper classes – were more free than their sisters around the world. With saya y manto, one Limeña looked just like another, like two drops of dew.

In the book ‘A Pariah’s Pilgrimage’, printed in France in 1837, the French-Peruvian feminist and political activist Flora Tristan talked about the liberty provided by the manto y saya. Because a woman dressed that way “can go out alone and be easily confused with all the other women wearing manto y saya. She can even meet her husband in the street and he won’t recognize her. She intrigues him” or other men ”with her gaze, with her expression. She provokes him with phrases, and they converse. She is offered ice cream, fruit, cookies, a date. Then she leaves, and in a moment she’s chatting with an officer who’s walking down the same street. She can take this adventure as far as she likes without ever having to take off her veil.”

Flora Tristan wrote in her book – which was a sensation in literary Paris and sanctioned, among other things, the birth of the modern myth of the sensuality of South American women in France and in the non-Iberian Western world – that Limeñan women were freer than their Parisian counterparts. Wealthy women, for the time being, enjoyed remarkable freedoms. They smoked, bet money and rode horses when they wished. They had a considerable autonomy and lack of prejudice, even from a Parisian perspective. Even the nuns, in the cloistered convents – where Flora slept – enjoyed a freedom of manners and allowed themselves excesses that were not at all suited to their religious status, or to the image of an humiliated and vanquished woman, a mere appendage of their fathers or husbands that Flora, who grew up in France, had in her mind. Flora Tristan considered the dress of las tapadas the most sensual dress she had ever seen on the streets.

Undoubtedly the saya and manto facilitated transgressions, and it was for that reason that men, the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown attempted to ban the dress of las tapadas on more than one occasion, in 1561, 1583, 1586, during the seventeenth century… but women organised themselves and embraced general strikes, and the bans weren’t just ineffective, they actually prompted more use of the mantle and saya.

“It goes without saying that the Limeñas bore their flag with courage, and that the viceroys always went defeated, because successfully legislating on womanly things requires more force than attacking a barricade.”, wrote the Peruvian folklorist Ricardo Palma in the nineteenth century.

To defend their right to use their loved street costume when lawmakers first tried to ban it in 1561, the women of Lima did not protest. Rather, they simply stopped doing traditionally female work, turning the city upside down in just 24 hours.

But what exactly happened in 1561? “The domestic anarchy reigned. Women disregarded completely the care of the house, the stew was bland, the children couldn’t find their mother to wrap them up or to wipe their noses, husbands walked around with torn socks and shirts that were dirtier than a dishcloth.”, wrote Ricardo Palma. And this happened again and again in the course of the years, of the centuries.

Eventually, in 1860, the fashion from Paris arrived in Lima, and the tapadas dropped forever their coverings and adopted the Sevillian mantilla but only for some special occasions.

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The origin of las tapadas’ veils was in Spain. Even if the Tapadas dresses had its unique characteristics, its direct correspondent can be traced in Spain, precisely in Andalucia. In the city of Tarifa a very similar dress was used for any occasion, to go for a walk or to the Church, until 1936 when women dropped it. Differently than the South American manto and saya, it was just black, but as the famous limeñean outfit, the veils coverd the head and face, leaving only one eye in sight. This black dress was worn also in other Andalusian cities, like Jaen, Vejer de la Frontera, where these women were called ‘las cobijadas’. Documents bear witness that it was also used on the route to the Americas, in the Canary Islands at least since the sixteenth century (in the eighteenth century they were white, brown, and over the veil women wore hats as well). Even so, most experts believe the ancestry of this costume in the Iberian Peninsula can be found in Castile (Madrid, the region of the Spanish capital), where, like in Lima, this still popular clothing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was also called manto and saya. In Catalunya instead this female garment was called gonella.

The dynasty of the Hapsburg (Austria) was the first to prohibit the manto and saya in Spain.

Did this women’s head coverings arrive to Spain from Islam? Not at all. The triumph of Romanticism in 1830 wanted to see Spain as the main holder of Islamic traditions in Europe. In the nineteenth century many English travelers were looking for Arab remnants around the Iberian Peninsula. And those travelers saw this clothing and thought it was an old Islamic practice. Perhaps it’s due to this that the Arabic Channel Al Jazeera in a report on these Spanish female coverings affirmed that they were reminiscent of Spain’s Arab past (Al-Andalus), perhaps. But it’s not true.

An old non-Islamic tradition. Blaming Islam for introducing women’s head coverings is wrong as these outfits are a much older traditional costume. Women were used – or forced to– to cover their heads in Egypt, among the Sumerians, in Babylon, in Assyria, among the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans and the Persians centuries before the appearance of the Muslims prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

Among Jews prostitutes had to cover their heads (Genesis, Old Testament), but even married women used to wear them in front of their husbands (Rebekah, Genesis).

Women’s veils were one of the social habits Persians adopted from the Assyrians and maintained over the years. In ancient Persia noble women had to be covered when they went out in public.

In the Greco-Roman world married women covered their heads as a sign of respect to their husbands in religious ceremonies, not to do so was considered a frivolous act and a sexual provocation. In Sparta married women had to cover not only their heads, but their faces in public as well. But generally in Ancient Greece veils were not only a way to keep women in their place, women used them also to show status.

In Ancient Rome it was considered a good habit for upper class women to cover their heads when going out.

Veils were later adopted by the Christians: nun’s coverings are a reminiscence of that past and many medieval paintings and drawings depict them as a symbol of morality. In Arles, present-day Southern France, head veils simbolized decency; Isabeaus of Bavaria, queen of France, was depicted wearing veiling.

In present-day Great Britain for many centuries – until around 1175 AD – the Anglo-Saxon and later the Anglo-Norman women, with the exception of young unmarried girls, wore veils that entirely covered their hair, and often their necks up to their chins. Only in the Tudor period, around 1485, when hoods became increasingly popular, did veils become less common.

In Italy veils, including face veils, were worn in some regions until the 1970s.

Veils in the Islamic World. ”We associate the veil with what are now Islamic countries. It seems that the veil certainly originated in these areas around 3,000BC, in Babylon, Assyria, Sumer, in the Old Testament, but by 900BC the veil was also to be found in ancient Greece”, confirms Lloyd Llewellyn Jones in his book ‘The veiled woman of Ancient Greece’. In fact everything suggests that Muslims adopted women’s head and face coverings during their expansion, in the seventh century AD, when they got in contact with cultures in which women of the upper and upper middle classes used them (the transmission of culture follows mostly always this descendant stream).

But what does exactly does a veil, a niqab, a burka represent? As for all customs, undoubtedly it depends of the meaning an individual or a collective gives to an object, because a veil is just that: an object. Comparing the reasons why Limeña women worn veils – in the attempt to be freer and have fun within the patriarchal social context they lived in – and how other cultures used and use it – as a status symbol, as a symbol of submission or to hide a sexual head and body – prove this. Conventions are merely this: ideas, practices established by usage; accepted cultural conventions, but not truths.

Open and Free your mind!


(1) The city of Lima was founded in 1535. It was the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru which included Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. The Spanish Viceroyalties were large administrative territories, but not different colonies.

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