Tuesday, 24 March 2015

La Cobijada - a beautiful impostor.

La Cobijada - a beautiful impostor
 I was taking a walk in Vejer a little while ago when I met Eric and Barbara, a lovely couple from Canada. They told me how much they enjoyed this blog, and asked me why I hadn’t posted recently. 

When I began the blog, I intended to continue for just one year, covering the main social and cultural events in the town. These don’t change very much year on year, and so I decided that one year would be enough. However, thanks to Eric and Barbara, and several others who have missed the blog, I’ve decided to carry on for a while, and there is certainly plenty to write about. 

This time, I’d like to discuss the iconic figure of the Cobijada, Vejer’s covered lady. One of the town’s ceramic plaques describes her as ‘a glimpse of old al-Andalus’, and many observers have instinctively connected her flowing black costume with the burqa worn by some Moslem women. In fact, she is an impostor, with no real connections to Islamic Spain.

Covered women, 1926
The burqa, which came to our attention with the ascendency of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, has been worn by Afghani women for about 100 years, though the practice of veiling upper-class women dates back at least 4000 years in some parts of Arabia.  However, most women had to work in the fields, where a burqa would be an impediment, and to wear it was a sign of upper-class status, denoting a woman of importance. 

'Preparation for a wedding' Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928)
 Veiling women became important to Islam in the 11th century, but there is no evidence that the women of el-Andalus wore any garment resembling a burqa. Most of the images available to us now were created in the 19th century and express the prejudices of their time.

When I write about topics like this, I sometimes feel like a real party pooper, because there is no doubt that Vejer’s Moorish heritage has become an important part of the narrative the tourist industry has created around the town's history. As often happens, this tells us more about the present than the past. Since the nineteenth century, when the poet Lord Byron introduced the idea of Romantic orientalism to an admiring public, we westerners have been attracted to the idea of the Mysterious East, and this fascination culminated in the architecture of the Moorish Revival in the late nineteenth century.

It wasn’t always like that. After Vejer was reconquered in the thirteenth century, every effort was made to eradicate the remnants of the Islamic occupation in an early example of what we would now describe as 'ethnic cleansing'. Compared with the Roman occupation, and even the two thousand year old Tartessian culture, there are minimal physical remains of the Moslem era, and this clearly did not happen by accident. 

Dark and modest clothing was obligatory
for all Spanish women
After the area was reconquered in the mid thirteenth century, Moslems were expected to leave or convert. Most chose to leave, and it is calculated that by the 14th century, only 1% of the population was of Moslem origin. About 30% of the post-reconquista population left town when the area came under retaliatory attack from Moorish fighters between 1264 and 1300. For about half a century, Vejer was a military garrison, populated mainly by men, before the area was repopulated by families from northern Spain.

By the end of the Reconquista in 1492, hatred of Jews and Moslems had already descended into racist paranoia. ‘Conversos’, those who converted to Christianity, were mistrusted, and ‘limpieza de sangre’ (purity of blood) was enforced from 1449, prohibiting those of non-Christian heritage from taking public office. Commoners who could show descent from the Visigoths were raised to the nobility, and in the days before DNA testing, pedigrees were hastily assembled or invented to support claims of racial purity. ‘Purity of blood’ continued to be a criterion for entry into the Spanish armed forces until the nineteenth century.

A Spanish lady goes to Mass with her maid.

The emphasis on racial purity had enormous implications for women. Racism brought with it a terror of inter-racial sexuality, with its consequent ‘pollution’ of blood. Women were responsible for upholding the family honour, and their men were expected to control them. They were closely guarded and ‘modest’ clothing was regulated by law as in some Islamic states today. 

All this means that rather than a gradual evolution from Islamic to Christian culture, the breach was violent, sudden and comprehensive. By the sixteenth century, Spain was asserting itself as a bulwark of Catholicism. The Inquisition was set up to police religious correctness, and people would do anything within their means to refute claims that they had Moorish blood. Spain became defiantly and even belligerently Christian. Nobody was about to announce Islamic cultural affiliations by wandering around in a burqa. Not even in a quiet backwater like Vejer.
Christian nuns - The Sisters of Mary Immaculate Queen

So where do the Cobijada coverings originate, and why do they so closely resemble the burqa, chador or niqab worn today by some Moslem women? The answer lies in our shared religious heritage. Jewish women in ancient times were expected to cover their heads whenever they left their homes - according to the Law of Moses, a woman was regarded as immodest ‘If she goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or speaks with any man.’

This principle survived into the Christian and Islamic faiths which developed from Judaism, and was strongly stated by the Christian evangelist St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘For if the woman is not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.’ 

Covered woman, Tarifa, 19th century
The custom of women covering themselves, whose roots are probably cultural rather than ideological, was adopted by the emerging Islamic faith in the 7th century, though ironically, the Qur’an is less specific about this than the Bible, stating only that ‘they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands.’

Right into the twentieth century, it was customary for women in all Christian countries to cover their heads and their hair. My mother was one of the rebel post-war generation who dared to go bare-headed in the street, though no woman of her generation would have gone hatless into a church.

This is why Christian nuns cover themselves with wimple and veil, many Moslem women wear the burqa or the niqab and Orthodox Jewish women dress modestly and cover their heads. ‘Modesty’ is also required of men, but it takes a different form. 

The coverings we now associate with the Cobijada became fashionable in Madrid in the eighteenth century and the fashion spread south to Andalucia. They soon became the customary outdoor wear of ordinary women, not just in Vejer but all along the coast from Tarifa to Cádiz. This style was also popular in other parts of Spain.

La Cobijada survived longer in Andalucía than in other parts of Spain because the area was very poor. Clothing was passed down from mother to daughter, patched, pressed and altered for each new generation.

Modern coverings lined with red satin.
The Cobijada coverings consist of two parts - the manto, a sleeveless cape which covers the upper body, and the saya, a long, pleated skirt, gathered at the waistband. The garments were made of gabardine, and like the burqa, provided ‘instant respectability’ for any woman who needed to leave the house for while. It was a smart and useful outfit, and could be lined with satin to make it more comfortable. Its fitting waist and sensuous folds emphasised a feminine shape while maintaining a touch of mystery.

The manto could be loosed from the woman’s top and allowed to hang over her skirt when she needed to use her hands and arms, and she could also pull it over her head and hold it closed with her teeth, one eye peeping out as in the standard depiction. In many ways, it was a useful flirting accessory. But the Cobijada clothing was banned in the early twentieth century when civil unrest made it useful for disguising weapons, and the outfit began a steady decline. It was initially discouraged by the Franco regime which opposed regional culture and in the austere first years of the regime the garments were cut up and made into other things. 

Although Cobijada women could still be seen in Vejer in the 1970s, these women were older and in general they kept their coverings for certain special occasions. Nowadays, there is a resurgence in the popularity of the costume and an annual competition to find the senior and junior Cobijadas of the year. La Cobijada has become a Vejer icon and one of the things which give the town its special identity.

Moorish and Christian women play chess in Islamic Spain
A pre-reconquista image shows a Moslem and a Christian women playing chess together. Their clothes are surprisingly similar, but there’s one important difference. While Christian women were expected to wear long skirts, the Moslem woman wears baggy trousers under a tunic. This is the real difference between Christian and Moslem dress. While a Christian woman could be punished and even burned for wearing trousers, many Middle Eastern women were expected to wear them, and they are still normal wear for some women in the region.

Blanca Gortari's colourful Cobijadas.