A recurring theme in many of the recent (March 2006) tales sent in to this site has been that of masks worn as part of keeping women in purdah. It started when I read Michelle's magnum opus (not about veiling by and large and thus not on this site) 'A Tale of Two Sisters' which mentioned an Arabian princess being forced to wear a mask from puberty up until marriage. The idea excited me and so I penned the vignette 'The Mask' which can now be found in the bazaar. Similarly inspired was Bo_Emp who has masks as a major theme in his tale 'Not Without My Daughter' (also in the bazaar).

Both tales are of course ficticious, but how much truth is there in 'mask purdah'? Bo_emp mentions Bandar-e-Abbas in Southern Iran as being a centre of mask-veiled ladies. Searching on the web I discovered that these masks are not to be worn permanently however. Here's a photo and a description from

Another local tradition, which is bound to disappear within a very few years, are the masks worn by some old women. They are fairly hideous, semi-rigid contraptions, surrounding eyes and cheek-bones and covering the nose. They remind one of the facial armour worn by the Greek soldiers of Antiquity. But although this coastal area must have witnessed the homeward march of Alexander's exhausted columns, it would be too bold perhaps to trace these masks back to Alexander's soldiers! The Iranians maintain that no religious taboo explains the wearing of these masks: rather is it a fashion which originates from the period of the Portuguese occupation when ladies wished to walk about unrecognized or simply to protect their complextion from the scorching sun.

Here's another description, from Oskar Speck's travelogue:

During the next 500 miles along the Persian coast to Bandar Abbas, I saw much of the life lived by the people of the Gulf. From the age of 12, all women wear masks made of black material.

Only once did I see a Persian woman without this mask, and she was the wife'the very temporary wife'of a Persian Customs official.

So, was it the Europeans who after all brought the mask to Bandar? Possibly, although I suspect that the Arabs just across the Gulf had something more to do with it. Below is a photo of a batula, widely worn by women in Oman and other parts of Arabia. Notice the similarities?

Bo_Emp has sent this:

Regarding the Persian Gulf, masks are described by the Danish etnograph Henny Harald Hansen in her non-scientific book "Islams kvindeslør" (Veils of women in Islam), 1993. I copy the chapter about masks (my translation from Danish):

The mask of the Gulf.

The veils of women described until this point (in previous chapters) share the fact they are a part of the muslim women's dress worn outside the home. They were removed along with the body covering dress, and were under no circumstance worn inside the boarders of the home. The mask of the Gulf is used quite differently. With small differences of design the mask is worn by women on both sides of the Persian Gulf, which is from Kuwait to Oman, with the most delicate design seen at women of the United Arab Emirates.

I first saw the Gulf mask in 1960 in Manama, capital of the oil island Bahrain. Accompagnied by two american nurses, hired by the ruler to reduce the infant mortality of the island, I visited a young mother of the middle class. In spite of, or even if there were only women present, and we were inside a house, the young woman wore a black face mask, which covered her face from the hairline to the chin. The mask was fastened with strings around the woman's head. It had eye holes like our carnival masks, but had a length that covered the mouth. It was made of black cloth, and made rigid by three rods, one along the nose and the other two inserted on each side.

This mask was apperantly not a removable part or a part of the street clothes, which like a portable harem followed, and in some places still today follow a muslim woman, when she leaves the home. The mask was and is today along the Persian Gulf a part of the dress or an addition to the ordinary dress, which is worn from puberty, and only removed during sleep and in intimate situations. The mask is the muslim woman's covering of the mouth, which here is counted within the erogenous zones of the body. According to tradition it is not shown in public, not even in the company of women.

The result of adult women constantly wearing a mask is or becomes, a for us in the western world, an almost unthinkable social anonymity. A woman is identified through her eyes, her voice, her gestures and her build, but she has no face, not even to her closest relatives.

The description do not explain the origin of the mask, but gives a feeling of how it is to be with a masked woman.
Who writes "The faceless town"?

Best regards


And of course, there are other types of masks in use all over Islam. This is from Mali:

However, like in the tale 'The Mask' was masking as a permanent thing ever practiced? Michelle maintains that she read that it was, somewhere in India she suspects, but neither of us can find any evidence now. Do you know anything about it? Email us at TOTV and we'll post any updates!



And now here's a response from Bo_Emp (March 2006):

I never heard of masks worn by girls in India, but would like to be informed if someone find something. I remember however to have read that unmarried girls (women according to following link) in Venice (Venezia, Italy) at the times where rich Venetians wore masks and cloaks all year - not just for Carnival in February - were kept chaste and modest by wearing the Moretta mask.

Moretta Masks

More Italian Masks

Here are two historical drawings of them being worn and also a picture of a genuine black moretta. Nice!

mor1 mor2 black moretta

An excellent idea for a story. Please use it.

(Which actually happened in June 2006 with 'Moretta' by Bo_Emp)


Elisa Maria has also responded to our plea, this time with some pictures:

These two images show a fascinating mask from Africa that I am sure can be used as inspiration for a blood-curdling veiled tale.


And two random yet interesting masks to further whet the appetite. More later!


In Dec 2010 we received this feature (

An amazing find of an Elizabethan ‘visard mask

daventry mask
The Daventry Mask

Imagine the look of surprise on the face of Julie Cassidy the Northamptonshire when she was presented with one of the most unexpected finds she will ever see. In front of her was an Elizabethan ‘visard mask’ that had been found within the walls of a structure believed to date to the 16th Century.

A Visard mask, was worn by gentlewomen in the 16th and possibly into the early 17th centuries. The mask was found during the renovation of an inner wall of a 16th century stone building.

The wall was approximately 4-foot thick, and the mask was found concealed within the inner hard core of the wall, which consisted of soil, straw and horse hair (for insulation). The mask was folded in half, lengthways, and placed within a small rectangular niche behind the face of the wall. Due to the conditions when found, the mask has an amount of soil and straw adhering to one half. The opposite half still has the velvet material in relatively good condition, but is in need of some conservation to prevent further damage.

Oval in plan at 195mm in length, 170mm in width. The eyes are lentoid in shape, at 30mm wide and 15mm high. The mouth is 48mm wide, widening in the centre to make a gap for the nose. The nose area is strengthened to stand out and form a case around the wearer's nose. The mask weighs 32.4g (although this weight is inaccurate as a true weight due to the amount of soil and straw adhering to one side). The outer fabric is black velvet. The lining is silk. The inside is strengthened by a pressed-paper inner. The three layers are stitched together by a black cotton thread. On the lining, just below the centre of the mouth, is a loose thread of white cotton. This cotton would have held the black glass bead (found in association with the mask).

The bead is 10mm in diameter and weighs 1.42g. There is some wear at the hole, which is 3mm in diameter. The black glass bead was used to hold the mask in place. With a lack of holes to allow string or elastic to be put around the head, the mask would have instead been held in place by the wearer holding the black bead in her mouth.

An excerpt from Phillip Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses, published in 1583, he wrote: "When they use to ride abrod, they have invisories, or masks, visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, he would think hee met a monster or a devil; for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them".

Another Elizabethan scholar, Randle Holme, wrote: "A mask . . . This is a thing that in former times Gentlewomen used to put over their Faces when they travel to keep them from Sun burning.

Visard Mask, which covers the whole face, having holes for the eyes, a case for the nose, and a slit for the mouth, and to speak through; this kind of Mask is taken off and put in a moment of time, being only held in the Teeth by means of a round bead fastned on the inside over against the mouth.

These masks rarely survive. One parallel can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the form of a 17th century dolls mask, belonging to the collection of Lady Chapman. This example is almost identical to our mask. Another is held at Norwich Musuem, although their example is more crudely made than the one described here.

With regard to the masks deposition within the walls of a 16th century building, the University of Southampton is currently researching such concealed items. The practice of placing a shoe was common in 16th and 17th century house building. It was also was also common the practice to concealing elaborate artifacts, or multiple associated artifacts, as 'witch deposits'.

Researchers at The University of Southampton believe "These objects may have been concealed as a protective device to ward off evil and other maleficent forces or they may have been used as counter-magic to deflect a curse or other negative circumstance, such as illness or economic blight considered to be the consequence of malevolent spirits or witches, e.g. the use of witch bottles, charms and curses. The objects may also have been viewed as 'lucky things', perhaps heirlooms from an ancestor or from another person considered to be spiritually powerful and so they were perceived as lucky for the household.

Another theory is builders involved in constructing or altering a building or the householders themselves just want to leave their 'mark'?" 

 Many thanks to Portable Antiquities Scheme website for the information on this find
For more information: