Freedom from the veil


by Frances Denz

When I got to High School I was introduced to the world of young ladies. Looking back, the sexism was acute.   Boys High School were allowed to do Greek, whereas our top subject was Latin. I didn’t want to do Greek – but I did want it to be my choice to refuse to do it.

Dress code was absolute. A hat or beret and gloves were required if you wore your coat or blazer. We wore gym frocks and at the beginning of every term we had kneel and have it measured – half an inch above the ground. And regular checks to ensure we were wearing the required heavy cotton knit bloomers were made – all very humiliating.

I first became aware of my feminist militancy when I decided that I was not going to sing any of the male oriented, or colonialist hymns. “Stand up Stand up for Jesus, ye Soldiers of the Cross was one, and “and did those feet on ancient lands” was another. I just stayed seated while the whole school sang what I considered enslavement hymns

We were rigorously kept away from boys. Our start, finishing and lunch times were designed so we never met. We were not allowed in cafes in town. And coffee bars were totally sinful and could get one suspended. This was Dunedin.

Does this sound a bit like the current situation in Islamic countries? Dress codes, and absolute control over contact with the male species?

If we went to the only social life in town, the Bible Class Dance, our parents took us, and picked us up afterwards or, if we went with a boy, the poor guy was subjected too with an interview with Dad. Many chickened out before the night and developed a cold!

When I went nursing at the grand age of 17 we had to “live in”. We were trusted with people’s lives, but not to go out with men. We were entitled to one all night leave and one late leave (11pm) or two all night leaves a week.

There were some traditions which I realise now were taken over wholesale from a nunnery. Our caps were an outward sign that we were junior and when you graduated from being a nurse to being a staff nurse you got to wear the veil, which remained your headgear when you reached promotion as a ‘sister’.  

Nursing was only for unmarried women. The moment you got married you had to give up your training. Immediately. And it was the same but worse if you got pregnant without getting married.

And let us remember the rites of marriage, some of which are still current! First of course is the practice of not being seen by the husband to be the day before the wedding. What does that reflect? That he was marrying someone he didn’t know. We walked down the aisle wearing a veil over our face, and trailing a long train held up by little girls in white. Training to be brides, all pure and angelic. Then came “love honour and obey”. I struggled with the word obey, and finally gave in to my husband to be’s request that I say it when he promised never to insist that I did obey him. But of course I did because I had promised before God to do so. And when the instruction was given “you may kiss the bride” the husband carefully lifted the veil from her face to behold the beauty he had married.

And then the ultimate act of disempowerment – changing the surname. We were now a chattel, owned by a man, and therefore lost our own identity. And our friends all changed their names too, which meant that if you didn’t know who they married you couldn’t find them, and were therefore cut off from our friends and support networks

We became “the wife”. But I loved my wedding. I felt safe in the love of my husband. I now had proof that I could catch a husband. In fact I felt triumphant! Little did I know that once the veil was lifted there were some nasty fishhooks in being a chattel. And total lack of power in the courts was one of the nasty surprises. We were chattels, owned by our husband and our job was to provide him with his “conjugal rights”. In other words the court required women to provide sex in return for having a ring on our finger. Sex was the husband’s right, and could (and was) enforced by the courts. This was abolished in about 1973 after the court in the Hague decreed that this was an abuse of Human Rights.

Even worse was the process of divorce. In those days one had to prove the other party guilty by producing evidence in court. And in every divorce court in the country were nasty weaselly reporters for that terrible paper “The Truth” which reported every sordid detail of every divorce case in their paper. We were not physically stoned, but the attack by the media felt like it. Nothing was secret. We were all hung out to dry in public. And the paper sold in the hundreds of thousands as people drooled over other’s misfortune.

My Mother in Law of the time was a very strong woman. She had been the first female owner and editor of a newspaper but after a few years in that role decided she wanted to be an Anglican Priest. There were none anywhere in the world. Her first step through the Church bureaucracy was to become an Anglican Deacon. Part of her “uniform” was a veil. She wore this for a while, while she established herself within the hierarchy and then made the decision that a veil was a very sexist object, and in about 1970 she stopped wearing it. This interested me as I didn’t see why wearing the veil would keep you down. I thought it was good marketing actually! But she was working to the longer view which was to be a priest. And she was, very quietly, redefining the job. Several years later she achieved her goal to become a priest after a very bitter fight with the male hierarchy, but the Bishop sent her to the outer area of the region by the Bishop to stop risk of contagion.

If we worked it was for pin money – small amounts that we could spend on ourselves.

After my marriage break up, I found that I was even more of a non person. I couldn’t get credit! The local Trust Bank required the husband’s photo on my credit card. No husband, no credit.

When I did finally leave the area and went to Wellington in 1990 and got a good job paying $40,000 I had the chance of buying a house. But I didn’t really. The banks said “you are contractor therefore we won’t give you an overdraft unless your husband signs as guarantee” “I have no husband” “Oh dear, what about your father then?” I was in my mid forties. “He died in 1961” “Well haven’t you got a man behind you?” “No”. All the banks but one refused me. One came to the party because the manager knew me personally and he did some fancy footwork in the paper war to make it happen.

In 1989 the local Rotary Club which wouldn’t have me as a member because I was a woman, sent a letter around to all its members saying that as there was a shortage of jobs they recommended that the following be the order of appointment.

  1. Married men
  2. Single men
  3. Single women
  4. Married women.
  5. Divorced women need not apply

We did have legislation disallowing such blatant discrimination, which I pointed out to them, and they withdrew the instructions. But it had been said, and nothing took that away.

By my calculation we are less than fifty years ahead (at the most) of women in the Islamic world. That is not long enough to be a tradition set in concrete. We have mostly cast aside the veil with much of what was hidden underneath it as well. We are not totally free and equal yet, but we are heading that way.   We have had to fight to release ourselves from the captivity of the veils. At the time we thought the veil gave us safety. It was not really a safety blanket. It was a prison.

I will fight to keep the freedom we have gained over the last fifty years. I fought for freedom. It is a very personal battle. The veil must not return to our country. We must protect our way of life and grow the potential that freedom creates.

8a0a27_b30faa27dbf54d3b84588ccf44fe5b4dAs a Maori Woman of Ngati Tuwharetoa and Tainui descent, Frances has worked with many Maori organisations.

She is the author of “Women at the Top” which New Zealand’s first Prime Minster Jenny Shipley described as a ‘gutsy, pertinent and timely book”.

In 2013 Frances was admitted as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year’s Queens Honours. Later that year Frances was presented with Excellence in Tertiary Teaching Award by the Prime Minister at a function at Parliament. Frances is Senior New Zealand of the Year.

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