During and following the Reconquista of Spain and Portugal, Morisco women donned traditional veils and heavy layers of clothing reminiscent of their Moorish roots and appeared to go about their lives as newly minted Catholics. But their existence was much like their clothing, shrouded from full view, at once both familiar and foreign. Their presence reminded the Castilians that there were limits to the control of Morisco cultural and religious devotion. It was an idea that both attracted and repelled, creating with it a sort of mystique.
Encapsulated in Morisco veiling, Castilian women took up the practice, adopting it to their own uses evolving into tapadas, a type of veiling that covered the entire face, leaving only a single eye exposed.1 Interestingly enough, Castilian women who popularized the style embraced the same two-fold experience, becoming enticingly exotic yet threatening. More importantly, women dressed in tapadas found freedom in the act of veiling, a sense that through hiding they maintained an internal freedom. Morisco women found much the same sense of internal sovereignty with the act of covering their bodies and faces, which reflected their hidden lives.
Their internal worlds became the singular authentic place of existence for Morisco culture.
It was also a rejection of patriarchal power by disrupting male view and judgment of female appearance. More importantly, it provided a limited but hidden space for the continuation of Morisco culture and religious practice. What was once the inner space of women, in the absence of the male outer space, became the container of Morisco will, identity and rebellion. Morisco women created internal sanctuaries not only within themselves, but their homes, families and communities. Their internal worlds became the singular authentic place of existence for Morisco culture.
Once part of the dominant ruling culture of the region, Morisco’s came to occupy a peripheral existence that inspired an excess of suspicion and hostility from Castilian Catholics. The suspicion was not entirely unfounded. Within the home, Morisco mothers continued to teach traditions as well as the Arabic language. Publicly, the adherence to Christian practices took the place of Muslim worship, but not necessarily within the home. But this activity came with great risk. Under the culture of the Inquisition, Moriscos who were found to practice Islam were questioned, usually under torture and executed. It went beyond mere religion, reading and writing in Arabic and later donning traditional Morisco clothing could result in execution. By the mid-16th century, Morisco society could only exist in increasingly smaller confines. The dwindling space had occurred slowly with the erosion of the Caliphate. It was a reflection of the very space of an empire turned kingdom, then eaten up by Christendom until it no longer existed at all. Even before the completion of the Reconquista, the sense of Moorish loss resounded in the formerly great Caliphate as a harbinger of Morisco fate.
Those radiant cheeks are veiled in woe,
A shower descends from every eye,
And not a starting tear can flow,
That wakes not an attending sigh.
Fortune, that whilom owned my sway,
And bowed obsequious to my nod,
Now sees me destined to obey,
And bend beneath oppression’s rod.2
Despite the greater loss, Morisco culture dug in stubbornly and grew into active revolt. When the second rebellion at Alpujarra begun in 1568, Morisco women continued to play a significant role. Mary Elizabeth Perry discusses the amazonian presence of Zarcamodonia, a Morisco woman who worked as an envoy between Morisco and Ottoman forces, “it shows how women played many active roles as wartime overturned the gender order.”3 In fact, the Morisco female warrior identity was prevalent at Alpujarra. Just as Morisco women maintained culture and community, their participation in the rebellion exemplified the rebellion of an entire people. They had, after all, maintained the heart of Morisco culture under threat of torture and execution. Why stop there? In the absence of weapons, women used whatever they could find to arm themselves, stones and roasting spits were documented by Christians.4
They were the great mosques, palaces and artwork of places like Cordoba, gobbled up, kept alive and vivid within the flesh of womanhood.
I’ve come to see Zarcamodonia and the Morisco women like her, as more than women, but the living remnants of Moorish Spain. They were the former Caliphate and the echo of the greatness of the Islamic Empire. They were the great mosques, palaces and artwork of places like Cordoba, gobbled up, kept alive and vivid within the flesh of womanhood. They were intolerable and enticing all at once. No matter how the mosques were painted anew and rebranded as places of Christian worship, they were like these women, merely veiled, hiding and ready to burst forth in rebellion at any moment.
Clearly, the Christian Castilians felt the same.5