- But a veiled woman is seldom seen in Egypt or in many parts of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, or the Sudan. And as respectable housewives have abandoned the veil, in some of these Middle Eastern countries prostitutes have put it on. They indicate their availability by manipulating the veil in flirtatious ways, but as Burton pointed out more than a century ago, prostitues are not the first to discover the veil's seductiveness. Like women's garments in the West, the veil can be sturdy, utilitarian, and forbidding- or it can be filmy and decorative, hinting at the charms beneath it.
~Readings for Sociology, Fifth Edition, edited by Garth Massey, page 169
יד וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה: כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.
14 And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, [emph. mine] and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife.
טו וַיִּרְאֶהָ יְהוּדָה, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לְזוֹנָה: כִּי כִסְּתָה, פָּנֶיהָ.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; for she had covered her face. [emph. mine].
~Genesis 38: 14-15
Judah knew Tamar to be sexually available due to the fact that she was wearing a veil. It seemed clear she was a harlot because she was sitting at the crossroads of a public place.
Now, of course our immediate thought was for other places in Tanakh in which characters wear veils. The place which comes to mind is that of Rebecca donning a veil immediately prior to her first meeting with Isaac. While some might initially think this is simply an action performed out of maidenly modesty, it is actually consistent with the notion that donning the veil symbolizes sexual availibility. Note the dialogue between Rebecca and Eliezer:
סה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל-הָעֶבֶד, מִי-הָאִישׁ הַלָּזֶה הַהֹלֵךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִקְרָאתֵנוּ, וַיֹּאמֶר הָעֶבֶד, הוּא אֲדֹנִי; וַתִּקַּח הַצָּעִיף, וַתִּתְכָּס.
65 And she said unto the servant: 'What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us?' And the servant said: 'It is my master.' And she took her veil, and covered herself. [emph. mine]
~Genesis 24: 65
One would think that if Rebecca simply desired to be modest, she would have worn her veil during the entire duration of the trip, in the presence of Eliezer or any other men in order to demonstrate that she was reserved for her husband alone. However, she only dons the veil once Eliezer has informed her the man she is about to meet is his master, her future husband. The subsequent verses seem to suggest that Isaac consummated his marriage with her, even bringing her into his mother's tent (Genesis 24: 67).
Donning a veil is also noted in the famous midrash that explains the fact that Jacob was deceived as to whom he was marrying and ended up marrying Leah as opposed to Rachel. She wore a veil at her wedding and perhaps the veil's function serves throughout the sexual interaction (from the wedding through the consummation of the marriage.)
This is interesting in context of the Gemara's understanding of what it means to marry another and the way in which chupah is understood. The Perisha understands chupah as stemming from the word "chofeh," meaning to cover or protect. It is used here to indicate the fact that once the woman enters into the domain of her husband, he then accepts upon himself the responsibility of caring for and protecting her (we will see that this statement of the Perisha can work for other views as well)." [Source] Our practice allows for the fulfillment of this; it is the reason behind our doing bedeken, which is the groom's covering of his bride's face with a veil. "Before what we call the chupah is the "bedeken" (from the German meaning "to cover"; not from the Hebrew for "to check"), where the groom brings the veil down over the face of the bride. While there are several reasons for this practice, the fact that it may constitute chupah [emph. mine] has led some poskim to require that two witnesses be designated for this part of the ceremony as well as for everything that follows." [Source]
With this in mind, it seems clear that the donning of a veil was and is a symbol for sexual availability. Tamar donned a veil and Judah understood her to be sexually available due to this (i.e. the fact that she had "covered her face.") Rebecca specifically donned a veil before meeting her future husband. Leah is said to have worn a veil at her wedding and perhaps afterwards as well and we nowadays even have certain opinions who say that the man convering his bride's face with a veil consitutes chupah. Hence, contrary to the opinions that may make sense to us at first blush (that is, that Tamar wore a veil simply to disguise herself from Judah or that Rebecca wore a veil out of modesty) it makes more sense to say that the veil is a symbol of sexual availability.