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Home > Culture and Society

Thinly Veiled

22 July 2006

'Multiculturalism tells us that it is rude and insensitive to be critical of such garb, and that we must tolerate and even celebrate difference... I understand that in a free society they are entitled to dress as they please, just as I am. But I also understand that in a free society I am at liberty to say that the values these outfits imply are repulsive and insulting to me.'
- Deborah Orr, The Independent
'A Muslim woman may wear whatever she pleases in the presence of her husband and family or among women friends. But when she goes out or when men other than her husband or close family are present she is expected to wear a dress which will cover [her hair and] all parts of her body, and not reveal her figure. What a contrast with Western fashions which every year concentrate quite intentionally on exposing yet another erogenous zone to the public gaze!'
- Sehmina Jaffer Chopra, 'Liberation by the Veil', studentofknowledge.com


Last week Deborah Orr wrote an article explaining why the sight of a woman in the Muslim garb of hijab offends her. The debate in the letters page of The Indie and elsewhere has been sizzling ever since. There have been sarcastic suggestions that if Muslim women are covered up to avoid inciting male lust, children should lead their fathers blindfold along the street; there have been furious rebuttals from Muslims, and the article itself was immediately put onto the Islamophobia Watch site. It's a depressingly familiar hysterical kerfuffle, and as such we want to leave it alone. But in this case, the very reluctance to get into it is the reason why we probably should. Bugger.

It is an awesomely daunting task to try and talk or write or even really think about Islam as a non-Muslim. It's a mysterious element of our lives, and so complex that even its own scholars argue the decades away on its finest points. There's even debate over what precisely constitutes the jilbab, the garment or garments or head-coverings that fulfil the requirements of hijab, or 'modest dress' (something expected of all Muslims, male and female). Naturally there are a range of views as to what hijab should be, although as far as we can gather it is meant to cover all but the face and hands. The covering of the face with a small opening for the eyes, or a full veil obscuring the entire face, are apparently chosen by women who wish to display their piety that bit further. (Forgive us if we're getting anything wrong.) Anyway, it must be the most scrutinised sartorial issue in the world today. And while we found Orr's piece rather needlessly provocative and asinine in places, obscuring her otherwise fairly reasonable wording - there's an embarrassing 'auditioning for the Islamic "Blues Brothers"' bit in there - we were forced to acknowledge it chimed with us. We can't walk past a woman swathed in black, eyes just visible in a pale sliver of skin, without something in us turning over a tiny bit. But we'd like to understand why we have this gut reaction, rather than quip tartly about John Belushi.

As kneejerk fodder goes, flinching from the hijab seems like a liberal luxury. We're not talking about such horrendous human rights abuses as female circumcision or the recently reported, absurdly hideous Cameroonian practice of breast ironing - all a woman in full hijab dress can expect to suffer in real terms is a degree of overheating. No one sensible or tolerant would suggest Something Must Be Done - and nor did Orr, as she quite explicitly said. But it's inevitably a difficult sight for a Western woman to grapple with, as it seems such a stark representation of the kind of oppression we feel we've freed ourselves from. The idea that hijab neutralises and sidelines women's physical attributes, enabling the world to focus on her personality and intellect, sounds like a Western feminist's holy grail; but the idea that women *degrade* themselves by showing their flesh and inducing lust in men, should accept responsibility for such male desires and remove the temptation accordingly, is a deeply troubling one. The concept gels very badly with our ongoing struggle to ensure the blame for rape is firmly on the men who commit it, peeling away the supposed culpability of women who've had a drink, worn a short skirt, or previously had consensual sex.

Many of the Orr respondents can't help but polarise. They have what's almost a bit of a gloat over what they see as an extremely favourable comparison of the demure hijab with the clobber of the louche, tits-out, morally desolate Western woman. These commentators are as guilty of stereotyping as anyone else, and shouldn't be indulged - it's gurglingly immature debate. True, miniskirts with 'GORGEOUS' emblazoned on the arse don't say anything especially positive about Western society, and any woman who's ever been shopping understands the grim pressure to strive for some impossible standard of beauty. That's certainly oppressive, and we live with it every day. But what we understand we have is choice, a degree of flexibility offsetting cultural pressures. Women couldn't wear trousers in polite society until a couple of world wars had done their bit to shake up gender issues - since then the options as to what to cover ourselves with have gone on multiplying. It is very, very difficult to think of what life would be like for us if that process were reversed. Hijab literally looks like the opposite of a basic freedom to us. Muslim women - as Muslim commentators have been hotly insisting - *opt* to wear hijab, as it liberates them from the appearance-related nonsense we deal with from men. But, we can't help but consider, what options do they actually have? It can't be liberation if - *if* - it is obligatory. How much real autonomy is involved in the wearing of hijab? How much are we hopelessly bound by our own liberal ideas of what freedom should be? We don't know.

What Western eyes tend to perceive, accurately or erroneously, is women in bondage. While that may not be directly oppressive to the rest of us, it's deeply troubling to anyone who's grown up believing that we all deserve equal rights and live in a society that prioritises that. This was what Orr was getting at, and what her most vehement detractors seemed to miss. A prevailing oversensitivity ensures that any mention of a Muslim custom in a less than reverent light is greeted with condescension at best, and a swift accusation of Islamophobia at worst. This is done with a certain whiplash righteousness that none of us can really afford. We seem to ricochet between the assumption that a multicultural society is as natural to us as breathing and that all of us are perfectly content, and the assumption that we'll all be at loggerheads forever, scowling at each other's funny little ways and holding our heads high in defence of our own. But the fact is that, as with any relationship, we have to talk about what's on our minds for it to work. It's just better to acknowledge the tensions and snags and glitches that will inevitably occur if multiculturalism is what we're aiming to sustain. That's what might prevent the endless ping-pong of ideological clash and sullen re-entrenchment.

Everyone should brace themselves to hear things they don't want to hear to this end, and to say things they don't want to say, in order to achieve better mutual understanding. (We might be asking a lot of others here, but we do ask a lot of ourselves, too.) As it is, we non-Muslims tend to feel a bit shut out, excluded from Muslim matters and unable to discuss them out of self-consciousness and fear of offending or showing our ignorance. This is also what hijab represents to us - an intense guarding of privacy and a disinclination to communicate. You can't exchange a smile at a bus stop with someone whose mouth isn't visible - when you see a woman in hijab you do what it's designed to make you do, and avert your eyes. But as Muslim blogger Neurocentric reasonably said this week, 'the first move must be ours' - if Westerners are ignorant of Muslim culture, it's Muslims who need to help us understand.

Deborah Orr couldn't resist taking a clumsy prod, just as her detractors can't resist calling her Borr or Whorr, and we're rather irked with her for broaching the subject with such Burchillian bluster. But as the angry and sad letters showed, she's not alone in her discomfort. As a writer, she was correct to discuss it. It's not something to be ashamed of. Discomfort and uncertainty doesn't have to go anywhere or indicate anything besides a realisation of the differences between us. These are the things that we have to acknowledge in ourselves and each other, and discuss sensibly, if we're going to get along and progress.

If we can't express our feelings on any subject because of fear of some kind of damning reprisal, fear of contributing to some larger problem we have no business exacerbating, then we're letting ourselves lapse into self-censorship rather than just reasonable restraint. As we say, the very difficulty of talking about these things when we'd much rather just mind our own wardrobe, suggests it's important to do it.

Now we need a big drink.


Some sensible.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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