As I mediate on the recent comments of the French president on Islamic dress – I recall a grimly amusing cartoon which circulated the Internet shortly after 9/11 entitled “if the Taleban win”, showing the Statue of Liberty shrouded in an Afghan Bukha I recall it, I suppose because this now most American of icons was originally French, and M. Sarkozy’s comments appealed directly to those republican and secular principles of liberty, equality and fraternity which are etched upon the French psyche. It is also an anathema that any British politician, products of the failures of multiculturalism and lilly-livered in the face of vocal (but not necessarily representative) minority interest groups, should utter such opinions. It starts of course with a proper understanding of what is commanded by Islam, not how that command that women should dress modestly and cover her arms and legs, and her head during religious observance, is interpreted by the various cultures which have informed its development.
We should begin any examination of islamic dress in western society with the recognition of how very little we in the west actually know about Islamic dress and why it has evolved in the way it has. We need to have proper understanding of why certain Islamic dress offends so much in our culture. Few westerners, it seems, have bothered to gain anthropological insight to our own customs, and so we lack understanding and the ability to communicate when trying to explain why a particular act offends so much.
We cannot articulate why we feel offended, and so those who have offended continually miss our point. In addition, in our hurry to embrace multiculturalism in all its flawed but faded glory, we miss the point that there are as many facets and hues to global Islam as there are to Christianity. In addition, many Muslims in Britain cannot see the forest for the trees – there is a perception that nothing we wear can cause cultural offense in this permissive and open society.
This is not so. Our cultural memory is a long one – though we may not realise it. The antipathy or, at the very least, ambiguity towards masks is hundreds, if not thousands of years old, and it always associated with evil, sickness, wrongdoing, or, at the very least, “naughtiness” in western culture. In ancient festivals masks were worn to either confuse the devil or to make hooking up in illicit affairs easier – think of those naughty early modern venetician masquerades.
Not long ago respectable married women were expected to wear hats or scarves in public. We still have nuns who wear the veil, and as far as our cultural memory stretches there has never been any problem with women wearing something on her head, especially in Christian religious observance. So religious head-coverings per se cannot be the reason why we go bananas about burkhas. It is neither the hijab, which covers the head, or the chador or abaya which covers the head and the body, which offends western (and specifically British) so much.
It is the naqab – the veiling of the face which pricks at the very spinal chord of our cultural memory. In western civilization, hiding your face is tantamount to deceiving and lying, our earliest fears and folk memory is articulate in the form of the masked marauder, the bandit who robs and cheats and steals. In the past only lepers, and historically only those enaged in clandestine behaviour such as spying or extra martial affairs – indeed the moral opposites of what the burkha is culturally designed to do – covered their faces. There are few positive cultural connotations to masks or face coverings in western civilization. The demons, sinners and sickness ride masked, in our folklore.
Having lived and worked in many cultures – including strictly Islamic ones – I know that the expression of my identity and femininity – and my cultural values – must change when I visit or live in other nations. I know I cannot conform long term to the customary expectations of certain countries and so I choose not to live in them, turning down otherwise lucrative and promising offers of employment. And I certainly know that when I visit other countries I am not exactly free to dress how I choose.
Wearing flowers in my hair (yes, I do!) is fine in Colombia, but signifies madness or loose sexual morals in Korea. I cannot wear shorts or sleeveless tops in certain parts of Asia. In addition, I must be mindful of my actions – I must eat with my right hand only in many Muslim and African countries and I absolutely cannot show the soles of my feet, lest I offend in the deepest possible way. Baring this in mind, I have worn the hijab and even the naqab/chador in Northern India, not because I had to but because doing so caused the least offense and enabled a fuller enjoyment of the society. In northern India I can move more freely alone in a Burkha – I attracted less attention and those unpleasant gangs of youths who would otherwise cause problems for me as a solo female traveler barely noticed me. Of course, I would much rather move around in a society where young men show a measure of maturity and do not target lone women, but one has to take the societies of the country one lives and works in as one finds them – embarking on a single-handed feminist crusade in India’s north-west is unwise in terms of personal safety and in terms of general diplomacy every wise traveler should employ.
Likewise, those who would wear the naqab in this culture should be aware that when they do so they cause offense to our cultural sensibilities on such a deep level that the British can barely articulate it. You cannot hide your face in this culture without causing the deepest offense. It is as offensive – and as unthinkable to the western mind – as wearing a bikini in a mosque, an equivalent to showing the soles of your feet deliberately to everyone you meet in Saudi Arabia or Thailand. I do not believe we have the same revulsion to the hijab or chador – we have long had our historic equivalents and we are by in large a tolerant and accepting lot. Every culture will place limitations on how we dress, and when we move between cultures we must adapt.
Now to the most scurrilous accusations that the naqab oppresses women. This ignores the many reasons why women wear it, including vanity (I am so beautiful I would drive men mad were I to display my beauty) and the desire to display ones wealth and status (see, we are rich, I have servants to do my shopping for me, I am rich enough to enage in full purdha – the poor woman cannot ) in certain parts of the world, as well as the more well known ones of trying to fulfill the commands of ones faith. I would say that we should beware of blanket world-wide condemnation of the garment – although the connection between the abuse of women in certain cultures and the veiling of women’s faces is hard to ignore. In some circumstances, and in some countries, it may – and I stress the may – while we are waiting for men to become mature and civilized – confer a measure of security, freedom and autonomy which a woman otherwise might not have.
But not in this culture. In this culture , those who hide there faces cut themselves off from society, and plunges them into cycles of loneliness, isolation and dependence. They cause deep, undefinable cultural offense wherever they go. In this culture the naqab is oppressive to the woman who choose to wear it as any mask or face covering would cause, no matter the gender of the one who wears it. However much it may suit a bedouin tribal life in the sands of Saudi, it does not suit in northern Europe. Which brings me to my last point. What is acceptable Islamic dress varies from country to country and culture to culture. The naqab is an Arab import to many countries, an expression of the strictest forms of Islamism (as opposed to Islam). Which brings me to my final point. Across the Islamic world an internal, sectarian battle similar to the Christian reformation is raging and burning. It has its heretics and martyrs, its inquisitions, its petty princes vying for power, its Tomas De Torquemdas and its St Francis of Assisis, its Bloody Marys and its Elizabeths. We in the West are almost incidental to this ideological conflict, though often, we are targeted in order to stimulate division in the Islamic world – 9/11 being the most potent example. What constitutes a “good Muslim” and which variety of Islam prevails is being decided in the battlefield and in a war of attraction, the prize being the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. The outcome of all these internal ideological battles is still unclear. The whole issue of the naqab should be viewed in that context – far a more subtle, more complex, and more far reaching that perhaps Monsieur Sarkozy – or those in Britain who secretly share his view – have yet to realize.
And that is why we go bonkers over burkas.