Veiled Threat

Argus Title : This Veiled Threat Must be Exposed

One day early last summer my daughter came home from school very distressed because of an incident she had witnessed.

She had watched a Muslim woman, who was covered from head to foot in traditional Islamic dress and carrying a baby, struggle onto a bus behind her husband. After she’d settled, the woman leaned forward to scratch her ankle, exposing a tiny expanse of bare skin. Without looking at her, or saying a word, her husband sharply slapped her hand.

Apologists for restrictive Islamic clothing regularly tell us that women “choose” to wear it. This woman may or may not have had a choice. However, what was certain was that when she chose to expose the skin of her ankle she was punished like a disobedient child for doing so. It was a small but clear illustration of patriarchal power exerted by means of religious convention. My daughter felt both enraged and diminished by it.

Jack Straw has recently criticised the niqab, the Islamic veil which covers a woman’s face but not her eyes. However, Timothy Garton Ash of the Guardian newspaper has mocked him and others who say they find the niqab “threatening”, calling them “..a load of whinging wusses.” Ash said he couldn’t understand how anyone could be “threatened by a woman quietly going about her business in a veil”.

The answer is that it is not the woman who poses the threat, but what her clothing represents. And I for one do feel threatened. In fact, I feel fear.

It is the same fear I experience when I am confronted with the trappings and practices of any fundamentalist patriarchal religion, because all such religious traditions deny women equal rights. In particular, they strip women of control over their own bodies.

I grew up under Apartheid in Natal, a province of South Africa in which African women remained perpetual minors from the day they were born till the day they died, being under the control of their fathers, their husbands or their sons. Domestic violence, rape and intra-familial violence was rife in all sections of the community, as was murder.

I left South Africa because of Apartheid, but an unexpected benefit to me was that my own conditions of life greatly improved. In the UK I found I was free to do things on my own and to take control of my life. I will never forget my mother’s excitement when she came to live here and was able to move about freely without a male chaperone.

That was 30 years ago, but even now South African women who come to work in Brighton remark upon the freedoms women experience here. But these freedoms cannot be taken for granted. They are under threat.

Thirty years ago, few Muslim women wore full covering. Nowadays it is a frequent sight. In some parts of the country, even the burqa – in which all parts of the body including the eyes are covered – is increasingly common.

Just the other day a young mother in Birmingham hanged herself and her two small children. It was reported that she wore a burqa, spoke no English and was “isolated”. A neighbour said that a few days before her death she’d heard screaming from the house. She considered telephoning the police, but eventually decided not to.

When I look at women shrouded in full Islamic dress, or hear about incidents such as these, it seems as if the ghosts of the past have followed me. I feel as if I am being sucked into a quicksand I thought I would never have to step through again.

The columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, herself a Muslim and a stern critic of Islamophobes, has written with despair about what she calls the modern “re-covering of women”.

She writes: “In Iran, educated women who fail stringent veil tests are imprisoned by their theocratic oppressors. They are branded whores and beaten, It is happening in Iraq, Palestine and Algeria too.”

“In Afghanistan, the Taliban are back pushing girls and women back into the home and full burqa. Instead of expressing solidarity with these females, sanctimonious British niqabis are siding with their foes. Exiles from those regimes who fled to the West now find the evil has followed them.”

Alibhai-Brown quotes a Saudi lawyer called Saba: “the Koran does not ask us to bury ourselves…..These fools who are taking niqab will one day suffocate like I did, but they will not be allowed to leave the coffin.”.

She might have added that many sanctimonious white male politicians – and far too many activists and journalists – have fulfilled their commitment to multiculturalism, by uncritically defending all cultural differences, even when these breach women’s most basic civil liberties.

Journalists such as Timothy Garton Ash may mock our fear, but as a White man, it’s unlikely he has experienced anything like it. For it is fear not just for ourselves, but future generations.

For several decades, women of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions fought hard for the right not to wear the veil. Now those gains are being rolled back and we stand on the brink of a precipice.

It is fashionable to suggest that Muslim women choose to cover, but many women who do so come from highly traditional Muslim families in which they have little power. The Koran places an equal obligation upon both sexes to dress ‘modestly’, but does not oblige anyone to be veiled or shrouded.

The clothing is hot and restrictive and prevents free movement and easy intercourse with other human beings. It denies the wearer the right to smile at another person or even to speak with them, unless the other person has perfect hearing.

One of the most insidious aspects of such dress is that it almost always compels others to communicate, not with the woman who wears it, but with accompanying males. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has said “The niqab expunges the female Muslim presence from the landscape and hands the world over to men.”

The function of the veil has traditionally been to signal inferiority, enforce deference and contain female sexuality. Women’s hair, in particular, has been portrayed as a temptation to male lust. However, men are not required to wear a veil or blinkers, or keep their gaze averted. Rather, responsibility had been placed upon women to lower their gaze and cover themselves. It is their sexuality which is controlled, not that of males.

Women in this situation cannot win. In Iraq and Afghanistan women are killed if they don’t cover themselves, but the clothing provides no protection against rape, which is widespread. Women experiencing intra-familial abuse often believe they have provoked abuse by male relations. They have nowhere to turn for help.

Yasmin Alibhai Brown has written: “These coverings are physical manifestations of the pernicious idea of women as carriers of Original Sin, whose faces or hair turn Muslim men into predators.

“In Denmark a Mufti said unveiled women ask for rape. As if to order, rape by Muslim men of white women is rising alarmingly. In truth, half naked women and veiled women are both solely defined by sexuality…A young girl in a boob tube and a young girl in a hijab are both symbols of unhealthy sexual objectification”.

Two years ago Shabina Begum, accompanied by her brother, took her education authority to the High Court, fighting for the “right” to wear the jilbab.

I commented at the time that “a new generation of British Muslim girls is increasingly choosing, or feeling obliged, to cover up”. It is telling that my concern then was with the jilbab, which covers women’s bodies, but now my focus has shifted to the veil, and women’s increasing tendency to cover not just their bodies, but also their faces.

I would not be surprised in a year or two to hear politicians and journalists defend not just women’s “freedom” to wear the burqa, which places a grid over the eyes, but also women’s “right” to undergo female genital mutilation. No doubt women can be found to justify these practices on the grounds of modesty, purity and religious observance.

My cynical soul tells me there are probably many non-Muslim men who quietly believe that traditional Muslim ideas about the position of women form a useful corrective to troublesome feminist ideas.

They should be under no illusion. Assaults upon the civil liberties of Muslim women and girls will undermine the rights of us all. It is in everyone’s interest to resist them.

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