Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Covered Women

Like the rest of the population, it seems, I've been mulling over this veil malarkey and it seems to me it's rather a complex issue, no? I thought reading Snow, by Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, about veil-wearing and suicide in a remote Turkish town, might shed some light on the subject for me, but enjoyable though it is, it isn't making things any clearer.

I mean, on the one hand, it's a potent symbol of women's oppression, and I find it difficult to look at a veiled woman without instantly thinking of her poor sisters (and mine) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and all the countless other places around the globe where women’s lives get grimmer by the day thanks to the religious authorities that are in charge. The plight of such women is perhaps the saddest aspect of the increase in religiosity that we are witnessing in the world today.

But as one of the speakers on the Today programme last week pointed out that, after Jack Straw's pronouncement, it can also be regarded as a symbol of freedom. 'If I were in Saudi Arabia', she said, 'I would be campaigning for a woman's right NOT to wear the veil. Here I must campaign for her right to wear it.'

And she has a point. Setting aside the issues about communicating with someone whose face is invisible (I think it was the same speaker who noted, pertinently, that the discussion she was involved in was taking place in a radio studio), we do purport to live in a free country, and surely that should extend to what we choose to wear. If I wanted to walk to work everyday dressed up like Marie Antoinette, I'd expect to do it without being arrested, albeit getting some funny looks.

The difficulty comes in when people want to wear religious symbols in schools, colleges, hospitals etc, and if there is one tiny bit of pleasure that us secularists can glean from the current debate it's from watching government ministers tying themselves up in knots over what they can and can't tell people to do in state-funded institutions. How, after all, can they ask people to refrain from wearing symbols of their religion while supporting faith schools? The answer, you find, to many of the big cultural religious debates of our time, is the same. Ban faith schools, disestablish the church, end religious privilege.

It strikes me that Muslim women have several reasons for wearing the veil. Some wear it to show their piety, and others because it is expected of them. A few, however, are politically motivated, and I suspect that unless there is a radical rethink on the role of all religions in our society, resulting in religion being put firmly in its place — ie outside the door of public institutions — politcally motivated 'covered women' are going to keep on growing in numbers.

Nobody is saying they want to make it illegal to wear a veil.

But... there are dress codes. Can I be a pro boxer dreessed in full medieval plate armour? No? How dare you restrict my freedom to wear whatever dress I see fit?!!!

If people chose to wear whatever clothes they want, no-one is going to stop them (aprt from their mums and dads, perhaps).

The point is, people use religion to get past rules everyone else to live by.

A woman can wear whatever she likes, but if her employer has a dress code which bans an item of clothing, you can't wear it. Simple as that.

It's not as if Muslims are the only people who have to stick to a dress code.
Last night's Women Only Jihad on Channel 4 made very interesing viewing (http://www.mpacuk.org/content/view/2927/1/) - women campaigning to be able to pray in mosques with men. The response from some of the men was appalling to say the least, and some of the young men were especially awful. These ballsy women were absolutely splendid in their fight, and just the kind of people who will, hopefully, get Islam to change. But I'm not holding my breath.
I had a an idea to start up some kind of movement, the objective of which would be to get all forms of religious indoctrination out of the education system. While pondering a nifty and catchy name for the campaign I came up with the Campaign for the Abolition of Religious Education from State Schools, which unfortunately acronyms to CARESS. Some people may object.

Keep up the good work.

Mankind...EVOLVE damn you !
Personally, I'd go for a new reality TV show (to go with the other wonderful ones we have) called 'I'm A Hijab, Get Me Out Of Here.'

We get Ant and Dec to host the show from downtown Baghdad with 12 Z list celeb contestants who have to leg it about nicking veils from unsuspecting women, and in doing liberate them from the shackles of that dastardly Islam. Whoever gets the most in 60 minutes wins a 2 week holiday at a medrassa in Islamabad.

Extra point for dodging gunfire and suicidal taxi drivers of course.
When I first read the story I was vividly reminded of my mother singing:

I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand
He said 'How's poor ould Ireland, and how does she stand?'
'She's the most distressful country as ever yet was seen
They're hanging men and women there for wearin' o' the green'.

But given New Labour's direction on civil rights perhaps we'll see a change of heart, and wearing of the niqab will be encouraged in order to spare the British taxpayer the expense of giving every Muslim a yellow crescent armband.
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