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The Veil of Fears

July 24, 2010

Yesterday I spent some time in one of Bahrain’s shopping malls chatting with a friend over a coffee. We sat at one of the numerous cafes watching the shoppers pass by. Friday night in Bahrain is prime time for the malls. Every weekend, thousands of Saudis cross the causeway to shop, go to the movies and enjoy other aspects of life in Bahrain not readily available at home. They mingle with Bahrainis, Asians, other Arabs and Westerners into a throng of families, young kids, single men and women, giggling teenage girls, boys trying to look cool. Some excited and animated. Others with carefully composed expressions of boredom. Much like people in malls across the world.

As we sit facing the main concourse, people of all sizes and shapes wander by. Men in shorts, like me. Others in thobes (the traditional white garment favoured by Saudis and Bahrainis), or jeans and flashy tee shirts with the names of American universities, or football shirts – Barcelona, Italy, Liverpool.

Accompanying the men, or wandering around in groups, are the women. Some wear abayas (the traditional black cloaks worn from shoulder to ground) with the hijab, the scarf that covers the hair but not the face. Others wear the full face veil, commonly known in these parts as the niqab. Many wear no abayas, no hijabs and no niqabs, yet are pretty obviously of Middle Eastern origin. Amongst them are the Western and Asian women who dress as they would in any mall in Sydney, London or Los Angeles. There is no sense of unease, or of overt disapproval by one group of another. Things are as they are.

Anyone who has visited Riyadh, reckoned as the most sartorially conservative capital in the Muslim word, would tell you that you would witness a similar scene in one of its lavish malls, but with two differences. All the women would be wearing abayas, and none of the men would be likely to be wearing shorts. Admittedly, most of the Muslim women would be wearing the hijab, but by no means all. And yes, a large number of women wear the niqab. If you speak to people who have been in Riyadh for some time, they will tell you that over the past five years, the number of women wearing a full face veil has actually decreased, but not hugely so.

The issue of covering up is a subject of debate within Saudi Arabia as well as the West. But in the Kingdom, on the evidence of blogs and media reports, there are many women, particularly those educated in the West, who seem to be concerned less about their dress code than about other issues that fundamentally affect their lives: education, the right to work in any field, the availability of work, their ability to function in society in their own right without the protection of a male member of their family, their ability to travel without a male “guardian”. Those opinions are more easily accessible to a Westerner because they are often expressed in English language blogs and newspapers. Friends tell me that in the Arabic media you will see an equal body of opinion from women quite happy with the status quo.

In the West, women have the right to work in any sector they chose. Discrimination in the workplace on grounds of gender is outlawed, and the ability of women to function as independent members of society without the approval or consent of males is guaranteed by law in most Western societies.

Why, then, Western politicians and pundits ask, do Muslim women in the West, who benefit from laws that give them status equal to that of men, insist on covering up in London, Paris and Rome? Is it because they are being forced to do so by their families? Is it because they believe that their religion requires them to do so? Is it because they are conforming to cultural norms while accepting that there is no religious compulsion to do so? Or is it because they chose to use the face veil to identify their faith in a society in which they believe the majority disapproves of them or feels threatened by them, as a gesture of defiance and solidarity with other Muslims?

The answer is probably all of the above, though I wouldn’t hazard a guess at the percentages of each category.

I’m not entering the debate on face veils to argue about whether it is right or wrong for people to wear them, but to offer a little context.

Arab women have been wearing face veils in London for as long as people from the Middle East have been visiting the city. Stroll through Earls Court or Knightsbridge 40 years ago and you would find them. In those days women thus clad were seen as an exotic addition to the cosmopolitan flavor of London’s premier shopping district. Shops welcomed their business, heads would turn, the odd finger would point, but in no way were women wearing face veils seen as threatening, and less still as an insult to the British way of life.

The whole issue of face veils in the West has only arisen as a political and social issue during the past ten years or so. The rise of so-called Islamism, culminating in 9/11 and the London tube bombings, has had the effect of politicizing the use of face veils as never before. In Britain, sartorial trends perceived by some as threatening have been commonplace over the last century. Some followers of such trends actually have been threatening – blackshirts in the Thirties, teddy boys in the Fifities, mods, rockers, skinheads and Hell’s Angels in the Sixties and Seventies, and more recently hoodies, have all to a greater or lesser degree carried out acts of violence on rival gangs or members of the general public. Did we ban them from dressing as they did because we felt threatened by them?

In 1940, we banned the British Union of Fascists, also known as the Blackshirts, because we were in a state of war with Germany, whose government had policies similar to those of the BUF. But since then, we have tended to tolerate wearers of “tribal” clothing unless they break the law. People have been banned from the occasional pub, but have never been subject to a law forbidding them to wear felt collars, bovver boots, leather jackets or hoods that obscured their faces from the increasingly pervasive CCTV cameras.

Let’s also remember that various forms of head and face covering are not unknown among women in Christian society. Consider the mantillas used by Catholic women at worship in southern Europe. Think of nuns. And take a look at this picture of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at the funeral of her husband King George VI.

Dress trends come and go. Is it possible that this will be the way with face veils? When the first wave of Muslim immigrants arrived in Great Britain in the Fifties and Sixties, they may not have blended in to society as successfully as some other immigrants did. But many tried hard to fit in to the extent that doing so did not compromise their faith and adherence to the customs of their homelands. The next generation, born in the UK, struggled to reconcile themselves between the culture of their parents and that of the mainstream within which they grew up (see My Beautiful Launderette).

Among the third generation, growing up in the Nineties and during the current decade, some believe themselves to be threatened not only because of their race – a condition well known to the previous two generations – but also because of their faith. Asian Muslims in Blackburn, Luton and Leeds have retreated into communities of the like-minded to protect themselves from the attitudes of organizations such as the British National Party, and from a perception shared by many beyond the BNP that being a Muslim means that you are a potential terrorist. Witness the British bus driver who the other day refused to allow a woman wearing a niqab to board his bus because he considered that she was threatening to his passengers.

It seems to me that if we ban face veils in the UK we will only increase the sense of isolation and apartness among Muslim minorities. We will add fuel to the arguments of those who preach that Britain is a country of governed by unbelievers who oppress Muslims, and are therefore deserving of the consequences of violent jihad.

Perhaps if we work to lift the feeling of oppression and threat among Muslims, use of the face veil among the next generation will decline as a natural consequence of the new generation pushing back against the norms of the previous one. Or perhaps we will come to accept that the wearers of veils do so for their own valid reasons, and that we who are not Muslims have nothing to fear from them, as was always the case with veiled visitors to London before the era of Al Qaeda.

If face veils become a more common sight on British streets than they are today – and consider that we’re talking about a tiny minority of Moslem women, let alone women in general – so what? As many women in Saudi Arabia would tell you about their own country, we have issues far more important than face veils. In the UK, there’s poverty, trans-generational unemployment, gun and knife crime, obesity, drug and alcohol abuse. Beyond the borders of the UK, should we not be more worried about resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, about preventing nuclear proliferation, about the effects of climate change, about the exploitation of children in Asian factories, about HIV and malaria, and about the looming crisis of water shortage among poor countries in Africa and the Middle East?

Should we not feel more threatened by these issues than by the fact that a 25-year-old solicitor from Leicester chooses to cover her face in public?

A few years ago, when my children were young, like all kids, they went through phases of behavior. Not sleeping, acting up, bickering, becoming surly and offensive teenagers. Each phase caused their parents pain and soul-searching. We used to think that the current phase we were suffering through was forever, until it was replaced by another, challenging in a different way. There were delightful times and tough times. But we all got through them, and today we have two adult children who each have their own challenges, but of whom we’re inordinately proud.

The lesson I learn both as a parent and as someone who has lived through Suez, Cuba, Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin Wall, conflict in the Middle East, the Troubles in Ireland, the creation of the internet, the rise of China, the financial collapse of 2008 and many more world-changing events, is that nothing is permanent. Things get better for some, worse for others.

In twenty years time I confidently predict that nobody will be worrying about face veils. Not because they will have gone away, which I doubt. But because we will either be more comfortable with ourselves and those who believe and dress differently from ourselves – as are the people of Bahrain – or because our obsession about face veils will seem trivial compared with the life-and-death issues facing all of us, regardless of nationality or faith.

Hopefully it will be the former rather than the latter. If we set about fixing the really important problems facing us today, symbols which are a focus for our anxieties will lose their potency, and in Britain at least we will learn again to live and let live.

  1. Nice post, Listed to bookmarks – need to show
    it to my friends

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