Not Saussure

October 6, 2006

What not to wear

Filed under: Blogroll, civil liberties, Islam, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 10:24 pm

An interesting discussion going on at The Sharpener about Jack Straw’s objections to Muslim women wearing veils. Sunny opens the piece by saying exactly what I thought when I heard about the controversy,

Imagine if a Muslim MP declared that he had asked his female visitors to cover-up if they were ‘inappropriately’ dressed.

One of the comments can, I think, be readily dismissed:

Tell you what. Imagine moving to abroad to a Muslim country and claiming the right for you and your descendants to wander half-dressed through the streets. And be drunk as well if you feel like it. I think that’s the kind of thing which is frowned on as culturally insensitive and not really a good idea as it offends local sensibilities. The difference being ?

An obvious difference is that such behaviour would be illegal in those countries. Wearing a burqua isn’t illegal here, where we tolerate all manner of sartorial eccentricities. My sensibilities are frequently offended by many of the half-naked drunks one sees on the streets every summer; the blokes’ appearance, in particular, would often be greatly improved by burquas, but I’m not going to insist on it.

Rachel, though, writes more thoughtfully about how she feels uncomfortable with women wearing a niqab, as the things are apparently called, and expresses pretty much what Jack Straw seemed to be saying;

I’m not comfortable with a niqab because I am not comfortable with why someone would want to make such an extreme political statement that they must know acts as a barrier and unsettles people.

While I normally hesitate to disagree with Rachel, I think here I must do. With respect, I don’t the woman wearing a niqab necessarily thinks she is making an extreme political statement; she may so be doing — and, if she is, well, she can make whatever extreme political statements she wants, surely, so long as she doesn’t break the law — but I’d hazard a guess that she’s just as likely dressing the way she feels comfortable with because she’s used to it.

It seems a distinctly odd way of dressing to me, too, but what of it? She’s not dressing for my benefit. It might well be argued that wearing a sari or a shalwar kamiz in some ways acts as a barrier — my first wife, a Ugandan Asian, certainly found she got a very different reaction she was wearing her Indian clothes rather than her European ones, since people immediately saw her as ‘an Indian woman’ and tended to bring to the situation all manner of preconceptions. Being bloody-minded, of course, she reacted to this by wearing Indian clothes more and more, partly on the argument that it did no harm for people to realise that someone who looked like a very traditional Indian woman wasn’t necessarily quite what they were expecting.

Rachel goes on to say,

It seems incredibly political to make such a statement, and yes, you can do that ,but what is the point if it takes over everything that you are and gets in the way of meaningful interaction with your fellow humans?

Well, doesn’t it rather depend on with which of your fellow humans you want meaningfully to interact on a particular occasion? My interaction with most of my fellow humans much of the time is limited to trying not walk into each other on the street, or paying them in a shop or whatever. Those with whom I have a more meaningful interaction are those whose attention doesn’t stop at what I’m wearing.

I know what Rachel means, of course; I used to live in the next flat to an Iranian couple and she wore a full niqab (burqua? You could just see her eyes, anyway). I felt a bit odd passing the time of day with her, but she seemed perfectly happy with it, so who was I to object? My wife got quite chummy with her, and according to her, the Iranian lady reckoned she just felt more comfortable thus clad when she was outside the house. She knew what effect it had, and that bothered her a bit, but she’d have felt very odd not wearing her full gear.

That’s the reason I’m not sure that the analogy with European women — considerate and well-mannered ones, anyway — covering up when they visit some other countries works too well; the difference it that it doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable or odd particularly (or so I’d have thought). Rachel writes,

I wouldn’t walk round in a Muslim country drunk, or bare-shouldered, in a mini skirt, because it would upset and unsettle and offend people

but presumably she doesn’t particularly mind wearing sleeves or trousers/a long skirt anyway (it might be hot, I suppose). I’d certainly feel a bit odd wearing a dhoti out of deference to local sensibilities if people insisted on such a thing in India. I’d accommodate them if they made a big issue of it, but I’d think it rather odd that they insisted on my so doing.

As to Jack Straw feeling uncomfortable with the mode of dress of some of his constituents, I can’t help but think that if that really is a problem for the poor man, he and they have an obvious solution come the next election. If he finds it difficult to talk to them under such circumstances, well, tough; it’s them who’re asking him to do something, and if they put obstacles in his way, then it’s their fault if they don’t get the results they want. If it becomes too much of a problem, then they’ll presumably find a new MP. I’m sure Craig Murray wouldn’t have had these difficulties.

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  1. Good post, good debate. And about time it was had. I hope that it beings healing.
    Hang on though, re my bit, you missed two key bits. ( And sorry that it wasn’t a very well-written comment, for which I apologise). Nonetheless, let not what I say (and what Straw says) be taken out of context.He didn’t after all tell women to stop veiling up. He just said that it made it made it hard to have an equal face to face conversation with someone when you couldn’t see them. ( And I agree, if you can’t hack the presence of non-family men without fear of ravishment, then hey, call or send an email to your MP)

    I said:

    ‘Women have covered their hair for centuries, there are plenty of ways of dressing modestly without making your clothing the whole issue. What we culturally understand to be ‘modest’ does not mean you have to cover up in what is effectively a giant bag. Surely the point of modesty and modest dress is so that the woman’s intellect, opinions, faith, character can come through loudly and clearly and truthfully – the niqab seems to take that away by acting as an ostentatious mask – and masks are usually worn to disguise the person wearing them’

    I was trying to make the point that I think it actually *detracts* from the woman’s active witness to her faith, by focusing only on one aspect of it – exagerated ‘modesty’ – covering herself from ‘lustful gaze’ – and misses out a far more important part, which is her witness to her faith lived out through her life, a life and witness best served by fully engaging with her fellow humans, believers and non-believers alike, as a daughter of God. Letting her ( if that’s what you believe) God-given character, intellect, sweetness, intelligence, etc shine through. Head to toe coverings negate her to a cypher, a woman who must cover herself from lust, as if that is all men are, lustful animals. And that to me is missing the whole point of a life willingly given in service to the divine and engaged with humanity. Yes, you can get past it and talk to the lowered eyes behind the sack. But why put the barrier up to that extent in the first place? Do we – all of us – and men especially since they are assumed to be the predators – not deserve more trust and respect than to be assumed to be lascivious uncontrollable rutting ‘brute beasts without understanding’ as the Book of Common Prayer puts it? If not, then what hope is there for any of us? It seems so nihilistic… and so unnecessary. And contrary to the spirit of the faith, if you read the whole thing in context.

    Mohammed was surprisingly modern for his time. I cannot beleive that he would have wanted women to walk about wearing bags. I think he would have given them, and us all, more credit than that.

    The other point being:

    ‘I don’t see why the hijab and generally covering up isn’t enough to fulfil Koranic tenets’.

    And that is the point. There is zilch in the Qu’ran to indicate that disappearing entirely from view is the way forward.

    If women feel so at risk from male sexuality that they must cover up in full , then the problem lies with the menfolk of their aquanitance. (As if wearing a burqua stopped women being raped and mistreated anyway. Go look at Afghanistan under the Taleban). It strikes me that the less we see of women, the less we hear of their voices. And I think that is a bad thing.

    Comment by Rachel — October 6, 2006 @ 11:34 pm

  2. I think we’re at cross purposes, though.

    I’m not particularly bothered about why someone does or doesn’t wear a burqua. I’m sure you’re right about it not being a Koranic requirement to wear one, for example, but I don’t see that matters; if, for whatever reason, someone actually wants to wear one — because of her possibly mistaken understanding of the Koran, perhaps, or just because it’s the custom of women in the part of Yemen where she or her family comes from to wear them, then that’s up to her, surely?

    If someone’s making her wear one, then that’s different, of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume that her — to me — eccentric mode of dress is the result of compulsion rather than choice. It seems to me very odd that Amish women dress as they do; ditto Jewish men in Stamford Hill, but none of them have so far asked my opinion of what they ought to wear so it’s not really my business (or Jack Straw’s) to advise them.

    Comment by notsaussure — October 7, 2006 @ 12:10 am

  3. can we at least agree that communication is hampered by the inability to see someone’s face?

    Comment by the crossfader — October 7, 2006 @ 12:38 am

  4. Depends, I think. I listen to the radio quite a bit and don’t find that not being able to see the speakers makes it difficult for them to communicate with me. Certainly I communicate with friends in the USA a lot more by phone and email than I do face to face.

    I see what you mean, but I think the point needs arguing in more detail. If someone goes to seek Jack Straw’s assistance in sorting out her problems with the Inland Revenue, how would his not being able to see her face seriously hamper the conversation?

    Comment by notsaussure — October 7, 2006 @ 12:53 am

  5. Yes, but that is missing the point. Of course they can call or email their MP. The debate is about what it says to people when you go about forbidding them to look at you and so cutting them out of what is normally expected in polite conversational interaction. It is provocative, and it is a political statement. Most Muslim women do not cover themselves up from view to this extent. By doing so, you are reducing all your interaction to an unequal platform: you cannot see me. I am masked, you must not look. And so of course people DO look, and it becomes uncomfortable on both sides. Why unsettle people in this way? What are you saying to them? Why not consider the impact of your choices on others? It is an extreme position, and Straw was making the point about how people live and work together. You can pretty much dress as you like here, and there are concessions made to cultural and religious sensibilities – school uniforms or work uniforms are moderated so that people can wear turbans, or shalwar kameez, or skull caps. By choosing to hide your face and mask up though, you are going far further than you need to make a point about modesty and fulfil a Koranic requirement. Not showing your face at all is a powerful statement to make in a culture where face to face discourse depends on equal interaction in that both parties can communicate using their facial expressions. If you are going to make the statement anyway, then there will be a reaction. Having a debate about that reaction is perfectly reasonable. Tolerance goes both ways.

    Comment by Rachel — October 7, 2006 @ 10:11 am

  6. I dunno, Rachel. I don’t think we’re going to see eye-to-eye on this, for I don’t really see what Jack Straw’s problem is. I sometimes find myself advising clients who wear burquas or niqabs or whatever, and I certainly don’t find it a particular problem.

    It took a bit of getting used to, certainly, but ultimately the only statement a client’s making that I’m particularly bothered about is the one about the matter on which she wants my professional help, and that primarily involves listening to what she has to say and examining documents. Not infrequently, she’s asking me to say or do something on her behalf, as do other clients, so it’s my job to understand her and help her put her case. I’ve been trying to think of what difficulties Jack Straw might be having when he does something pretty similar, and other than that he’s not used to it — which he should be by now — I can’t really.

    I agree that meeting in the same room is often far preferable to doing things over the phone, but I really don’t find someone wearing a veil makes things that difficult in a professional situation. In a social situation it might well be different, but since I don’t usually invite clients out for dinner it doesn’t arise.

    Comment by notsaussure — October 7, 2006 @ 11:18 am

  7. What he’s doing though is cunningly having a debate about whether veiled Muslim women are oppressed or not, and whether non-veiled women are oppressed by a culture that sets so much store by what we look like. And that is an interesting debate to have. Sexism, multiculturalism, terrorism/extremism, fear, racism, religion and freedom of speech all in one debate. How handy is that?

    Comment by Rachel — October 7, 2006 @ 12:07 pm

  8. Not sure I’d appreciate Jack Straw discussing my choice of clothes; not really his business what I wear, so I don’t see why it’s his business what anyone else wears, either.

    Comment by notsaussure — October 7, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

  9. […] Update: More interesting commentary by Rachel, Jai, Thabet, Satirical Muslim, Holly Finch, Suspect Paki and Not Saussure. […]

    Pingback by The Sharpener » Blog Archive » What not to wear — October 8, 2006 @ 5:40 pm

  10. […] What not to wear […]

    Pingback by Not Saussure — October 10, 2006 @ 10:35 pm

  11. the experts say that the bulk of our communication is not in our words but our body language.
    So being veiled up is a communication nightmare – it is isolating

    Comment by observer from kent, uk — October 15, 2006 @ 12:19 am

  12. Not sure for whom you say it’s ‘a communication nightmare’. The only woman I know well who regularly wears one — an Iraqi woman based in London who frequently accompanies her husband to Saudi, where she has to wear one (she wears European clothes here) — says she doesn’t mind wearing one there, though she wouldn’t through choice. But, if someone chooses to wear one here, then surely it’s her business and, if she finds it does make communication more difficult, that’s her decision. It’s not my business — nor, I suggest, anyone else’s — to tell her what’s best for her.

    If you mean it’s a problem for people talking to her that they can’t read the body language, I’m really not at all convinced.

    Were that the case, it would presumably debar anyone who’s blind from many jobs that involve direct face-to-face communication. Do you think severe visual imparement is normally a disqualification for such jobs?

    Comment by notsaussure — October 15, 2006 @ 1:35 am

  13. shalwar kamiz

    yes, a little confusing but still helpful.

    Trackback by shalwar kamiz — February 24, 2008 @ 1:15 am

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