Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Veil


Point One

A while back, while I was shifting locations, I stayed for a period with a German girl who needed a housemate temporarily.

Being a friendly sort of person I tried to have a few conversations with her to make the atmosphere more homely. She obviously felt this somehow encroached her "personal space"- or at least it seemed so when she appeared one day with a T-shirt boldly emblazoned with the words "YOU DON'T KNOW ME" on it. Well, she apparently wore it all day so it wasn't exactly a private message, but somehow the message of the clothing got to me in a way that a simple conversation about keeping onesself to onesself never could have. It intrigued me that someone would have purchased clothing with a message so much to the front and centre- but of course many people do that; just not me.

The point of this is that clothing sends messages, and it can be used to intimidate. I didn't particularly have strong feelings either way regarding her, but I certainly redoubled my efforts to find a more permanent location to live- and I imagine she felt reasonably satisfied with that.

I think it's a big mistake to underestimate the political and social significance of dress.

Point Two

Reading this article on the politics of dress in Egypt, I came across this sentence:

"it is very important to note that the state deliberately promotes Western dress over any other form of dress"

Recalling Ahmadinejad's tieless appearance at the UN recently, I found this article talking about an apparent resurgence of the tie in Iran- in 2002, prior to the latest president's reign.

Even then, according to a Government source then "The 1979 Islamic revolution was mostly a cultural revolution. The tie is a symbol of the West and we don't want to be followers of the West. We want to keep our own cultural identity"

It was also said that in the times after the revolution "Any man with a tie risked being condemned as pro-Western and could have faced beatings or detention."

Interesting. I have always associated assigning significance to symbols with primitivism, notwithstanding their political application. I don't regard ties as political; I rather take the Beau Brummel approach to them, since they stylishly create a symmetry in the upper half of a man- women have a pleasing (very) natural symmetry in that regard.

Point Three

If we look at the intended symbolism and purpose behind veiling- both partial and full- there is certainly something going on. That something is the fetishisation of female chastity.

People say that women in Christianity have traditionally covered up- and of course Nuns do so as a mark of a calling. Whether one agrees with that or not, the covering of the head advocated in the Bible is a question of authority, not of chastity. Dressing modestly may be what some Muslim women practise, but the hijab and niqab are about advertising chastity. In societies where such strict standards of clothing apply, equally stringent punishments for unchasteness accompany them. Marc at USS Neverdock flagged up this video of the stoning of women (warning: very disturbing material). Notably, both women stoned are fully clothed from head to toe at the beginning- the clothes are ripped off them by the impact of the stones. Watching it one word was all I could find; otherwise I was speechless. Savages.

Point Four (summary)

Dress has real historical significance, and this has been regulated. From the roundheads to the blackshirts, to the burka, dress has been used to instill uniformity and fear. The use of women in this respect is particularly abhorrent, but in keeping with the politicisation of civilians which seems to underpin all Islamic struggles, or "Jihad" as they are also known.

The hijab and niqab are cultural artefacts which were not intrinsic or of unwavering importance to Islam and have their parallels all over the world. However we live in a globalised society and they are now being imposed as part of a worldwide jihad. The personal choice of women has very little to do with it.

This BBC article is a good example of an inadequate approach to Islamic dress- dealing only with the present, not with historical trends, and analysing only the religious aspects rather than the political level where it really gets interesting. We don't need to know much about the interpretation of Koranic texts- what's far more relevant to us is the political uses of the dress code. It's also noticeable that the attempt to make a distinction between hijab and niqab is a bit strained.

Just now all kinds of symbol are becoming controversial, and pressure builds to have them removed. The latest publicised case is that of Fiona Bruce's cross. I'm generally laissez faire on such things, but when there is a degree of orchestration and a political message behind the clothing symbols, it's appropriate to make an orchestrated response. The hijab might stay (maybe)- if it means wearing a headscarf a la Benazir Bhutto, and here the crucial aspect of personal choice of style of dress is foremost- but not in workplaces unless of a specifically religous character. It would be strange to ban something akin to many traditional European garments, and unworkable. The niqab must go, unequivocally. Pick and mix must always apply to public dress, otherwise totalitarianism can rise up through its medium. Pick and mix sometimes has to be sustained by the intervention of the law, and so it should be in this case.

Better (were she not actually conceding ground to Islamofascists by dressing this way- she actually appeared sometimes without covering at all, but this roused seething from her growing Islamist critics)

Addendum: Marc points out an interesting article on the hijab in Morocco.

Manolo offers the light relief.

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