Friday, November 03, 2006

Veils and Questions

My friend Viji Ghose forwarded this article to me some days ago and I've been meaning to post it here but have been too pre-occupied with all my travels to get around to it (I'll get back to the news of my travels later). I read the article with much interest -- on the one hand, I was glad to read, finally, a piece from a Muslim woman criticising the experience of being veiled -- on the other hand, it made me think about the many issues to do with being veiled that we all need to examine and to process through our different filters.

For instance, I have often found myself thinking that women who wear make-up are in a sense, veiling themselves. In fact, the whole industry of women's fashion and self-adornment has become an extraordinary type of inverted veil -- fashionable, glamourous women spend what amounts to huge quantities time and effort obscuring their true appearance behind masks composed of cosmetics and clothing. How would it be if the mass of women living in cultures that require women to be perfectly groomed and coiffed at all times were to be forced to "remove the veil" of their glamour and appear unadorned to the gaze of the world? Would that be the same as asking Islamic women to remove the veils behind which they have grown up?

Another thought, and of a similar bent, is: supposing we turn the mirror of culture around, so that we are no longer looking at Islamic women and their veils as an aberration but instead at some cultural feature which is considered "normal" in the west -- for instance, breast enhancements: supposing western women were told they could NOT enhance their breasts? What would they think about it? After all, there is something analogous here -- breast enhancements are potentially uncomfortable surgical procedures that women employ in order to make themeselves more attractive to men.

Though it is not a cultural REQUIREMENT for women to enhance their breasts (in the way that wearing the veil is a cultural requirement), nevertheless it is something that so many women find worth doing that it amounts to a type of pressure -- after all, millions of women (or so we are told) have found better jobs/salaries/husbands on account of their breast implants. And, unlike the veil, which is by and large benign(there are no major health disorders caused by wearing the veil -- yes, vitamin D deficiency has been reported for some veiled women, but as far as I know, it has rarely been life-threatening) breast enhancements have been associated with health risks.

So ... would it be acceptable for western women to be forbidden (by whom, I wonder?) to enhance their breasts -- and would such a ban be analogous to Islamic women being denied the right to veil their faces or to wear head-scarves? And here's yet another question, sort of in the same vein -- if Islamic women can be asked to remove their veils, should Jewish/Islamic communities be told to cease to circumcize their boy children? Just as female circumcision is condemned because it is performed on young girls without their consent and at a time when they are helpless, the same should be true of little boys who have no say in the shearing away of intimate body-parts.

Many questions! Here, now, is the article posted to me:

"Even other Muslims turn and look at me"

Muslim journalist Zaiba Malik had never worn the
Niqab. But with everyone from Jack Straw to Tessa
Jowell weighing in with their views on the veil, she decided
To put one on for the day.
She was shocked by how it made her Feel --
and how strongly strangers reacted to it.

By Zaiba Malik, The Guardian, London, October 17, 2006

"I don't wear the niqab because I don't think it's
Necessary," says the woman behind the counter in the
Islamic dress shop in east London. "We do sell quite a
Few of them, though." She shows me how to wear the
Full veil. I would have thought that one size fits all
But it turns out I'm a size 54. I pay my £39 and leave
With three pieces of black cloth folded inside a bag.

The next morning I put these three pieces on as I've
Been shown. First the black robe, or jilbab, which
Zips up at the front. Then the long rectangular hijab
That wraps around my head and is secured with safety
Pins. Finally the niqab, which is a square of
Synthetic material with adjustable straps, a slit of
About five inches for my eyes and a tiny heart-shaped
Bit of netting, which I assume is to let some air in.

I look at myself in my full-length mirror. I'm
Horrified. I have disappeared and somebody I don't
Recognise is looking back at me. I cannot tell how old
She is, how much she weighs, whether she has a kind or
A sad face, whether she has long or short hair,
Whether she has any distinctive facial features at
All. I've seen this person in black on the television
And in newspapers, in the mountains of Afghanistan and
The cities of Saudi Arabia, but she doesn't look right
Here, in my bedroom in a terraced house in west
London. I do what little I can to personalise my
Appearance. I put on my oversized man's watch and make
Sure the bottoms of my jeans are visible. I'm so taken
Aback by how dissociated I feel from my own reflection
That it takes me over an hour to pluck up the courage
To leave the house.

I've never worn the niqab, the hijab or the jilbab
Before. Growing up in a Muslim household in Bradford
In the 1970s and 80s, my Islamic dress code consisted
Of a school uniform worn with trousers underneath. At
Home I wore the salwar kameez, the long tunic and
Baggy trousers, and a scarf around my shoulders. My
Parents only instructed me to cover my hair when I was
In the presence of the imam, reading the Qur'an, or
During the call to prayer. Today I see Muslim girls
10, 20 years younger than me shrouding themselves in
Fabric. They talk about identity, self-assurance and
Faith. Am I missing out on something?

On the street it takes just seconds for me to discover
That there are different categories of stare. Elderly
People stop dead in their tracks and glare; women tend
To wait until you have passed and then turn round when
They think you can't see; men just look out of the
Corners of their eyes. And young children - well, they
Just stare, point and laugh.

I have coffee with a friend on the high street. She
Greets my new appearance with laughter and then with
Honesty. "Even though I can't see your face, I can
Tell you're nervous. I can hear it in your voice and
You keep tugging at the veil."

The reality is, I'm finding it hard to breathe. There
Is no real inlet for air and I can feel the heat of
Every breath I exhale, so my face just gets hotter and
Hotter. The slit for my eyes keeps slipping down to my
Nose, so I can barely see a thing.

Throughout the day I trip up more times than I care to
Remember. As for peripheral vision, it's as if I'm
Stuck in a car buried in black snow. I can't fathom a
Way to drink my cappuccino and when I become aware
That everybody in the coffee shop is wondering the
Same thing, I give up and just gaze at it.

At the supermarket a baby no more than two years old
Takes one look at me and bursts into tears. I move
Towards him. "It's OK," I murmur. "I'm not a monster.
I'm a real person." I show him the only part of me
That is visible - my hands - but it's too late. His
Mother has whisked him away. I don't blame her.

Every time I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirrored
Refrigerators, I scare myself. For a ridiculous few
Moments I stand there practicing a happy and
Approachable look using just my eyes. But I'm stuck
Looking aloof and inhospitable, and am not surprised
that my day lacks the civilities I normally receive,
the hellos, thank-yous and goodbyes.

After a few hours I get used to the gawping and the
sniggering, am unsurprised when passengers on a bus
prefer to stand up rather than sit next to me. What
does surprise me is what happens when I get off the
bus. I've arranged to meet a friend at the National
Portrait Gallery. In the 15-minute walk from the bus
stop to the gallery, two things happen. A man in his
30s, who I think might be Dutch, stops in front of me
and asks: "Can I see your face?"

"Why do you want to see my face?"

"Because I want to see if you are pretty. Are you
Before I can reply, he walks away and shouts: "You
fucking tease!"

Then I hear the loud and impatient beeping of a horn.
A middle-aged man is leering at me from behind the
wheel of a white van. "Watch where you're going, you
stupid Paki!" he screams. This time I'm a bit faster.

"How do you know I'm Pakistani?" I shout. He responds
by driving so close that when he yells, "Terrorist!" I
can feel his breath on my veil.

Things don't get much better at the National Portrait
Gallery. I suppose I was half expecting the cultured
crowd to be too polite to stare. But I might as well
be one of the exhibits. As I float from room to room,
like some apparition, I ask myself if wearing orthodox
garments forces me to adopt more orthodox views. I
look at paintings of Queen Anne and Mary II. They are
in extravagant ermines and taffetas and their ample
bosoms are on display. I look at David Hockney's
famous painting of Celia Birtwell, who is modestly
dressed from head to toe. And all I can think is that
if all women wore the niqab how sad and strange this
place would be. I cannot even bear to look at my own
shadow. Vain as it may sound, I miss seeing my own
face, my own shape. I miss myself. Yet at the same
time I feel completely naked.

The women I have met who have taken to wearing the
niqab tell me that it gives them confidence. I find
that it saps mine. Nobody has forced me to wear it but
I feel like I have oppressed and isolated myself.

Maybe I will feel more comfortable among women who
dress in a similar fashion, so over 24 hours I visit
various parts of London with a large number of Muslims
- Edgware Road (known to some Londoners as "Arab
Street"), Whitechapel Road (predominantly Bangladeshi)
and Southall (Pakistani and Indian). Not one woman is
wearing the niqab. I see many with their hair covered,
but I can see their faces. Even in these areas I feel
a minority within a minority. Even in these areas
other Muslims turn and look at me. I head to the
Central Mosque in Regent's Park. After three failed
attempts to hail a black cab, I decide to walk.

A middle-aged American tourist stops me. "Do you mind
if I take a photograph of you?" I think for a second.
I suppose in strict terms I should say no but she is
about the first person who has smiled at me all day,
so I oblige. She fires questions at me. "Could I try
it on?" No. "Is it uncomfortable?" Yes. "Do you sleep
in it?" No. Then she says: "Oh, you must be very, very
religious." I'm not sure how to respond to that, so I
just walk away.

At the mosque, hundreds of women sit on the floor
surrounded by samosas, onion bhajis, dates and Black
Forest gateaux, about to break their fast. I look up
and down every line of worshippers. I can't believe it
- I am the only person wearing the niqab. I ask a
Scottish convert next to me why this is.

"It is seen as something quite extreme. There is no
real reason why you should wear it. Allah gave us
faces and we should not hide our faces. We should
celebrate our beauty."

I'm reassured. I think deep down my anxiety about
having to wear the niqab, even for a day, was based on
guilt - that I am not a true Muslim unless I cover
myself from head to toe. But the Qur'an says: "Allah
has given you clothes to cover your shameful parts,
and garments pleasing to the eye: but the finest of
all these is the robe of piety."

I don't understand the need to wear something as
severe as the niqab, but I respect those who bear this
endurance test - the staring, the swearing, the
discomfort, the loss of identity. I wear my robes to
meet a friend in Notting Hill for dinner that night.
"It's not you really, is it?" she asks.

No, it's not. I prefer not to wear my religion on my
sleeve ... or on my face.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006


Cheeky said...

Very nice post.

Anonymous said...

You are so right about baby boys and circumcision. Why aren't baby boys afforded the same protection against having their genitals mutilated? This is a practice that really needs to stop, for boys and girls. I wish more people understood what happened during circumcision. - to see a video of an infant circumcision - disturbing, but accurate

Amrobilia said...

Worst thing eva, religion. Donna have.

indi said...

yes, questions questions many questions. veil or no veil, makeup or no makeup, breasts or no breasts, being a woman in this world is tough, any time, every time. i spent my teens in delhi and i have always till now felt that delhi is the hippest city in india, the girls are just so well dressed. years later in bombay it struck me as i chatted with this young pretty model from delhi (v cool, v girlily dressed up) that it's in the north, where women are treated far pretty sadly that girls are so into looking good. is it because they are mere ornaments and survival depends on burning bright? in amman, i watched girls in mini skirts with cigarettes dancing for their men. no veil, but still no equality.
on the veil: what's the problem if someone's comfortable with it? and surely we know that this whole back to veil thing among young muslim girls is happening because of the madness building up around something they identify with strongly, yes, their religion. some of us may not need it, but some do. and from whatever i've learnt of life, that's ok. yesh, this reaction may seem extreme at this point, but a lot of these women are strong, thinking people and this whole phase may bring about active thinking and introspection and lead to something great. who knows.

indi said...

one more thing (just had to): circumcision. my husband is jewish and my only child is a girl. but in the early weeks of my pregnancy i did allow myself to ponder on this issue and i must admit i found it disturbing and alien to me, esp given my obsession with freedom of choice. yes as far as non jews are concerned this is mutilation of the body. they must do something about it. then i look at the caste system. mutilation of the soul. there are many many many questions to be answered in this world. thanks for a really thought provoking entry.

Marginalien said...

Thanks, all, for your comments. I don't suppose the situation is going to change any time soon, huh? Most people prefer the chains they know to the freedoms that they've never had.