All The More Reason

Veiled Threats
October 14, 2006, 9:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

‘Tradition’, Arthur Koestler once wrote, ‘has the hypnotising effect to command blind belief’. Religion and the custom that accompanies it are particularly apt to induce a slavish conformity in devotees. As with hypnotism, religion is a self-willed stupor- the holy book, the doctrine of faith, its customs hold no supernatural power over the religious, just as the hypnotist’s watch possesses no special potency to render its subjects mesmerised. It is the complicity of the hypnotizer and the hypnotized that produces the absolute control of the former over the latter.

The wearing of the veil (and here, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about a headscarf or hijab, but the full mask which covers the entire face of its adherents, save for a small slit allowing- appropriately enough- for blinkered vision) must give us pause for reflection on the hypnotic effect that religion can have. If the trend amongst young women to wear this most stifling of accoutrements could be entirely attributed to the outright coercion of fathers, husbands and brothers, that would be one thing. We know that this can occur from time to time and family to family. The women who choose to lift the veil in these circumstances are, like the women who tore the binding from their feet in feudal China, not just making a statement about fashion ‘dos and dont’s’, but actively rejecting the patriarchal cult within some strains of Islam that instructs women to ‘know their place’.

More troubling, however, are those women who actively choose- often to the puzzlement of their liberal parents- to hood themselves in this fashion. Peter Hain (the incandescent glow of whose sunbed tanned head surely even the blackest of burkahs would struggle to extinguish) recently made a rather fatuous comparison between the shock and unease precipitated by the rise of the miniskirt in 1960s Britain and the growth of the ‘maxi-scarf’ that we see today. The analogy, although glib, is actually rather revealing. In so far as fashion can be harnessed as a political statement, the miniskirt and the burkah occupy opposing poles of the spectrum. Whereas miniskirts might, if one were so minded, be considered a symbol of feminine self-assertion and sexual self-confidence, the burkah is emblematic of nothing but a perversely self-righteous submission to oppressive patriarchy.

This is nothing to do with ‘cultural imperialism’. Those Muslim women who wish to express their preferences in this way should be free to do so. However, to pretend that their choice is unfettered is deeply disingenous. Those women who zealously cling to their veils on the grounds that Islam affords a special role to their sex- a ‘separate, but equal’ role, to coin a phrase- seem to overlook exactly who devised the rules of the game in which they play. Any interpretation of the Koran which offers the burkah as the only way to protect a woman’s ‘dignity’ or ‘self-respect’ is not an interpretation devised by women, for women. As with so much of sharia law, the burkah is not even mentioned in the Koran. Vague references to ‘covering’ have been marshalled by men to the cause of men, who, in the name of religious propriety, sought to entrench a culturally endemic and institutionalised inequality.

Etymologically as well as empirically, costume derives from custom. Women who labour under an objectively oppressive form of dress are stifled too by the dead weight of tradition. They should not have to await the click of the hypnotist’s fingers to remove themselves from his power.

Michael P


1 Comment so far
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It might be of interest to note that the voile is not only a Western concern.

Comment by Jonathan Smith

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