Sunday, 25 April 2010

Covered Up

We've been back in the UK for 10 days. 10 days in which we have been living again in a country that isn't predominantly Muslim. 10 days in which I haven't been woken for the call to prayer by the mosque over the road. So why is it that in the last 10 days I've seen more fully veiled women here than I saw in 2 years in Bosnia?
Women in headscarves and loose fitting clothes are a common sight in Bosnia, and they often look amazing, really elegant and very stylish. Bosnia is a country where Islam is widely practiced, yet virtually no woman feels that they should be fully covered. In two years I saw 2 such women, and from the expressions of those around me I could tell that I wasn't the only one to find them unusual.

I like to think that I'm a tolerant person. I do believe that people should be able to wear whatever they want to. But if I'm being really honest with myself I find that I do have a problem with women being fully covered. It makes me very uncomfortable, I don't like it. I can't quite pinpoint what it is that I don't like. Is it that I feel the women are being discriminated against for having to wear it? Or that I just can't trust someone if I can't see their face? I'm not sure, I haven't decided yet. But in my unease I find more discomfort that I appear to be agreeing with the extremist political parties who preach intolerance.

Countries like France are considering bringing in a ban on the full veil in public places. On the one hand I oppose it, it affects peoples ability to practice their religion as they wish too and it curtails their freedom to dress themselves as they wish. Vince Cable's argument on Question Time used to defend South Park's various highly insulting sketches is applicable; the right to freedom of speech for everyone must come before the rights of smaller groups not to be offended. So the rights of religious groups to dress as they wish should come before my discomfort at what they choose to wear.

But then I think that many devout Muslims in Bosnia do not feel the need to cover their women in order to practice their religion and at a very basic level don't really understand why others can't practice their religion in the same way, particularly when living in Europe. But I am interested to know what other people think. Do you feel comfortable seeing fully covered women in public? What do you think about a ban on the full veil in public places?  


Dan said...

Probably the same reason that my accent goes even more yorkshire when down south.

When you feel alienated and "an other" you cling to your cultural identity even harder.

zooarchaeologist said...

I have a range of differently dressed Muslim friends, some covered up, some not. I have to admit I find it easier to make initial friendship with those who don't wear the Burkha and the jihab, but after the initial awkwardness (from both parties I think) it makes no difference whatsoever.
Its very difficult topic isn't it and so involved with the fundamentals of who people are.

Anonymous said...

My only problem with it would be if the practice of covering women from head to toe was thought up by a man without any approval from women themselves which for me is too oppressive to even imagine.

I don't know any Muslim women who follow this practice, even the older ones, they will cover their hair and arms, legs etc for worship and at all other times dress how they please. They don't see how it makes them any less a Muslim by not wearing this "traditional" dress.

My other concern is for security reasons, such as at ports, airports etc. You could put anyone, male or female in a burkha and jihab and not be able to tell who was underneath it and I havent yet seen anyone wearing them being asked to remove them in order that their identity can be checked. This goes for banks too, you can't wear a crash helmet (not that I can imagine anyone wanting to) into a bank because it obscures the face, but there are no signs to say you can't wear a burkha and jihab.

If people want to wear them I have absolutely no issue with it, people should be able to wear whatever they choose, except for security reasons as mentioned above.

Heather said...

personally I couldn't give a rat behind what people chose to wear, what worries me though, is if it is a choice. If the woman had chosen to wear it because that is how she feels she wishes to express her religion etc thats one thing, if a woman is wearing it because she has been forced to by the repressive males of her family that is something else, something that makes me both very angry and very sad.

Like Dan said, a lot of it is most likely the feeling a long way from home thing and clinging to their own cultural references and traditions.

Alice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alice said...

I must admit I feel uncomfortable when I see women totally covered and I think it is because I just cannot comprehend how anyone could truly want to be like that, there is always a suspicion in my mind that they are being forced/brainwashed into it. Of course I do not personally know any women who do this so I have never been able to ask...

Mummy said...

A good Muslin friend of mine here shed some light on this. She said two things about the desire to cover. Interestingly, she doesn't, but did use to come and pray by my desk (it faced the right way and as another believer - albeit of a different religion - she felt a bit more comfortable asking me.

Firstly, the further one gets away from a society where one is the majority the more people feel the need to use outward symbols of identity to connect with their roots. Muslims outside mainly Muslim countries, she told me, tend to be far more devout in outward signs than they would be at home.

Secondly, full covering is a particular feature of Wahabi islam (excuse the spelling) which has been successfully exported by the money and power of the Saudis. Many, similarly devout, Muslims freely adopt head covering of the more fashionable Bosnian sort.

Working Mum said...

I agree with you about the ban;I don't think they should impose such rules on people unless it is a case of National security. People should have the feedom to wear what they wish. However, I think the reason I feel uneasy when I see fully clad women is that I don't think they have the freedom to choose to wear it; I feel that they are forced to do so by a strict, male dominated version of their religion. To me it reflects the oppression of women.

cartside said...

I find it more difficult initially to relate to a fully veiled woman, but on the whole I don't see what the fuss is about. Of course, if it's not the woman's choice that's bad, but mostly it is as I'm told. I also feel uncomfortable about the way many women dress with hardly anything on, highly sexualised, and knowing it's their right and it should not ever make them the victim of inappropriate male behaviour. Two extremes, and maybe there are more fully veiled Muslims in the UK because of the sexualisation of women around here. How free in their choice are they? Are they not responding to similar social pressures to look like their role models in the media?

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post. Personally, I find it offensive that women should cover their faces and conceal themselves from society. Our faces reveal much about who we are and how we feel and I'd be very uncomfortable trying to communicate with someone who is fully covered up.

The only person I know to wear a burkha is a British woman who embraced Islam a few years ago and she forced her husband and children to adopt her new religion. She told me she wore the burkha to stop men lusting after her and the only man who had a right to see her face and body was her husband.

Whether that's a common reason why women choose to cover up I don't know but I find it slightly arrogant.

Anonymous said...

It does make me uncomfortable because I wonder if that is a personal choice the women have actually made for themselves, or if it is something that has been forced upon them, or something that o without questioning it. That's what I have a problem with.

Anonymous said...

This is a massive case of personal prejudices ahoy, but I find it a bit jarring when I meet a woman who's decided to fully cover herself as an adult rather than growing up with full covering in her family... it sends me off into speculation I'm not really entitled to make about why she suddenly started doing it. (I don't think I saw anyone fully covered in my neighbourhood while I was growing up, ever - even saris were few and far between...)

angelsandurchinsblog said...

We're just back from Tunisia, and saw very few women in full veil. Not so at Gatwick airport, and in our bit of SW London. I admit to finding full veil alienating, particularly when first meeting someone, but am all for choice. On a frivolous note, would be great to have a cover-up for bad hair/wardrobe malfunction days.

Gappy said...

What Heather said.

The concept of choice is a rather tricksy one I think. We can believe we have actively chosen something by exercising our free will, but when you look at all the external influences and pressures that can affect us, you can start to question just how free some of our choices really are, if you see what I mean.

Did that make sense?

Foodie Mummy said...

I'm all for freedom of choice and religion. However, like many people have commented already, it makes me wonder if it is by choice or if they are forced into it. and it does make me a bit uneasy. I wonder what would happen though if I decided to walk down the street with a balaklava on.

Very Bored in Catalunya said...

Whether the women choose to wear the bhurka or not the fundamental reason for it's existance is to oppress women, to have them covered up, so for this very reason I dislike them. It also doesn't say much for men if they can't control their carnal impulses if they see a woman's face.

With regards to security, I can't see why there can't be a separate screening area in airports where women wearing a bhurka can go through so they only have to show their face to one or two officials rather than the whole airport.

On a sidenote, there is a beautiful muslim girl at my son's school who has the most amazing red hair, really unusual, it makes me sad that in a few years time she'll have to hide it.

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

It make sme feel very uncomfortable. you don't get any of the usual visual cues. And there's the choice element so many have mentioned. When we were in Bahrain, the women wore these things i can only describe as a muzzle, which covered their mouth & nose. They cdn't open their mouths properly. Frankly they looked horrific. Now what is THAT all about??

nappy valley girl said...

I'm uncomfortable with it for the reasons everyone else has mentioned - you wonder if they are wearing it through choice, and it does seem to be a security risk in some ways. But I'm not sure it should be banned; that seems too draconian and potentially an explosive issue. I agree with VB in Catalunya that maybe there should be a separate screening area in airports.

Mwa said...

I struggle with this as well. I'm living in Belgium, and there's a law in the making which will forbid full covering of the face. While they were at it, they're banning carnival masks as well. They're saying it's a matter of security. Surely they will have to make an exception for carnaval, but then don't security issues apply then? What's annoying is that the real reason is that it just annoys people, and they're not being honest about that. It's about the suppression of women, and about the fact that we have a tradition of openly communicating while showing our faces to each other.

I don't know. I'm abhorred that people's liberties are taken away, but at the same time I also agree with some of the (honest) reasoning. It's a tough one.

JulieB said...

I have not only noticed this in the UK, but also in France and Germany, where there are also large Muslim minorities - there are certainly more women covered there than there were 10 years ago.

I agree with the point made in some of the other comments about it probably being down to a feeling of clinging to your own identity, especially given some of the backlash in the wake of 9/11 etc.

What someone wears does not really bother me, with the exception of the full face veil. Seeing someone's face is such a fundamental part of human interaction, so I really do struggle with this. I must admit I was pretty stumped when I went into Pizza Hut locally about a year ago and saw a fully veiled woman eating pizza with her family, each time having to lift her veil up to take a bite.

Iota said...

I don't think a ban is acceptable. It's discriminatory, and there's no way round that. Covering up isn't offensive, it's just unusual.

I don't go with the argument that seeing someone's face is part of normal human interaction, and therefore becomes a right of some kind. These things are hugely culturally linked. You're trading off your comfort level (at being able to see someone's full face and not just their eyes) against theirs (at being able to be covered as they are used to). Who's to say your comfort level is more important than theirs?

I like what Gappy said - I was thinking along those lines myself. Lots of comments have expressed the hope that women in full veil have made their own choices and not been forced into dressing in that way, but it really isn't that simple.

Dancing to Lambada said...

i think your reaction is normal. i feel the same way actually. i think part of the reason we feel so averse to it is because culturally individuality is deeply valued, so to see it so erased can be disturbing.

i think the practice is misogynistic and patriarchal, so in that sense, as a female, it offends me deeply. individual women who wear it do not offend me-i really don't care what one chooses to wear. however, the practice of the burka/full veil i find disturbing because of the principle behind it.

firstly, as i mentioned i think it serves to completely erase women from society and public life. to be heard you need to be seen; and your face makes up a huge part of your identity. secondly, by covering every inch of your body, you are doing exactly what you claim to be opposed to: completely reducing yourself to a sexual object.

thirdly, a full veil isn't even in the koran (or any of the hadeeths to my knowledge), so im not sure where the tradition even comes from. well actually i do-patriarchy. but it has been recently spread around the world by the wahhabi movement. i know many muslims are opposed to the full veil-infact i personally do not know any that condone it.

in my opinion, there are a few tricky issues with a ban on the full veil though. firstly, just personally there are other practices i find offensive and disturbing for quite similar feminist reasons..pornogrpahy and strip clubs being one. i hate that women are turned into sex objects and commodities. however, i dont realistically think these things can or should be banned. so i have to ask this a double standard? am i being bias? how is it logically ok to ban one thing for similar reasons and not the other?

secondly, there is the issue of personal liberties and how far the state can intervene. Burqa-clad women walking around the streets haven’t been a security is it justifiable to ban something merely because we don’t like it?

Then there are issues of whether such a ban would serve to further alienate these women rather then alleviate them. this isn't helped by the fact that much of this debate in europe in my opinion is riding on a wave of islamophobia. thats why i think it is important that discussions of banning the full veil should be lead by progressives and mainly women (both muslim and non muslim) and not allowed to be hijacked by xenophones! then we could have a healthy and productive debate on the best ways to curb this practice.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Dan - I think there is something in that.

ZA - yes, there is awkwardness on both sides for a bit isn't there.

Single Mum - the security argument is interesting, one rule for one and one for another. Should a non Muslim country be forced to provide a way for strict muslims to have their identity checked?

Heather - I think this is at the root of my unease with it.

Alice - I don't know any fully covered women either, but a friend of mine who has done lots of work with Bedouin women tells me that so often they are wearing the coolest jeans and the greatest make up underneath it all!

Mummy - the wahabi are in Bosnia too, and the women there are fully covered as well. The other Bosnians, particularly Bosnian Muslims don't really understand it at all.

Working Mum - I know what you mean, I do agree with you, but I don't know if I am right.

Cartside - interesting point. Pressure for us to conform is just as strong...

Mummeeeee - I don't know. I did read an article once that said being fully covered and only allowing the husband to see their body really put some zing into when they did take off their clothes. Some high brow magazine obviously...

Victoria said...

It's definitely something that's increased a lot in recent years. There was a TV programme about it a while ago. A lot of the women said that they like showing their Muslimness to the outside world. In a country where they are in the minority it gives them a sense of belonging, of being part of a group. I have Muslim friends, but they don't cover themselves, which is maybe more about the circles I move in than anything else, they also don't go to the mosque.

I think for a minority, it about religious extremism, but for the majority, it's just about asserting their identity.

I remember visiting Turkey a while back and being astonished about how few women were veiled.

Jo said...

well I think the simple thing is that all religions are sexist when they become a creed. Historically all creeds have oppressed women and anybody else they could! Once religion and spirituality become about power thing start going wrong!
Sadly islam began as one of the most feminist of religions! But once things get distorted it all got left behind.
I am a British Mum living in Guatemala just discovering blogging as I feel homesick for British wit and chat so I love your blog.

Suburban Housewife said...

I am Bosnian living in Britain so-reverse experience. I couldn't agree with you more. I came here ten years ago and I can see a lot of women covered up totally, and kids from my daughter's school who insist to eat halal on playdates ( new thing, I suppose).
Bosnian Islam came from moderate Turks, Islam in UK comes from radicalised countries such as Pakistan and Somalia. It is fundamentally different.