Another busybody article about hijab

A woman called Deborah Orr (or should that be Deborah Borr) wrote an article for today’s (Saturday’s) Independent attacking Muslim women who cover their faces ([1], [2]), alleging that face coverings are “are physical manifestations of outdated, cruel and degrading traditions”. The article is paywalled except for the first two paragraphs: the paper is the weakest of all the former broadsheets and the only one which paywalls its comments, laughably claiming that its “Portfolio” gives us access to “a collection of some of the best content on the web” (their star columnist is Robert Fisk, and you have to pay £10 a month just for his articles, and an extra tenner for the rest of their comments). So I’m going to answer this partly from memory of what I read on the news-stand in Borders, and partly in a more general sense. (More: here.)

First of all, she simply has no reason to be offended. Most of the women who dress like this cause no harm to anyone. They do not shout in the street or make a nuisance of themselves. They are not the people who make train and bus travellers feel threatened by their behaviour. Put quite simply, they mind their own business. Why on earth can’t Deborah Orr do the same?

Of course, people causing offence by the way they dress is nothing new, and the vast majority of the guilty parties show vastly too much flesh in the street; they even go to Muslim countries like Morocco and do the same (or worse) there. People display their midriffs (and sometimes a bit more), their cleavage, their butt cracks; they sometimes wear (or wore, as this particular fashion has largely died out over the last year or so) thongs which come up higher than their trousers with tops which don’t quite cover the area, or tops with a bit scooped out to show a bit of cleavage. Nowadays it’s not just young women who do this; it’s also middle-aged women who are supposed to be setting an example (some of them are actually in professions that are supposed to be respectable).

But my biggest objection to this article is that it makes the tired old association between hijab and oppression, which is in my opinion misplaced. Just by watching a woman in niqab in the street, you have no idea of her personal circumstances or of why she wears the veil - whether it is because her husband told her to or because she chose to for religious reasons, or because it is part of the culture with which she grew up. As for the “outdated, cruel and degrading traditions” their veils supposedly represent, far worse things are known to go on in countries where the veil is not common, like the Indian subcontinent for example, and not just among Muslims. We all think we know “how bad” things are for women in the Gulf Arab region, particularly from the lurid and often exaggerated, or just plain fabricated, stories which appear from time to time in the press, and even from human rights organisations which should know better (case in point: Amnesty International publishing a passage from Jean Sasson’s Princess, a book which itself lacks credibility, but they failed to note that the incident appears in the book before the assassination of king Faisal in the mid 1970s).

Among the other misconceptions and ill assumptions in this piece is the suggestion that the daughter of the veiled woman she saw was “dressed prettily in Western clothes that she’d one day, presumably, be told to cover up in shame at being a female”. I’ve been Muslim for several years and have read a variety of Muslim literature on the subject of modesty, and I’ve never heard it being suggested that a woman should be ashamed of being female; rather, both sexes are required to display modesty and women are in particular required not to make a display of themselves in public. Even so, just because a woman chooses to dress in such a way it does not necessarily follow that she will insist on her daughters doing the same.

I actually fail to see why Ms Borr has started noticing the veiled women going about their business anyway - they have been doing so in London for years, even decades. They generally fall into two categories: the Gulf Arabs (found in Arab districts like the Edgware Road and Bayswater) and the strictly religious (found pretty much anywhere else). I’m sure Deborah Orr did not bother to find out which of the two categories the women she saw fell into; she does not know how well educated they are (and one finds plenty of them in any London university except, perhaps, Imperial College which banned them for “security reasons”), what their home situation is like, why they dress that way, or anything about them at all. If one wishes to find out such things, and one is a woman, one might ask them. If you cannot be bothered to find out such things, don’t write about them.

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