The Veil: a Non-Muslim Feminist Perspective

Well, everyone knows what Jack straw thinks about women wearing the veil, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

Whilst I understand and accept that people like to wear various apparel to show an allegiance to the particular religion they subscribe to, the wearing of the veil overspills the religious and even the cultural arena. The veil demands of a woman an extreme form of modesty which both isolates and subjugates her. Anything that does this to women, be it in the name of religion, culture, or whatever else, is wrong.

It subjugates because one of the many things a veil does is put the responsibility for controlling male sexual desire squarely on a woman’s shoulders. She must cover-up or risk being sexually harassed or raped. But it is not woman’s responsibility to control male sexual desire. How long have feminists fought the damaging idea that if a woman wears a short skirt that she is “asking for it”. As a feminist, I’m not going to turn a blind eye to such a misogynistic view just because some ancient belief system is involved. And I never bought into cultural relativism even before I knew what that term meant.

The veil also physically restricts the woman. How does she go swimming? Or attend a gym? Or ride a bike? How many times is she denied the pleasure of feeling the sun on her skin? Or the friendly smiles of strangers, both to give and receive? How hard is interaction with other women, never mind other men, outside her social circle? How many casual conversation is she denied in waiting rooms, libraries, bus stops, or anywhere else that humanity gathers? How many jobs can’t she do? How many careers can she not follow? Just how small does that small piece of cloth make her world?

And if the above seems insignificant to you, then just imagine this being asked of men. Imagine it being asked of you.

And I don’t for one minute assume that all women who wear the veil, in this country or elsewhere, are made to do it by men. I know the veil is increasingly becoming a thing of choice for women in this country at least. This is because there is much currency to be found in her immediate and perhaps wider community for doing so. And what is the market for this currency? It is a market that trades in the value of women as wife and mothers, and in her rejection of the world outside of this. She is rewarded for squeezing her existence into the tiniest and tidiest image of what a woman should be, and for her rejection of idependence, individualism and freedom of choice.

I find such a market as unpalatable as the market that trades in women’s flesh and immodesty. The women who buy into this extreme form of modesty are at the opposite end of the scale to the women who get their tits out for the lads. The Page Three Girl and the Burka wearing Muslim may be at opposite ends of the scale, but they have something in common. Both rely wholly on the approval and the mercy of men for their existence. I suggest that either place is not a healthy place to be.

Which makes me ask why this issue was not raised by one such as Clare Short. She, and other high profile women, spoke out against the issue of soft porn in our papers and how this degrades women twenty or so years ago. Where are these voices now? Why isn’t the cultural habit for woman to obliterate their form and turn themselves into non-beings on our streets, as repellent as the cultural habit for women to expose every aspect of their body and being in our newspapers? Why are we struggling to see this as a feminist issue?

And above all, should our media not be finding the time to talk to as many Muslims who are anti-veil as they are talking to Muslims who are pro-veil? Because coming through once again loud and clear is the voice of the regressive over the progressive.

And unfortunately I’m also hearing the voice of the racist who sees this issue as yet another chance for a bit of Muslim bashing. I desperately hope I haven’t come across as a Muslim basher here. It is precisely because I don’t see a dividing barrier between myself and Muslim women that makes me want to speak out.

This article first appeared at Drink-Soaked Trots and is published here by permission.

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