Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Veiled Insult

Serendipity is a word that we apply to happy, unexpected but ultimately personally satisfying discoveries; things like finding that perfect little cafĂ© that has the best cheesecake in the whole city. Sadly, no similar word exists (and if it does, I certainly am not aware of it) for discoveries that are unexpected but can be quite distressing. Sometimes, personal epiphanies or revelations about oneself can fall into this category too. I had a similar “eureka” moment on the ubiquitous London Tube some weeks back, and it has taken me a long, long time to come to terms with all three major components of that biblical moment: the actual discovery , the events that triggered it, and my own personal reaction to realising what it was that I had found out about myself.

What happened is this – I boarded a Tube train some time back, my mind focused on Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah on my iTouch, and took theonly free seat available opposite a Middle Eastern couple. Unlike other Middle Eastern / Arab Muslim couples, however, who tend not to be incredibly expressive in public, this one was generally quite “couple-y”, holding hands, whispering softly to each other, feeding each other cookies out of a bag from Cranberry; you know, just generally being very lovey-dovey. Nothing too out of the ordinary for a normal train journey in London, albeit with one surreal twist.

The man had a long, unkempt and straggly beard, and was walking around in a long djellaba/thawb/dishdasha that could have done with either a wash and darn, or possibly a binbag. The woman was wearing a long black burqa and had a full facial niqab, with a tiny little crack in the face for her eyes to peek through. But that was not all; not only did she have several layers of veils on, she was also wearing black gloves on her hands - from the part of her hands that protruded from the long billowing sleeves of her cloak, they caught the light in that weird way that cheap synthetic faux opera gloves that you can buy at your local costume shop do. I could almost imagine her wearing elbow length opera gloves, and who knows, potentially a black off-the-shoulder evening gown underneath her many-layered veil. All very bizarre, especially that given the warm weather and bright sunlight, the black material was a portable heat sink.

So why am I taking this much time to describe how this couple was dressed? For a very simple reason: the sight of this otherwise so ordinary couple filled me with completely unexpected, and at the time, inexplicable, rage. My sudden anger at seeing this couple dressed in what would be a totally unremarkable way in the Middle East, including that "Western" idyll of Dubai, totally caught me completely by surprise. I spent the ten minutes or so that I was in that carriage sitting opposite them listening to Jeff Buckley's dulcet tones, trying to calm down, not looking at them and generally trying to come to terms with the fact that I was very, very angry. And I was very glad to get off my train after a couple of stops, with a chance to walk and clear my head. But once my rage dissipated I had to spend the remainder of my journey, and several days afterwards, trying to get my head around what it was about that perfectly ordinary, typical couple that had angered me so much.

What was particularly galling about the episode was that I like to think of myself as a multicultural citizen of the world; someone who is truly a global person, able to live in anywhere on the planet (well, except Singapore, maybe) and accept and appreciate diversity in culture, food, music, dress, religion. And having spent time in countries where the sight of women in full black veil is not uncommon (try walking through the old city in Istanbul, Delhi, or even East London, and you would be hard pressed to avoid them) I could not fathom what it was about the couple, and particularly about the woman in the opera gloves, that really drove me over the edge. After several days of introspection and having discussed my reaction with several friends, I think I'm beginning to understand the causes of my rage. It is always very difficult to talk about Islam in today's world, and I know that what I will say may be construed as being incendiary, but in the spirit of independent, liberal analysis, and in the interests of freedom of speech, here goes nothing.

Essentially, there were two particular aspects about the woman in the niqab and opera gloves that got me angry. And they had to do with how the veil was a symbol of broader interactions concerning the woman in her own life, and her interactions with me as a random passing stranger; a stranger you share space with in public transport, but do not actually verbally communicate with.

With regards to the woman herself, I don't know why she was veiled. The standard, often immediate, assumption made about a woman in a veil is that she is oppressed and has been coerced into wearing it, or that she would be risking honour killing by choosing to discard it. It is also the easiest and most accessible assumption to make about the veil, particularly in societies where the majority of women are not veiled. However, I have also met several people where the adoption of a hijab has been a personal choice, usually as a consciously forged link with a heritage, but also often as a very visible form of personal protest – Turkish women being a classic case in point. A (Muslim) female friend in London also once told me that sometimes a woman can choose to wear a veil (usually a hijab) as an educated adult in the West as a way of registering political protest in today's Islamophobic geopolitical environment, but also as a means of demonstrating an awareness and acknowledgement of her own sexuality and as part of the process of sexualisation into an adult. There have been several news articles in the mainstream UK media about women choosing to adopt a full niqab out of personal choice.

That is not to say, however, that all women wearing the niqab in the West do so out of personal choice. Furthermore, given that personal decisions are coloured by the lenses of our upbringing and our environments, I don't know whether the woman in the tube wore a full veil out of free will, or because that was what she had been brought up to do. But my anger surrounding her being veiled was partly driven by my own implicit assumption that she had somehow had been coerced into being fully veiled; an assumption that was reinforced by her obviously intimate interactions with a man himself dressed in a way as to facilitate easy identification as a conservative Muslim man. I realise that this part of my anger was possibly based on a preconception on my part, and therefore probably the more irrational part of my being angry. It is also the pettier and baser part of my own anger, something that does me no favours, but therefore all the more necessary for me to challenge and confront as a (previously) hidden prejudice.

What is not so easy to explain away as irrational is what the niqab implied with regards to the woman and her interaction with me as a co-passenger in London's public transport. The entire premise of wearing a niqab is to protect yourself from the gaze of strange men; men who as strangers might be driven to uncontrollable lust by the sight of an unveiled face, or the sight of an ankle or wrist. The veil hides, covers, shields, but most importantly, protects, the wearer from the attention of strange men.

So by choosing to wear a niqab in public in London, this woman was making a statement about the potential people she would be likely to encounter on the street, ordinary people like you and me. The veiling of her entire body in public was a statement that as a random (male) stranger in her Tube carriage, I was a threat. I was assumed to be incapable of controlling my sexual urges, and that the safest thing she could do to protect herself was to cover herself up fully to remove the slightest threat of temptation. The wearing of the opera gloves was the reinforcing element that catapulted me over the edge. Not only was I unreliable as a purportedly healthy male, I was so much of a threat that every last vestige of flesh that could be concealed had to be; who could say that the glimpse of a fingernail would not send me over the edge and turn me into a boorish caveman, bursting with lust and full of dishonourable intentions?

And so by choosing to wear a niqab, by branding me (not personally, but as a random male stranger on the street) and a threat, this woman had insulted me and my ability to interact as a civilised member of society in public; or perhaps she was calling into question our assumptions that existing societal structures would be in a position to protect her. Historically societies have developed rituals and norms around "protecting" women, particularly so in Asia where concepts of family honour are intrinsically tied to the "virtue" of women. And if it was the 12th century and if I was a Safavid soldier at the siege of Jerusalem I could understand the assumption being made by a veiled woman that all men were potential rapists. But to perpetrate the niqab in Central London was perhaps taking things a little too far.

Now don't get me wrong - I don't mean to say that women are not harassed while walking down the street in many parts of the city by men who find it easy fun to wolf-whistle or to (in more unpleasant situations) actually grab or pinch some body part; in India this goes by the anachronistic and incredibly ludicrous phrase of "eve-teasing". But at the same time, there is an important distinction between wearing what you want, regardless of its suitability for the neighbourhood you walk through and in wearing a full niqab with gloves and black shoes to prevent the slightest chance of skin being exposed.

I suspect that I would probably not mind the full veil as much if I was in a country where the social norm was for women to be veiled, in as much as my choosing to live or visit a place where such traditions exist would involve a subconscious acknowledgement of that tradition, and of accepting it within my own consciousness. However, when in a culture where a woman being veiled is not the norm, then I have to call into question what the act of wearing a niqab is about. Is it about exercising religious freedom? Is it about personal choice? Is it about a right to be able to discriminate against complete strangers on the basis that they are strangers? And if a woman choosing to wear a niqab is exercising religious freedom, what about my own personal right to not be insulted?

I don't have the answers - not yet - but hopefully I'm asking the right questions...