I met Fatimah (not her real name) in 2004, roughly eight or nine months after I started to work with a local arts organisation. We had some space left in our big office and decided to use it for 'hotdesking'. One of the companies that took up our offer was the borough's asylum seeker unit. Its staff were friendly and we all got on very well. Contrary to the idea the mainstream media have of refugees and asylum seekers (by the way, they are two different categories) the majority of the clients were very polite and always willing to engage in conversation with us, even though they still lacked a basic command of the English language.
It was in these circumstances in which Fatimah came into our office one day.
My then colleague and later line-manager was showing me a few paintings he had received from a local artist for a forthcoming exhibition at one of our galleries. We were both analysing the visual works (him more than me, as that was his forte) when I caught sight of this woman trying to steal a glance in our direction. I summoned her over and as soon as she finished her interview she approached my colleague's desk. She could barely speak English but there was a very distinct and clear phrase that emanated from her lips: 'Me like...', upon which a gesture signifying drawing let her hands trace several circles in the air, like a dancer in mid air attempting to compete with a bird. Both my colleague and I said: 'Draw' simultaneously and she agreed. A few days later she returned and on this occasion she brought some of her own pieces. They were breath-taking. The colours were vibrant, the themes were all to do with nature. Plenty of trees and animals. My colleague suggested that she use one of our spaces to exhibit her work. His words made her smile. Or at least, I would like to believe so. For I was never able to find out.
Fatimah was wrapped from head to toe in a burqa.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, there's no way you could have escaped the controversy surrounding this article of clothing. The most vociferous opinion so far has been expressed by president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has spoken out vehemently against the wearing of the burqa by Muslim women in France. At the moment a parliamentary commission is looking at whether to ban the aforementioned garment in public in the Gallic nation.
If truth be told, I felt uncomfortable talking to Fatimah whilst her face and eyes were covered by a mesh screen. I'm used to looking in people's eyes when I speak to them, to observing their mannerisms and gestures in an unconscious attempt to match their body language with the words coming out of their mouths. With Fatimah this bridge of communication was broken from the outset.
At the same time, Fatimah was a very rare case of a Muslim woman wearing a burqa in my neck of the woods. Most female followers of Islam in my neighbourhood wear a headscarf or just go about their business in plain clothes without any religious symbols decorating their bodies (I've noticed this attitude more in Turkish women). Therefore it was less difficult for me to accept Fatimah's dress code and focus more on the fact that she was very enthusiastic about painting.
Yet, right now Europe is undergoing one of those periods of the soul-searching variety that would put troubled Sartre and his cabal of existentialists to shame. Belgium has legislated against the wearing of both the niqab and the burqa, Italy is thinking of introducing similar measures, whilst in the Netherlands nationwide bans are being considered. The main reason given for these clampdowns is the upholding of Muslim women's human rights. However, in an ironic twist of fate, the Council of State, France's equivalent of the High Court in the UK, has declared that any ban on the veil would be an infringement of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Furthermore, the niqab/burqa issue doesn't pertain to a single political camp. On the one hand, people on the left point at repression and violation of Muslim women's human rights and I have no problem with that. After all, the veil, according to Islam scholars, is not compulsory, nor does the Qur'an make it a requirement. There are many documented cases, mainly in Iran and the Gulf states, where the practice started, of women being forced to cover themselves head to toe under penalty of being punished severely. On the other hand, those of a more conservative disposition see the veil as a threat to secularism and national identity, especially an affront to Christianity. What neither group seems to want to address is what happens when the woman in question chooses to wear the attire of her own volition. Liberals and lefties, for instance, are in a quandary when it comes to dealing with Islam. If not, look at ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone offering a friendly hand to the controversial Egyptian cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a man who has publicly condoned suicide attacks and vilified gays. Nice one, Ken! So, it’s OK to hug a man who thinks that there’s nothing wrong with a husband beating his wife ‘lightly’. So much for human rights for our Muslim sisters. I remember when my daughter was presented with a hijab (a headscarf worn by Muslim women, sometimes including a veil that covers the face except for the eyes) by her Somali friend in school and the reaction she got the minute she put it on outside the school gates. Once we were in a park, in a part of London more associated with open-minded Britain and yet, all eyes were on my daughter and me, trying to decipher what was going on. Was she...? Or wasn't she?
This is the dilemma that is keeping Europe awake at night. Shall we 'liberate women from their prison' by banning the clothes they might (and that 'might' carries several interpretations) have chosen themselves? Also, bearing in mind that, for instance, only 0.1 percent of approximately two million Muslim women in France wear the burqa or niqab, this whole brouhaha is more a ratings-chaser for Sarkozy than a more altruistic approach to human rights for the daughters of Islam.
In case you think that I'm a supporter of the veil, let me be clear about it. No, I'm not. But neither am I an opponent. Provided that the woman has not been coerced or forced into wearing it, she can dress as she likes. And I've seen my own share of creative and fanciful designs of hijabs, niqabs and burqas, to realise that not always it is a patriarchal decision the one that drives a woman to trade jeans for a full-on, body shroud. When France introduced a ban on the wearing of religious symbols in civic buildings I applauded it. That's because, to me a town hall, for instance, represents democracy at local, regional and national level and the citizens who come to it should be treated equally, regardless of creed, colour, sexual orientation, ability (mental or physical) or gender. For that to happen, the individual must also divest himself/herself of anything that might create division and religion has a pretty good record of being used for that purpose. However, when a government, like the French one, wants to move the ban on to the public sphere, I find myself shaking my head and tut-tutting the idea. Why? Because it's counterproductive and will alienate people who are already on their side. Plus, how are they going to legislate whether a woman is forced to wear the veil or not? And does that include visitors from overseas? It is, I think, clear proof that when it comes to Islam, the attitudes I've come across more often are of the 'Oh, poor, little darling, you must be feeling awful with that thing on your face', or 'Well, if they don't want to take it off, they can bugger off to wherever they came from'. However, my local college is struggling to find government funding to offer free ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) lessons to... you guessed it, recent arrivals in the UK, amongst which Muslim women feature prominently (my borough has seen an increase of Somali women). We can't give them the basic tools with which they can make inroads in the country they've settled, but we're ready to prosecute them on the clothes they wear? Really? I think the word 'priorities' should be inserted somewhere in this argument. For starters, we need more resources for the hundreds - if not thousands - of Muslim women who are victim of domestic violence, rape and forced marriages.
As for Fatimah, I only saw her once more. There was no exhibition of her work in the end, excellent as it was, nonetheless. Maybe she had an abusive husband who didn't let her do it, maybe she didn't have a bullying partner but changed her mind. Maybe she chose to wear her burqa herself, or maybe she was coerced into it. I don't know. All I know and remember clearly is that the last time we saw each other, she said: 'Me like... draw'.
Pandora's World Cup Box
One of the upsides of South Africa 2010 has been a better understanding of Pandora's cultural make-up of her little London corner. No nationwide census can beat a flag waving from a car or draped down the front of a house. That's how she knows that there are far more Chileans than she thought before (she believed there were none), plenty of Ghanians (although that could also be solidarity with the only African nation left in the competition at the time of writing), Serbians and Slovakians in abundance (the quantity is determined by a simple equation: actual number of flags spotted+estimation before event=six in this case for each nation). And obviously the Brazilians and Spaniards are ubiquitous everywhere she goes, whether it be her local part or the library just down the road. Yellow, green and red hues have formed an unlikely alliance - or do we just call it coalition? - in these heady and austere times. That's why our beautiful goddess proposes that henceforth census-takers carry out their work every four years in the summer whilst the Football World Cup is on. A quick head count of flags being waved and borne on main roads and side streets should do the trick. And the census-taker gets to wear short trousers and eat ice-cream, too.
At long last Pandora has found the answer to England’s shambolic World Cup campaign. It’s not really the fault of Capello and his men but that of bureaucracy and red tape. Unbeknownst to the England camp, South Africa had adopted similar measures to those being introduced by Theresa May here in the UK this week to curb the number of immigrants arriving in the country. Only that the African country had begun well before the tournament. Problems with information and paperwork meant that the English team was forced to leave behind invaluable defenders like Courage, Adroitness and Strength. Up midfield the situation got worse because the arch-famous Resilience was denied his visa. It’s remarkable that his influence on the English language harks back to the Second World War. Yet, this distinguished veteran of the most universal of all sports had to content himself with a day out in the British sun. And what about forwards like Precision and Sharpness? No wonder Wayne Rooney cut such a dejected figure out there on his own waiting for a long ball to arrive from heaven. Luckily for signore Capello, he was not the only victim of this bureaucratic fiasco. France was not allowed to take Cohesion and Harmony, whilst Italy had to play without Vigour and Desire.
‘He should have gone to Specsavers’ moment of the World Cup so far: the two linesmen who presided over the games between England and Germany and Argentina vs Mexico. It’s not new technology we need in football, but a couple of owls on every corner of the pitch. Anyway, that’s just Pandora’s modest opinion.
Pandora wonders if you can help her find her kitten. She placed an ad in the national press yesterday but to no avail, so far there hasn't been any news. The ad reads: 'Missing kitten "Argy" is very much wanted back by her owner. The cat has light blue and white stripes and also responds to the name "Argentinian defense". It has been missing since 3pm yesterday Saturday 3rd July. Last seen in Green Point Stadium, Cape Town, South Africa. Please, if spotted, do not get too Klose to her as she gets frightened easily. If you find her and you think Argy is hungry, feed her milk, but, please, avoid giving her Müller Light yoghurt. And last but not least, if you're a Marxist enthusiast, don't let her see your works by Friedrich Engels on your shelves at home. She will probably freak out and try to escape. If found, return to Buenos Aires. A second-class stamp will do, she doesn't deserve more. Distinctive feature: a stapled stomach and a Che Guevara tattoo.' Your kind help, readers and fellow bloggers, will be much appreciated.
Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 6th July at 11:59pm (GMT)