Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 6th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Good morning Cuban, let me try to do this again. Anyways, you could see what I am doing and all.

    Turkey ban women with headscarf from the public sector, universities and other places their government see fit. So I feel that there is already a precedent set for other countries to follow if they think that, that is a good thing to do and for the benefits of the women.

  3. I think it's a very slippery slope to start telling people what they can't wear in everyday life. The claim to protecting women falls down, because the most controlling husband would simply stop his wife leaving the house if she is not allowed to go out "suitably" dressed. On the other hand, there are times when it is clearly appropriate to have restrictions: no-one should be able to pass through passport control with their face obscured.

  4. Many thanks for both your comments, Ocean and Rachel. Like you, Rachel, I look at individual situations like the airport one, for instance, and in that case, uncovering one's face is a must in my book. It is a very slippery road, indeed. Today, I was out in the part with my children and it was a glorious day. Plently of people about playing football, tennins and what have you. And also Muslim women draped in hijabs mostly. I spotted two in burqas. Nobody batted an eyelid. No need to legislate there.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Hmmm... Cuban, you have a way of digging into controversy... so very deeply... and leaving me with my fist in my mouth. Yet I will say only this: From the deepest recesses of my heart, I firmly believe that no matter what my personal preference is for clothing or religion or other spiritual preference, people should be able to dress as they wish and prefer. Now, as Rachel mentioned, when crossing through airport security, that is a different matter. But in all other instances, our private rights should allow us to dress as we like. Any prohibitions on this are simply uncivilized and undemocratic... especially when coming from nations that label themselves as democratic.

    And Cuban... touchy stuff, here, as always. But you don't step on any toes, and I just don't know how you do it. ;-)


  6. If a woman is forced to wear something making her a criminal for it seems utterly wrong. It's like making it illegal to be beaten rather than to beat.

    I feel exactly the same way about prostitution: the woman who often has, or feels she has, no choice is rendered criminal, the men who have a choice and choose to pay for sex are not. We criminalize the wrong people because they are easy targets.

  7. Cuban, this is a very cogent reflection. Not an easy subject to tackle so adroitly. I'm willing to live and let live in most situations. However, as Rachel, I too feel that public places demand a certain dress code. In our schools, here in the U.S. we impose specific rules to establish respect for each other, and to establish a modicum of good taste. Every year, children come up with new "things" to test the codes. As an administrator, I was forever called to pass judgement on someone who violated the school's dress code. A big waste of my time, I thought. People should absorb the principles and carry themselves in public without offending anyone.

    A multicultural world needs to have these discussions.

  8. Thankyou for this insightful post (as always). I will always remember the husband of a burkha wearing woman who received a fine (in France/Turkey recently, I think?) for covering herself head to toe (including face. He said that is she wasn't allowed to cover herself, he would simply have to keep her inside all day as he couldn't afford the fines. It made me wonder whether we who want to liberate burkha-wearing women are simply creating much more brutal prisons for them as we are not doing parrallel work to dismantle the patriarchy in which they exist.

  9. I recently posted at my blog about seeing a woman in full coverings at my local grocery stores, shopping alongside an Orthodox Jewish woman in her wig and long skirt. I admit to balking at both expressions of "modesty" but feel much as you do -- is it really all that bothersome here in Los Angeles? And if they've chosen that sort of life (and I think it's creepy), then who am I to say it should be unlawful to dress as one likes? I think I do draw the line, though, at repression, and I would hope that there would be movement against such dress. In any case, I find it highly ironic that women can walk around with barely anything on and not be deemed a threat to society. Strange, strange world...

  10. This is a tough one. Is that dress code imposed or is it willingly adopted by the women? I grew up in an environment that imposed a code of modest dress for its women. I rejected tha code but plenty of others, even my age, gloried in that code because it symbolized for them a way of life they willingly embraced. There can be repression in the code's imposition, yes. There are also security concerns, of course. But I am left wondering whether the authorities aren't overstepping into what should be privately determined matters.

  11. There is the common good and the individual good. I still think of the common good of the larger community, country, etc. In the matter of religious dress, I believe the rights of the common are more important than individual rights. Yes, there's conflict when you have to choose between competing values. I hate to see a country balkanized--our this, our that, mine, mine, mine--all these competing communities. Keep it private, at home. Yours for separation of church/ mosque/ temple and the state.
    Yours for the Republic!

  12. I recently read the book 'not without my daughter' which gives some interesting insight to the burqa, tschador and rusari. I found it really interesting.

  13. I love your posts and the variety of subjects covered in them. I can't really comment on the burka thing, but from a passport perspective, I think we need to see a face.

    And as for football? Baffles me every time.

  14. Wonderful post and very enlightening. I have always had an issue with this topic because as a woman who understands my rights i feel that no one should tell me how to dress unless am running around in the nude disturbing the common peace which isn't the case with the Burkha/Hijabs.

    Politically i think these European countries banning the Muslim women from covering themselves are being very unfair because this is who they're and is part of their religion. And as such i consider this a violation of human rights!!

  15. You always take your subject to profound depths..I've heard of symbols being defaced..but..
    I myself am uncomfortable to the utmost with anyone being un-faced..I want to see that tell-tale smirk, that trembling lip..

  16. Trying again to post my comment..can't post yours..not working well today!
    As I said..don't want to come face to face..with the Un-faced...

    Fingers crossed!

  17. This is a thoughtful post about a very difficult subject. It's almost funny that parts of the world in the 21st century are regressing to a more rigid and repressive form of religion - both in Islam and in Christianity. I guess that I have trouble with the part of your argument that says it's OK if the women chose to wear the burka (or equally repressive forms of Christian dress). How can a woman, under the boot of a misogynistic form of a religion, really chose? Is there such a thing as free choice under these circumstances? Unfortunately, the world is now dealing with a very aggressive and rigid form of Islam which certainly colors such discussions over dress and cultural norms. I think that if certain Islamic leaders weren't hell bent on forcing the secular world to conform to their world view that these issues would not be so painful and problametic. But thank you again for adding an intelligent and thoughtful voice to the discussion. I've been out of town for almost a month. I had no internet access and I missed, MISSED your column.

  18. Thanks for your comments.

    I agree that where there is a theocracy it is harder for women to choose. However one of the salient aspects of western democracy is the relative freedom one has to go about one's business. And I don't think Sarkozy is doing democracy any favours by banning the burqa.

    Greetings from London.



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