The Guardian's religion correspondent Riazat Butt has certainly stirred up the proverbial hornets' nest with her article about the abusive remarks her sister has encountered while wearing a full-face veil. She was out and about in Southampton recently when someone was heard to call her "ninja woman".
We challenged the man who made the remark, he denied saying it, even though he said it as I was passing him. My sister called him "a lying bigot", which is all she could muster on a Sunday afternoon in Primark, en route to Clark's to have her children fitted for new shoes, but she delivered it rather splendidly, to the bemusement of shoppers who, if they hadn't noticed her before, suddenly found her rather interesting. Her children asked why mummy was shouting at a man.
She left Primark in a foul mood, and sitting in Clark's with three children who kept complaining about being bored/tired/hungry was not the best way for her to calm down.
Riazat wondered how her sister ought to respond, "next time someone calls her a name."
A predictably lively thread followed. Here was my initial reaction, in a comment that by the early evening had attracted 160 "recommends", a record for me (I don't know who holds the all-time record: if any Cif nerd is able to discover, I'd love to know):
How should she respond? By taking it off.
I'm sorry your sister has been abused, but the veil not only gives many people the creeps (and that is only natural, given that it is utterly alien, not just to western culture, but to western conceptions of human dignity) it is also extremely rude. So it's something your sister wants to do? I might want to walk down the street stark naked. I don't, as it happens, but I might. If I did, I would run the risk of being arrested; but even if walking around naked were not illegal, it would still be an act of selfishness, even self-absorption, displaying a complete lack of regard for other people and the common proprieties. Wearing a face veil is exactly the same.
If your sister wishes to go about her business like everyone else, then she should prepared to meet society at least half-way. She should accept that, far from being "modest" (it is, surely, as immodest a garment as it is possible to imagine) the veil is a proclamation of difference, even of superiority. It is (in an unveiled society) an assertion of not wanting to belong. Well, that is her right in a free society. But it would be wrong for her to imagine that it is or should be cost-free. If your sister has a right to passive-aggressively insult the culture in which she lives, then, sadly, rude ill-bred people have an equal right to be rude to her. Most people will be silently pitying her.
I half-expected that comment to get "moderated". Perhaps it will be. It was, however, one of the milder expressions of unease, distaste, or opposition. As Jack Straw discovered a couple of years ago, the veil stands proxy for much about Islam that non-Muslims (not just westerners) find disorientating or even threatening. Most people are too polite openly to abuse a woman wearing a Niqab; the strange mixture of pity and anger it arouses cannot, however, be simply dissipated by calling for "respect". What is to be respected? The woman, certainly. But an interpretation of religion that has such a perverse view of "modesty"? Might respecting the veil - historically, and in some cultures today, an instrument of oppression - risk piling pressure on the unwilling to adopt it themselves?
After the fold, a thought-provoking and well-informed critique posted by Noor Aza Othman of the Women for Justice Support Group Project, Malaysia. It was, perhaps inevitably, "deleted by Moderator". But fortunately I'd saved it. It's well worth a read.
The Veil and Violence against Women in Islamist Societies by Maryam Namazie (born in Iran, which her family left after the Iranian revolution. She now lives in the West, where she has worked ceaselessly for human rights, particularly on behalf of refugees. She was recently involved in setting up the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain).
7 August, 2007 - 09:17.
Recent reports on the Islamic regime of Irans crackdown on women who are ‘badly veiled (bad-hejab) and their resistance to the regimes campaign of arrest and harassment has been reported quite extensively in comparison to other similar events over the years. This is partly due to amateur video footage taken via mobile phones by passers-by uploaded on YouTube for the world to see.
There are two pieces of footage that everyone should take a look at. One is of an unveiled woman shouting ‘we dont want the veil; we want freedom. The other is of a young girl who is being questioned by security agents for being ‘badly veiled; she pulls off her veil in front of them and is kicked into a waiting car to be driven away.
Given that veiling is compulsory in Iran, these acts of defiance are all the more heroic.
This ongoing battle between the Islamic authorities and women over the veil clearly reveals why it has become a symbol like no other of the violence women face under Islam and why ‘improper or ‘bad veiling and unveiling have become a symbol of resistance to Islam in power and its violence against women. It is for this very reason that the slogan ‘neither veil nor submission has become a rallying cry ever since the regime imposed compulsory veiling on women after expropriating and crushing the revolution to consolidate its rule.
With the myriad examples of violence against women in Islamist societies – from stoning to legally sanctioned domestic violence – the ‘fuss over veiling may seem overboard for those who have heard about the ‘right to veil and ‘freedom of clothing from Islamists who deceptively use rights language in an effort to make the veil palatable to a western audience.
But the veil is anything but a piece of cloth or clothing. Just as the straight-jacket or body bag are anything but pieces of clothing. Just as the chastity belt was not a piece of clothing. Just as the Star of David pinned on Jews during the holocaust was not just a bit of cloth.
The veil is a tool for the suppression and oppression of women. It is meant to segregate. It is representative of how women are viewed in Islam: sub-human, ‘deficient, ‘inferior, without rights, and despised. Trapped in a mobile prison not to be heard from or seen.
The veiled woman is veiled to prevent her from being seen or touched by anyone other than those who have some form of ownership over her – her father, husband or brother.
In many instances it is a matter of life and death. In Iran just recently paramedics were denied access to two sisters who needed emergency assistance because their brother deemed it sinful for the paramedics to touch them. They died as a result. And we have all heard of the example of Saudi Arabia where girls schools are locked as usual practice to ensure the segregation of the sexes. In 2002 when a fire broke out at a school in Mecca, the guards would not unlock the gates and religious police prevented girls from escaping – to the point of even beating them back into the school – because they were not properly veiled; moreover they stopped men who tried to help, warning the men that it was sinful to touch the girls. Fifteen girls died as a result and more than fifty were wounded.
As I said – a matter of life and death.
Moreover, the veil imposes sexual apartheid and the segregation of the sexes very much like racial apartheid in the former South Africa. But in this instance, in addition to the segregation that is carried out in society, such as separate entrances for women in certain government offices, separate areas for womens seating on buses, the banning of women from certain public arenas like sport stadiums, a curtain dividing the Caspian sea for segregated swimming and so on, woman are forced to carry the divide on their very own backs.
And dont forget the more subtle aspects to it, though just as detrimental, like the sun never touching a womans hair or body and the adverse health effects of that. And how depressing it must be to be deemed so vile and dangerous as to need constant cover…
And imagine the effects of the veil on girl children. Sexualized from age nine, kept segregated from boys, taught that they are different and unequal, restricted from playing, swimming and in general doing things children must do – nothing short of child abuse.
At least in Iran, there is mass resistance in the form of a social protest movement. The veil is also imposed on many women in Europe via threats and intimidation. But because of the respect the veil and religion are granted due to racist cultural relativism, women and girls are often left to the mercy of regressive Islamic organisations and parasitical imams.
A mullah in Green Lane mosque in Birmingham has said, for example: 'Allah has created the woman deficient' and a satellite broadcast from the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, beamed into the mosque suggested that children should be hit if they don't pray and don’t wear the hijab. Then there is Australia’s senior Islamic cleric, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, who has compared unveiled women to ‘uncovered meat’ implying that they invite rape and sexual assault. ‘If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... without cover, and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.’
That women transgress the veil daily is a testimony to their humanity and not the laws, states or groups that impose it by force or intimidation.
No apology, justification, appeasement or cultural relativism can deny the indignity and violence that the veil is and represents.
Another somewhat overwrought post which didn't stay up for very long came from "Clare London" (I presume that's Clare in London). Clare had posted a strongly-worded comment in which she finished up by saying, "I don't care even if she is verbally abused, frankly. She deserves it." This prompted a pithy response from Ms Butt ("fuck off") and a longer, somewhat sarcastic aside during which it emerged that the sister's husband had in fact died. At this, Clare went slightly off the handle:
I find your comment extremely stupid.
By using the term 'husband' I obviously intended it to be taken in the generic sense. My comment described some of the commonly-held views from 'our side' as to why women like your sister shroud themselves in an offensively extreme way. The exact personal circumstances of your sister's life are not, of course, known to me. The specifics are irrelevant.
If your brother-in-law has died, I'm sorry to hear it.
I'm a committed reader of these pages and I have the right to my views. I pity your poor sister for the lifestyle which she, in her delusion, and you, in your delusion, thinks is a 'legitimate choice'. Your high irritation at my stance proves to me you are a thorough bigot - not only FOR prejudiced behaviour but AGAINST the free assertion of contrary ideas.
I am hardly going to take such sarcastic abuse from you without demur. I realise you are writing a 'problem letter' and not a serious piece of journalism. However, what on earth are you doing, as a Guardian contributor, stooping to write such a sarcastic, emotionally illiterate response to me? You are SO steeped in the in your religious habits of thinking that you lash out in an immature way at me. Are you not embarrassed? What has been your training as a journalist?
I note you have written pieces which fall into the category of 'journalism' before now and I would have thought the Guardian has standards of objectivity to which it requires its writers to mor eor less adhere. I wonder when you write about mediaeval customs in the name of 'religion' whether it might be better keeping a civil tongue in your head when replying to people like me who don't like your stuff.
Because, as I said, I don't LIKE seeing women like your sister shrouded from head to toe. I don't like it very much indeed. And I'm going to say so without any effort to restrain from causing you offence. Because god is not real and your cultural past includes enough savage repression of women for me to find it a mind fuck to see it in evidence in 2008 in Central London, where I encounter it every day.
Let's put this more succintly in the time-honoured phrase: if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Don't write in girlish, wide-eyed Elizabeth- Violet Botts-like innocence, pretending the problem to be the fact your sister was verbally abused "Oooh, someone spoke nastily to my poor sister, what on earth should she do" - without acknowledging that your sister's choices are literally brain-damaged so it's pretty amazing when people DON'T abuse her.
You're been got at thoroughly by your religious culture and social customs from a too early age. That you aren't willing to acknowledge this only goes to show you're brain damaged as well.
Poor chick. So sorry. Maybe journalism is not the trade for you if you can't face not continuing in your childish fantasies.
Oh yeah - shroud a woman from head to foot in black so only her eyes are showing and then she is 'liberated'.
And I'm a purple 20 foot high octopus.
Well, no surprise that this was deleted. But it does go to show just what strong passions can be aroused by a woman who chooses to hide herself from public gaze and, by so doing, ensure that she is in fact extremely visible.