The Veil Part 11


So, to round two of the veil debate. I would prefer not to get into the ring again but must, not because I’m a stubborn mule ( which I can be) but because so much is at stake.

Sorry to those Muslim friends and foes who think we should not talk about the veil, that such debates distract from ‘real issues’, are an excuse to attack Muslims and an encouragement to racists,  are an infringement of personal freedoms, whip up hysteria over ‘just clothes, only worn by a minority’-, not the business of non-Muslims, are part of a sinister secularist manifesto, or a modern crusade and so on.

They are either frighteningly complacent or in denial, so too are white, black and brown liberals on the left. Were their own daughters to take up the niqab, would they cheerfully accept the decision? Like hell they would.  Some good friends and individuals I deeply respect defend the choice as a fundamental liberty. If accepting and symbolising female inferiority and menace is a freedom, we liberals, human rights activists and anti-racists have really have lost our maps and sense of direction.

I wrote to The Guardian objecting to a  long feature on niqabs  which left out Muslim women who are against veiling, the silenced majority, victims of liberal censorship. At a spontaneous, ‘private’ meeting I attended, I was screamed at by people whose socialist and egalitarian principles are mine too.  Muslims were present, several furious. Apparently I am a self-loathing or fake Muslim, friend of the EDL, an ignoramus, a prostitute of a white man ((my husband, an antiracist) , a sell out. Later a few attendees, including gentle Muslim men and women, apologised for the way their comrades behaved. But they never spoke up. I hear out there on the web some really nasty stuff has been circulating about my anti-veil views.

I will now plagiarise a letter from my friend Suhayl Saadi, a Muslim Pakistani GP and fine novelist from Glasgow.  ‘Saudi Arabia is the worst thing that has happened to Muslim societies since the Black Death. For forty years, billions of petrodollars have furthered  the coalition between the Al Saud family and Sunni theocracy of the Arabian peninsula…Our political classes seem pathologically leveraged into the interests of the Saudi regime. Nice white liberals who do not want to tarnish their supposedly inclusive credentials do us no favours by politely helping us into ever deeper pits of ghettoisation…This is not about consumer ‘choice’, we are not talking here of brands of tiles or toilet rolls. The Left in Muslim countries is under no such illusions and its members are regularly murdered by Islamicist paramilitary ( often state sponsored) death squads operating like the Contras in South America’. He calls for ‘guilty’ white liberals and all those on the left, including Muslims, to confront this spreading evil.

A few years ago, I was sent a list by a teacher who worked for a strict Islamic, Saudi backed school in England. She left because they were forcing her to wear the cloak and hijab and were bringing in the face veil too. ( Note: she, a practising Muslim from a liberal branch of Islam had no right to choose what she wore when teaching) The list for students and parents was of the reasons they were to give for the veil. Those were as follows: choice, religion, spirituality, freedom, tradition. How many times did you hear these repeated last week by niqab wearers and their friends? Parents of tiny girls with headscarves ( thus sexualised when too young) tell me they are training them to cover themselves. Informed choice is one thing, but trained choice?  Or a choice where females know they will be ostracised if they don’t comply? This never happened before, not in the west, nor in most of the east. Now it is spreading far and fast. Iranian women don’t cover faces but must wear scarves; In Arab countries women are attacked for not conforming with imposed rules. Here the compulsion can be internal or external.

The social cost is never considered by upholders of this custom. It is hard enough to keep this multifarious nation together. Racism, suspicion and antagonism lurk in every corner and to stop things from falling apart we need trust and binding ties. When faces are hidden, what goes missing are  those tiny, vital, facial signs of human contact and undeclared mutuality. The covering declares self-segregation emphatically and it unsettles and provokes people.  For those forced into shrouds, there is only night. They could be victims of abuse and miserable but we would never know. Some prominent Muslim women insist the garment is not enforced. They have no evidence to back these assertions partly because such evidence would be impossible to gather. The same would apply to Hassidic women- none would ever admit being oppressed.

Bans are unwise. But this practice cannot be just a private matter. If we are allowed to worry publicly about slutty clothes worn by females, why not clothes that make females invisible? The government must now issue guidelines which specify that faces must be shown in schools, hospitals, courts, airports, police stations, driving test centres etc. Schools and hospitals must also be empowered to set their own, reasonable  rules on acceptable dress codes. These rules already exist and should be extended to all communities, including Muslims. After all they are British citizens too.

The Independent, 23rd September 2013

To Veil or not to Veil?

First a British judge, then dedicated educationalists running a British college have been defeated by the aggressive guerrilla army of Muslim Salafists and their misguided allies. At Blackfriars Crown Court  Judge Peter Murphy had ordered a 21 year old, veiled defendant to show her face . The accused was charged with witness intimidation and pleaded not guilty. Whatever the results of that case, she and her supporters certainly intimidated the judge, who backed down so the case could proceed. Birmingham Metropolitan College was similarly cowed and had to reverse a directive  which forbad students from covering their faces. One hooded lady crowd sourced a protest against the college. Some overexcited student union members, Muslim objectors and online petitioners have forced a reversal of that rule. Shabana Mahmood, MP for Ladywood, Birmingham, welcomed the College capitulation. Happy days. Muslim women can now to go to courts and  college in shrouds.

That all-covering gown, that headscarf, most of all, that face mask, affirm and reinforce the belief that women, if seen, are a hazard to men and society. These are unacceptable, iniquitous values, enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi and Iranian oppressors. They have no place in our country. So why are so many British females  choosing to give those messages about themselves?  Some think they are outsmarting anxious western institutions by covering up, winning dispiriting culture wars which will give them no advantage in our fast moving world. Young women in niqabs are either testing the state like teenagers do their parents or think their garb is political action- but for what? Many women, mothers in particular, have been brainwashed by proselytisers who want to spread conservative Islamic worship right across Europe and North America. They are well funded by sources based in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. And then there are those vacuous females who argue it is their right to be objectified, that they must be allowed to live as invisible creatures in a free democracy. I don’t know which of these dubious forces prevailed in the examples above. But I do know that this trend is growing fast and cannot just be ‘tolerated’ as a minority tendency, just one of many choices people make in this multifarious nation.

Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument. I have written hundreds of times about the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Muslims, and other minorities and no doubt will have to again. It isn’t easy being a Muslim anywhere in the world- not in Muslim lands or the west.  But when Muslims wilfully create problems and build barriers, anti-racists and egalitarians  have an absolute duty to engage with them critically and in good faith. I know frank engagement is avoided because it gives succour to the EDL, BNP, Neocons and manic anti-Muslim atheists. I too have to think long and hard before penning columns like this one. In the end though, I don’t think we should abdicate these grave responsibilities because so much is at stake.

The woman before the judge must know that she or others like her will never be judges or barristers themselves. Will she make her daughters do the same? This wasn’t the system picking on her- a defendant in a micro mini would have caused as much disquiet. And the aggrieved college student, what future does she imagine for herself? She denies herself jobs in so many fields for the sake of what? They keep apart from fellow Britons by withholding proper human interactions, watching without being seen. It’s not right or fair.

None of our sacred texts command us to cover our faces. Various branches  of Islam do not even require head coverings. These are manmade injunctions followed by unquestioning women. We are also directed always to accept the laws and regulations of the countries we live in and its institutions, as long as they are reasonable. For security, justice, travel, education and health identification is vital. Why should these women be exempt? We Muslims are already unfairly mistrusted and thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too.

This is a struggle between the light of the faith and dark forces here and also in post revolution Arab countries. The clothes symbolize an attempted takeover of the religion just when believers are looking for liberty, autonomy, democracy and gender equality.  Malala Yousafzai  doesn’t hide her determined face. Nor do our female Muslim MPs and Peers or civil rights lawyers. Some of the bravest human rights activists are Muslim women. Take Tamsila Tauquir awarded an MBE for her charitable work with Muslims and Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which I co-founded seven years ago. The two of them, with other idealists, have embarked on an ‘inclusive mosque’ initiative, with pop up prayers in various venues, where men and women, gays and straight people, humanists and modernists can pray and lead prayers together. There are many others trying to promote progressive Islam, which fits our times and needs.

Saudi Islam zealots must fear these developments and want to crush them. Whether they know it or not, fully veiled women are part of this reactionary mission. Our state must not aid and abet them. The judge and the college should not have retreated and handed them this victory.

The Independent, 16th September 2013

How Art Treats Princess Diana

The new film Diana  is, at times, bathetic, intermittently moving, certainly torrid, vivid and subversive. It is based on the book Last Love by Kate Snell, (2001).  Even if half true, the story  is extraordinary and yet now only hazily remembered, if at all. A few weeks before the princess died, she had, once again, been disappointed by a man.  Hasnat Khan, a skilful heart surgeon, was, apparently the love of her life. Khan loved her deeply too, but knew the relationship was doomed.  He was Pakistani, a dedicated doctor and a private man. She had no private life. It ended in tears and she threw herself into the waiting arms of Dodi Fayed. Then came the crash and she was no more.

From a miserable childhood, she had gone into to a bad arranged marriage with a charmless and faithless Prince and given him children- two boys!. Then she was cast adrift. When lost and finding her new self,  she came across and fell for Khan. Millions around the world were bewitched by her. She was vulnerable and manipulative, had beauty and charisma, her own sorrows and intuitive compassion for war and other victims.  Fans and foes all have an imagined princess in their heads. Can art ever imitate such a life? Those who try are hampered by their own limitations or the hostility that flares up when Diana is their chosen subject. Unsurprisingly the movie has been slated and so too German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, seen as an interloper.

Another barrier is the social context- the prevailing values and perceptions. After Diana’s death, Britons were less moon-eyed about the monarchy. Using PR the Royals have deleted the unhappy princess from  their narrative and the nation forgot her. The monarchs are back on top and all’s well with their world. Stephen Frears’ The Queen was a hit because it chimed with the monarchist mood. Anyone upsetting the restored order is asking for trouble.

Diana does that by reminding audiences of how cruel the Royals were to the princess, how they only let her see her boys every five weeks, how desolate and lonely she often was. Naomi Watts conveys that isolation beautifully and Diana’s vivacity and rebelliousness too.

Several inviteees at the pre-release screening were noisily derisive, tittering and guffawing, especially during the love and sex scenes. Some of the lines and delivery are indeed embarrassingly bad  and Naveen Andrews, who plays Khan is too stiff and unappealing, but there are moments too when the actors are so tender and intimate, the camera so close to them, you feel you are intruding.  They laughed when Andrews quoted lines from the soulful, old poet Rumi, when Watts watched him operate on a patient, when she went off to Pakistan to try to win over his extended family and so on and on. I wondered then whether the laughs were expressing unconscious disquiet. Was it too much for some to watch Diana being touched and fucked by a ‘Paki’ or obviously at ease with his family in Lahore? I only ask the question which, thus far, has been avoided by film experts.

This is the tenth docudrama on Princess Diana. Catherine Oxenburg, distantly related to the royals who played her in 1982 and Nicola Formby, Diana in The Women of Windsor in 1992 had goodish reviews. But modern audiences have the bacilli of cynicism in their guts. Filmic romantic tragedies evoked high emotions in earlier decades. Not any more, unless they are consciously nostalgic and go back to war-torn lovers or damaged past celebs such as Marilyn Monroe.

But what about other art forms? Is Diana served better by novels, say? Not so far. Monica Ali’s Untold Story , in which an implausible Diana survives the crash and ends up in a crashingly boring American suburb was a terrible disappointment. The fine writer could have given us the interior life of a complex heroine but didn’t, perhaps couldn’t. Except for a couple of self published books there has been no fictional exploration of the most alluring woman in the 20th century. ( Imagine a contemporary La Liaison Dangerous) . No high poetry either, not even by feminists.

Our wordsmiths either don’t care to or don’t dare.

Visual representations are plentiful, most traditional, boring portraits and busts.  Some arty photographers did catch Diana’s spirit. Mario Testino’s wonderful pictures show her happy and flirty, unbound, and are more alive than any painting.  Individuals artists and sculptors have sometimes been inspired to produce works of depth .  One is Toronto artist Yuri Firstov whose bronze sculpture has her in a tiara and ball gown, a lifeless woman, playing a role.  There is now a bronze monument in Harrods too- lifesized Diana and Dodi, dancing while an  albatross hovers above them. Commissioned by Al-Fayyad, it is a symbol of the private loss of a father which he wants the public to witness. TO HERE These are exceptions floating in conspicuous invisibility.

Popular culture has been either trite or indifferent. Elton John wrote Candle in the Wind for Marilyn and sang it at Diana’s funeral, but no songs have been created for the betrayed, heartbroken Princess. Museums and fashion designers flaunt her dresses, as if that is what she was. The Diana memorial in Althorp is closing down; the watery memorial in Hyde Park is amusing for children but almost intentionally dull. Only the Princess of Wales Orchid House in Kew seems to reflect Diana’s rare beauty and nature.

But for me, the artistic tribute that was truly worthy of Diana was that forest of perfumed and bright flowers and simple notes laid in front of Kensington Palace, expressing true and unmediated grief. I went there- in spite of my republicanism- to be with this profusion of people, men and women, black and white. Nothing since has ever matched the power of that spontaneous shrine. The flowers didn’t last, nor did she. The last scene in Diana, has Khan putting down flowers and the Rumi couplet. I wept all over again.

The Independent on Sunday, Arts, 20th September 2013