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Veiled Threat
Why it may be important to see a woman's face

November 20, 2006

By THEODORE DALRYMPLE

Not long ago in the hospital in which I once worked, a young male nurse was asked by the administration to remove the ironmongery with which he had recently adorned his face and ears. He was outraged by this assault on his inalienable right to mutilate himself in any way that he chose, which he believed to be narrow-minded. He was, after all, the owner of his face and ears in fee simple; they were his to dispose of as he saw fit.

As it happens, he was a decent and dedicated young man, albeit one with the bad taste natural to youth; and in the end he complied with the administration’s demand, and removed his savage adornments. But he nevertheless remained convinced that an injustice had been done him and his rights trampled upon. He found it difficult to grasp that the administration were not saying to him that he could not put rings through his nose, eyebrows, and ears, only that he could not do so and work as a nurse in this hospital. For him, a right was not really a right unless its exercise was completely free of unwanted consequences.

This case illustrates the part-modern, part-medieval mentality of Aishah Azmi, the 23-year-old teaching assistant in Britain whose insistence on her right to wear the niqab — the black garment that leaves only the eyes visible — in British classrooms provoked the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to comment that the wearing of such garments should be discouraged because they are socially divisive and hinder the integration of Muslims into British society.

Miss Azmi, of course, stands upon her rights, and intends to contest, at the highest possible level, her dismissal from the Church of England school where she was once employed. (I can just imagine a Christian teaching assistant at a madrassah demanding the right to wear a mini-skirt there!) This proves how partly Westernized Miss Azmi’s mentality is: for her concept of rights unencumbered by any consequences was precisely that of the male nurse who put rings through his features. The fact that she appears to have insisted upon the niqab at the behest of a fatwa issued by a fundamentalist Muslim cleric does not alter this.

Oddly enough, in certain circumstances the niqab is an aid not to female modesty (its supposed justification) but to female promiscuity. A Saudi doctor once told me that, since in many Saudi households the female quarters were separated from the male quarters, and since even a husband could not enter the female quarters if a strange female was visiting his wife (as indicated by a pair of shoes outside the door), male lovers would adopt the niqab, plant some shoes outside the door, and commit adultery in perfect security.

A desire for extramarital affairs in perfect secrecy, however, is unlikely to be Miss Azmi’s motive in her insistence upon her supposed right. Perhaps she truly believes that the sight of an inch of her uncovered flesh would so inflame the sexual appetites of any man that an illicit liaison with him would become inevitable; if so, this seems rather the negation of female modesty than its affirmation.

What is clear is that the niqab is not religiously required: If it were, the majority of Muslim women, who do not wear it, would have to be accounted bad Muslims, and Miss Azmi’s insistence on the niqab would be a reproach to them. Muslim women who did not wear the niqab would be hypocrites at best, and apostates as worst, and neither category is highly regarded in Muslim tradition.

Many people find it difficult to believe that a young woman would voluntarily don such a demeaning costume as a niqab, and therefore believe that Miss Azmi has been put up to it by sinister, Islamic fundamentalist forces. I do not think it is necessary to resort to a conspiracy theory to account for her behavior, though such conspiracies undoubtedly exist. For example, the dean of a medical school told me that he had recently been confronted with the problem of what to do with four female Muslim students who suddenly started to attend classes in niqabs.

Fortunately, he was able to find a regulation, dating back to the 19th century (so that the question of anti-Muslim discrimination could not arise), to the effect that no doctor or medical student might examine a patient without revealing his face to him. The dean was able to tell the four medical students either to remove their niqabs or leave the medical school.

The four students complied and removed their niqabs. After they had done so, they returned to the dean and told him that they had never wanted to don the niqab in the first place, but were intimidated into doing so by male Muslim students of fundamentalist persuasion. Nothing is easier than to blackmail a young female Muslim student: You just threaten to tell her parents that she is leading a dissolute life, whereupon they would do the necessary.

The sincerity or otherwise of Miss Azmi is, of course, beside the point. Fools can be found to support anything, and no doubt you can find slaves who kiss the lash that keeps them enslaved. The social meaning of the niqab is what counts.

An interesting photograph of Miss Azmi was published as she left her house with her husband. (When I say it was Miss Azmi, I — like everyone else — am taking it on trust that it was in fact she.) Had her niqab been white, she would have looked like a pantomime ghost. By contrast, her husband was dressed exactly like the Marlboro man, all in denim. Apart from his complexion, there was nothing in his appearance that suggested he was not a native of Montana.

In other words, there are two dress codes in play, one for men and one for women; and the fact of the matter is that it is always the male who is dressed in the Western fashion and the female in the severely Muslim fashion. (I should, however, mention that a large proportion of Muslim women of Pakistani origin dress in extremely becoming clothes that are not demeaning and are vastly superior in point of elegance to those worn by 99 percent of Western women, and that my own wife sometimes adopts them.) You never see a Muslim woman dressed in Western clothes accompanied by a man in traditional Muslim attire.

The fact of the matter is that many Muslim women in Britain and elsewhere in Europe live in what one might call a micro-totalitarian climate. It is in the nature of the case that it is difficult to estimate how many or what proportion, as difficult in its way as to gauge public opinion in North Korea. Choice is not for them; if they do not do what they are told, and do not comply with certain customs whether they want to or not, for example of marriage to a first cousin back “home” in Pakistan upon whom they have never previously set eyes, they are severely chastised and may even be subject to “honor” killings. The effect of such killings is disproportionate to their number, just as lynchings were in the southern states. Their demonstration effect is considerable.

Many young Muslim women attempt suicide or make suicidal gestures because of forthcoming forced marriages, but virtually no young men do. This suggests, at the very least, that while the whole system suits men very well, it does not suit women, or at least those women who, having been brought up in the West, know that something else is possible.

Likewise, if you go to the center of any British city on a Saturday night, you will see many groups of young Muslim men taking part in the crude, coarse, and vulgar delights of British popular culture, but you will not see any young Muslim women doing so. (Recently in Brussels, I witnessed the same phenomenon: lots of young men of Moroccan origin enjoying the degraded festivities of the city by night, and the young women emerging in their headscarves in the morning.) The young Muslim men have no objections to promiscuity and prostitution as such, provided it is among infidel women, but want to preserve their sisters and wives for a life of domestic subjugation.

This is the reality — or perhaps I should say a reality, since no reality encompasses the whole — in which the debate over the niqab is taking place. In essence, Mr. Straw was quite right in his observations. Moreover, the purpose of the niqab is not to comply with religious duties, but to maintain the domestic peace of Muslim men by ensuring the separation of Muslim women from the rest of society.

One might question the bona fides of Mr. Blair in his support of Mr. Straw. After all, his wife, a prominent lawyer, went to the highest court in the land to defend the right of a schoolgirl to attend school in distinctively unrevealing Muslim dress, not coincidentally just before an election when Mr. Blair needed the Muslim vote. His party resorted during a general election to mildly anti-Semitic propaganda in areas with large numbers of Muslims when the opposition candidate was Jewish. His government de facto removed the vote from Muslim women by extending postal voting in areas with a high Muslim population. But a good argument is a good argument; whatever their motives, Messrs. Straw and Blair are in this instance right.

Mr. Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.

©2006 National Review

 

 


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