Independent Bath Literature Festival: Do cultural dress codes empower or control?
Female writers discuss how the fight for equality is strongly linked to how women dress
Friday 09 March 2012
Banning the burkha in Britain would be wrong, speakers at an Independent Voices session at the Bath Literature Festival agreed yesterday.
But women across the world have the same right as men to appear in public on an equal basis however they choose to dress.
“Does it matter what a woman wears?” was the title of a (surprisingly consensual) discussion between the novelist and women’s rights campaigner Joan Smith, and Shaista Aziz, the headscarf-wearing journalist and stand-up comic.
Led by the broadcaster Ritulah Shah, they tried to reconcile the extremes of a society in which — as a questioner from the floor put it — “students take up pole-dancing or even prostitution to pay for their studies, and portray this as a form of emancipation, while other women feel under increasing pressure to cover up their whole bodies.”
As an extreme example of the latter, Smith told the story of a woman she had met in east London who, close to being admitted to hospital to give birth, was more worried about having to remove her face-covering niqab than any other intimacies she might have to share.
“You mean you don’t mind the doctor seeing your vagina, but you don’t want him to see your nose?” Smith asked incredulously. “That’s right,” countered the pregnant woman. “You got a problem with that?”
Aziz, who “chose to wear the hijab as a statement of my personal relationship with my faith”, resents being judged as oppressed for doing so. And being ignored by waiters when she goes to restaurants with hair-revealing friends. She makes light of such prejudices in her stand-up routine. “I say, I feel like David Beckham — the voice and the appearance just don’t match.” But she pointed out that women in burkhas played a leading role in the Arab Spring.
Smith took aim at the view that, if women dress sexily “because it makes them feel confident,” they are sending messages about their availability. She thought this “infantilises men”, suggesting that it’s the job of women to protect them from uncontrollable male urges.
On other hand, Smith felt that “if inequality is expressed by controlling the way women dress, it institutionalises the inequality.
If you’re not allowed equal access to public space, that’s an act of oppression.”
Aziz said she knew some burkha-wearing women who have felt empowered by the garment. But when some such friends decided to take archery lessons, a different sort of power got involved. “There were all these covered women in a field with bows and arrows,” she recounted. “So the police sent up a helicopter. They thought it was a terrorist training camp!”
After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violencefilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 A third of employers never check job applicants' qualifications, survey finds
- 4 James Foley beheading: Fox news presenter Megyn Kelly annoyed by Ferguson update during broadcast about murdered journalist
- 5 Paul Scholes: Manchester United need five experienced players who can turn round a desperate situation
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC
The Top Ten: Horrible buildings
JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing 'Singing Sorceress' Celestina Warbuck
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
American film board gives gay film Love Is Strange R-rating despite no sex or violence
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Scottish Independence Referendum: Salmond described as 'arrogant, ambitious and dishonest' by Scottish women