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

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!”

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