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!”
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling