Beyond Belief, Radio 4, Monday Between the Ears: Obituary Notice, Radio 3, Saturday

Behind the veil, it's anything goes

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The Independent Culture

Good lord, this veil thing's confusing.

I speak as a lapsed Catholic, but it's not just unbelievers who find themselves discombobulated, as Ernie Rea found out in the returning Beyond Belief, Radio 4's always thought-provoking series about faith in the modern world.

He had three Muslim women in the studio to explore the vexed issue of how much a woman should expose of herself to all and sundry. They didn't see eye to eye, as it were.

The Prophet pronounced, said the writer and lecturer Fatima Barkatullah, that after puberty women can show their face and hands – "there's no disagreement surrounding that". Enter Khola Hasan, a member of the Islamic Sharia Council: "I would completely disagree." That wasn't untypical of the discussion.

They differed over most aspects of veil-wearing: what the terms niqab, hijab and burqa actually mean; whether wearing them is compulsory or merely recommended; whether a veiled woman should insist on a female doctor. And for Khola Hasan, who seemed to be the most moderate, the modern obsession with "a piece of cloth on the face" is ridiculous on all sides: "There are women committing adultery and smoking and doing all sorts and because they've got a niqab on their face that makes it OK," she said (though I'd have thought it would be tricky, smoking in a niqab).

As The Independent's obituaries editor, my eye was drawn to Between The Ears: Obituary Notice, a haunting, impressionistic portrait of the North Carolina radio station WPAQ 740AM, which since 1948 has been broadcasting a mixture of wholesome Christian talk and music, along with obituaries of local folk. In fact, the obits played only a bit part as a picture emerged of a beleaguered community suffering from the collapse of the industries – tobacco, mainly – that had sustained it.

There was much in the way of overlapping voices, local sounds and haunting snatches of crackly music, which made it confusing in terms of hard meaning, but very much to the point in terms of mood. It packed a melancholy kind of power, and made me think of our old mining towns.

It ended with a sign-off from an elderly WPAQ presenter: "Make church a part of your weekend, you'll be glad you did, and don't drink, you'll be glad you didn't. Stay tuned for Sundown Serenade." Even Ernie Rea's three guests wouldn't argue with that.