Deborah Orr: In the great women's clothing debate, let common sense prevail

Women who dress just for men often alienate others in the same way that veiling does
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The Independent Online

One of the most striking aspects of the debate in these pages this week about the covering of women's faces when they are outside the home has been the prevalence of the view that this sinister practice is "better" than, or oppositional to, the tendency of some Western women to be obsessed with looking "sexy".

Actually, the two extremes are different manifestations of the same problem, which is the packaging of bodies of women as merely sexual commodities. Veiling proclaims that a woman is by definition dangerously sexually provocative, and that it is her responsibility to protect herself from the inevitable and unwanted attention that the smallest failure of her "modesty" would most certainly inspire. Extreme overt display - of the kind that has made Katie Price a bizarre female icon, and the WAGs a national entertainment - may seek to attract male sexual attention rather than repel it. But it still concerns itself with dressing exclusively in response to an idea of the sexual gaze of men.

I find both of these extreme approaches pretty grotesque, because I believe that people should dress primarily to please themselves - while, of course, bearing in mind that they should never dress in public in a way that causes widespread offence to other women, men or children.

The vast majority of Muslim women in this country appear to agree that full veiling is not necessary. One correspondent this week, by the way, asked if I thought she ought to throw away her headscarves and comfortable clothes. What a question! Headscarves and comfortable clothes are pretty, practical and by no stretch of the imagination an exclusively religious apparel - while hanging a black cloth over your face serves no purpose at all, except the purpose implied in the word hijab, literally translated, barrier. It is a negation of the human facial features and it is this alone that I find dehumanising, distancing and distressing.

Likewise, I must point out that despite the media's saturation with highly sexualised images of women, not many women getting on with real life actually opt to display themselves in this way, especially in the daytime. We are indeed under a lot of pressure to conform to this particular interpretation of masculine sexual fantasy, and it is disappointing that so many wealthy and successful women are so willing to co-opt themselves into that sustained campaign. It's cheering, though, that the vast majority have the good sense to dress practically and appropriately - whether Muslim or not. A Jodie Marsh picking up children in the school playground, or riding along in the bus in the daytime, would raise plenty of eyebrows. One of the saddest things about women who dress just for men - and broadly speaking their look is not attractive to those one might describe as the finest of men - is that their efforts very often alienate others, in just the same way as veiling does.

It is a sad fact that while most women sensibly reject these extreme caricatures of female sexuality, there does appear to be a tendency - among young women especially - to aspire to this sort of image, and the lifestyle that they imagine goes with it. It is not a sign of good health in Western culture that young women with so many choices are nursing such dubious ambitions. But those who point to the veil as being some sort of admirable correction to this are suggesting that the answer lies in the severe curtailment of choice for women.

Some correspondents this week have suggested that veiling is just one more free choice in a free society. My firm belief is that it is an appalling choice that discriminates against women and subjugates them. One correspondent, a British woman who converted to Islam, says that the concept of the veil is flattering to women. They are asked to wear it, she believes, because Muslim men think them "too beautiful".

Lovely idea, but that's just a prettified way of presenting the ugly idea that women are "asking for it" by existing, and have "got it coming" if they so much as smile at a man. That's why these "too beautiful" women are considered to be the architects of their own misfortune if they are raped. Most modern Western Muslims have distanced themselves from these foul notions, and rightly so. Those women and men trapped in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam need support in following suit.

Look back in anger, Kylie

Kylie is back, resplendently beautiful in her post-chemo crop, and gracefully accepting of her new role as top poster girl for breast cancer recovery. What a trouper she is.

Tomorrow night, in the first big interview after her illness, she will share with the world some of the intimate details of her own and her family's reactions to her treatment, including - touchingly - a matter-of-fact description of how she "had one day's grace" before "we made the announcement and I was virtually a prisoner in the house".

I presume that Ms Minogue believes that the fabulousness of her career more than compensates for the relentless invasion into her privacy that it entails, and I do admire the equanimity with which she accepts this fact of her life.

But I'm already cheesed off with the glamorous rebranding of breast cancer that her illness has inevitably prompted. It was unspeakable that the world's press hung around trying to get shots of this woman as she underwent cancer treatment. She really ought to allow herself to be a lot grumpier about it.

If music be the food of politics, play on

I wouldn't say that Rock 'n' Roll is Tom Stoppard's best play. But since even Stoppard's (pictured) lowest points are sublime in comparison with nearly everything else in contemporary theatre, it remains an inspiring and thought-provoking creation.

It is, among other things, a meditation on cultural revolution that compares and contrasts the society-changing aspirations of rock and roll music with the society-changing aspirations of post-Soviet communism in Poland. The interesting thing is that while totalitarianism does not come out of the intellectual mincer looking at all good, the play could be read equally as vindication or critique of the power of popular music.

Certainly it is understood in the play that music quickly stopped being an instrument of protest and started being an agent of capitalism. But the uncomfortable fact that Syd Barrett, the stage representative of the early idealism of progressive rock had died the day before I saw the play sharpened the poignancy of the Pink Floyd founder's disconnection from his creativity.

Stoppard, I think, was arguing in Rock 'n' Roll that all systems subsume everybody and everything, one way or another, and that the way in which capitalism does so is the most sympathetic we have found. But Barrett, who was subsumed by the system in a troubling way because he was vulnerable, not because the market dictated a happy ending, rose in his death as a reminder that despite the play's optimism, the market looks after those who can look after themselves.

It's a fine play indeed that draws further meaning from the developing narrative that it is exploring, even as it plays. It speaks of Stoppard's wondrous ability to coax ideas into growth and luxuriance. Maybe there is hope for humanity if as well as organic produce, we can start consuming organic plays.

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