Deborah Orr: Why the sight of veiled women offends me

These garments are physical manifestations of outdated, cruel and degrading traditions


I've been more and more troubled lately by the sight of veiled women swathed in heavy black, getting on with their everyday business in Britain. A woman on the bus the other day looked like she was auditioning for an Islamic version of the Blues Brothers, with the only part of her body uncovered by her drapes, hidden behind very black sunglasses. A little dressmaker's pin carefully threaded at her temple held the cloth very securely over her face.

A woman taking her children to school pushed a daughter in a McLaren, dressed prettily in Western clothes that she'd one day, presumably, be told to cover up in shame at being a female. The mother chivvied her boy along to school in the normal way - "cmon, hurry up, we'll be late" - which made the contrast between her actions and appearance all the more striking.

She was dressed outlandishly in an outfit that proclaimed her adherence to an ancient religious code that contradicts the law of this land in its denial of equality of opportunity to women and men, and advocates a life for women so circumscribed that even a small measure of independent life outside the home is impossible. How could this woman, constrained as she was, be expected to bring up a son and daughter who would thrive in a culture that has such different expectations of men and women to hers? The answer has to be - rather less than suitably.

Most bizarrely of all, a woman was seated in a restaurant at Selfridges in London's Oxford Street, with her husband and her son, both of whom were dressed in the expensive designer clothes that constitute a large part of the store's stock. She was dressed in black like the other women I'd recently noticed, except that she even had a little curtain covering the whole of her face.

She was eating with her family, except that as they tucked with gusto into their food, she had to use one hand to eat and the other rhythmically and modestly to lift her veil in order to spoon her meal into her mouth. Maybe - like other Muslim women, we're told - she revels in the fact that there are bright, stylish clothes under her veils, and make-up on her face. More fool her then, that she understands the pleasure of female display but still believes that her own small pleasures are something dangerous and incendiary, to be suppressed outside the privacy of her home.

Multiculturalism tells us that it is rude and insensitive to be critical of such garb, and that we must tolerate and even celebrate difference. But I'm afraid I find that the sort of difference these women proclaim by getting themselves up in these sinister weeds to be deeply offensive. I understand that in a free society they are entitled to dress as they please, just as I am.

But I also understand that in a free society I am at liberty to say that the values these outfits imply are repulsive and insulting to me. I find these clothes to be physical manifestations of outdated traditional practices, dating from early Islam and before, that oppress and victimise women, sometimes in the most degrading, cruel and barbaric of ways. Looking at women in these outfits, and comprehending some of the beliefs they imply, is awful and saddening.

According to the Somali-born feminist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the contrast between the veil and what goes on behind it is even more striking than apologists for the shrouding of women claim. Writing about the situation in the Netherlands - where Ali is so controversial that the latest set of headlines about her ended in the fall of the government - she points out that about 10 to 15 operations to "restore" the hymens of young women are performed every month, and that "the increase in abortions is directly related to the influx of Moroccan and Turkish women". She also points out that there are many women in refuges in Holland because domestic violence is a permitted Islamic practice.

Ali, a former Muslim and Dutch MP who campaigns for the emancipation of Muslim women, describes in her book The Caged Virgin (The Free Press) what the veil represents: "A constant reminder to the outside world of the stifling morality that makes Muslim men the owners of women and obliges them to prevent their mothers, sisters, aunts, sisters-in-law, cousins, nieces, and wives from having sexual contact."

I can do without this "constant reminder" when I'm shopping, taking the children to school, or at any other time. Ali argues that the last thing Muslim women need is Western "tolerance" of the stultifying cultural practices that set them apart from the modern world. I, for one, am more than happy to go along with that.

The body-image treadmill

For about nine months I've been plagued with an intermittent pain in my left foot, sometimes bad enough to cause great discomfort. In the time-honoured tradition I ignored it as best I could, sometimes resting it, sometimes cossetting it, but always returning to full-on for-granted abuse the moment the pain had passed. Eventually, I got an X-ray at the chiropodist, who called me after she'd examined the skeletal evidence with a rather endearing prescription. I was to do no sport and wear only high-heeled shoes until I could get back to her for treatment. A tendon had either severed from my bone, or could "pop off" at any time. I'd need special insoles, and if that didn't work I'd have to wear a cast for six weeks.

All this would have seemed alarming if it wasn't for the other terrible thing that occurred in the chiropodist's office. In my bra and pants I had to stride along a treadmill, being filmed from every angle, and then view the hideous evidence while receiving a dispiriting commentary on how fabulously imperfect my "gait" was. I weigh nine stone four, exercise regularly, and consider myself to be fairly trim. I can't remember how many pounds the stars say the camera puts on, but in these pictures I looked about two stone overweight.

This week Grazia magazine published a photograph of what it reported were Victoria Beckham's new jeans. They were too small for a normal seven-year-old, let alone a mother of three. It was obvious that the poor woman is a great deal thinner even than she looks in the papers. The link between eating disorders and glamorous pictures of thin women may not be proven (though enthusiasm for Mrs Beckham on pro-anorexia websites is surely significant).

But I can vouch for the fact that seeing your own body on film is a revelation that's a bit like hearing your recorded voice, except that sticking your fingers in your ears just makes the bingo wings you can't see in real life look like Dumbo's ears.

* There I was, reading Winnie the Pooh to my rapt sons and reflecting on how marvellous it is that some stories remain fresh and appealing no matter how the times change. The boys may love Harry Potter, Molly Moon, Lemony Snicket and Lionboy - and I do too - but their appreciation of the A A Milne stories seems so much more to do with the stimulation of their own imaginations than the dazzling imaginative spectaculars laid on by the adult authors of sophisticated modern fantasy (Lionboy is an exception here, as it's co-written by a mother and her daughter).

Then we got to the bit where Pooh is making up a song and running into early difficulties with his lyrical direction: "That's a very good start for a song, but what about the second line?' He tried singing 'ho' two or three times, but it didn't seem to help."

These days, of course, singing "ho" two or three times helps enormously in terms of record sales and suitably "controversial" publicity. Singing "ho" two or three times may not have worked for Winnie, but that was only because the bear with the little brain was way ahead of all the other guys in the hundred-acre hood.

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