Howard Jacobson: The veil can induce impure thoughts, but the opposite can be true of the hen-night floozy

The wimple, far from keeping me at a decent distance, invites me where I have no business
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The Independent Online

To veil or not to veil? Can't decide where I am on this issue because the arguments won't stay still - one minute we are talking modesty, the next we are talking freedoms, a moment later we are talking manners (what we owe appearance-wise to one another, how we advertise our beliefs in a place which predominantly believes something else - a question of etiquette which soon metamorphoses into a question of discretion), and before we can even start to sort any of that we are talking aesthetics.

The aesthetics part is quickly solved: forget it. We are all a fright to one another. Myself I don't much like what anybody wears on their head. Man delights me not, no, nor woman neither, when one's in a baseball cap and the other's in curlers. No one looks good to my eye in a woolly hiking hat, a tam-o'-shanter, a beanie, a rain hat, a mob cap, a bandanna, or anything crocheted in rainbow colours. For funerals I wear a fedora in which I think I look the dog's bollocks, but I have to accept there will be some who think I look the dog's something else. The greatest act of kindness we can perform for other people when it comes to headgear is to look away.

Freedom needn't take up too much of our time either. If the Pope may wear a skull-cap in the street then a Jew may wear a yarmulke, and if a Jew may wear a yarmulke then a Sikh may wear a turban, and if a Sikh may wear a turban than a Muslim may wear the niqab. My preference, that no one should wear anything, is unaffected by this, since no preference should be enforced.

Hidden in the freedom argument, however, is the politics of gender. Can a Muslim woman really be said to be exercising her freedom when she covers up, if the covering is at the behest of Muslim law - law being, as you don't need me to tell you, a masculinist institution? This is a hairy one, a) because it isn't strictly speaking our business and b) because there is no answer to the counterargument that the bulimic in stilettos is no less a prisoner of a cultured impregnated by male desire. Here is not the place to ask whether there ever has been or will be such a thing as freedom, given that our every choice is predetermined, in the image of someone else's will, whether that someone else is God or Dolce & Gabbana. But it does no harm to remember that what looks like liberty to us looks like tyranny to someone else. Which said, it without doubt makes the heart heavy as one shops for the louchest lingerie in Harrods, to see a Saudi Arabian prince in all his showy finery followed at respectful distance by a female entourage coffined in black from head to foot.

Which brings us to modesty, a subject, when it comes to the apparelling of it at least, that is slippery with paradox. Let me state its central paradox in simple terms. Immoderate modesty in dress - that is to say dress which loudly declares its aversion to immodesty - does the opposite of what it means to do. It induces impure thoughts.

I am not saying it is thereby hypocritical, or intends to be seductive. I would not be such a fool as to argue that every veil conceals an invitation. But the act of ostentatious covering up is bound to draw attention to the hows and whys of it. No, I do not claim to fall in love with every nun I see, by virtue of her habit - but I do fall a'sorrowing for the sacrifice she's made, for all that she has decided not ever to experience and enjoy. The wimple, in other words, far from keeping me at a decent distance, invites me where I have no business. Ditto the snoods and sheitels and shapeless floor-to-ceiling curtain dresses worn by orthodox Jewish women, which, to be sure, denote fecundity rather than chastity, but still signal strange practices of restraint and reserve.

I would rather not know, this is my point. I would prefer that people kept their preferences and aversions in the matter of sex a private matter and did not wear them on their bodies. Here again the counter-argument is powerful. Those who wear the hijab or the snood can say the same about the mottled-thighed party girls in plastic devil's horns who gallivant shivering from hen night to hen night in slips up to their tushes. Is this how you would prefer we look, they ask. If the holy veil can turn your thoughts to unholiness, does not the tush more straightforwardly invite you to think about the tush? In the case of the Ruislip and Bromley saturnalians, the answer is no, as it happens. To continue with the paradox, undress of the underage, council-estate variety would make a monk of Casanova. But I take the point. Since eating of the Tree of Knowledge, however we display or hide ourselves we are walking manifestations of carnality.

So can't we meet one another halfway? Cover up the lewd and raucous floozies and uncover the quiet sisters of the veil? Between nudity and a zip-up sack is there not a little room for negotiation?

Leaving us with just discretion to discuss. And discretion, in my view, pleads more trumpet-tongued for the taking off of veils than all other arguments. "'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother / That can denote me truly," says Hamlet in full mourning rig, for "I have that within that passeth show / These but the trappings and the suits of woe." In which case ditch the trappings, Hamlet, I say. Since every religion values the thing within above the thing we show, we should think twice about what we show when it demonstrably causes discomfort or alarm. Never mind that it shouldn't, it does. And never mind what we fear God is going to say. God, I guarantee, will forgive us if we take off our yarmulkes when we leave the house. God looks into our hearts, not at our heads.

Armed to the teeth, the great religions snarl dangerously at one another. Shame, but there it is. Why, then, when we know it is not our skull-caps or cowls or chadoors or turbans that denote us truly, do we stoke the flames by wearing them? When religion is too much with us, a little secularity in our dress won't go amiss.

A little secularity all round, that is. One off, the lot off.

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