Jemima Lewis: The veil is a ghost from our collective past

Then, as now, misogyny had two faces. When they weren't being hated, women were revered
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The Independent Online

It was brave of Jack Straw to say what most lily-livered liberals dare not: that the (increasingly common) sight of British women shrouded from head to foot in black, with only a slit for their eyes, is something to be worried about.

In private constituency meetings, Straw has taken to asking fully veiled women to remove the covering from their face, so that he can "see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say". But he believes the issue has broader implications. It is bad for social cohesion, because reading facial expressions helps people from different communities to understand each other; and because the full veil, or naqib, is "such a visible statement of separation and difference".

What he didn't mention, perhaps because it is the most fraught and contorted of all, was the feminist argument. Indeed, feminists themselves - in the West at least - seem increasingly reluctant to make this argument, worn out by years of trying to square an impossible circle.

The conundrum is this: how can we insist on freedom for women, and then demand that they behave in a certain way? How can we assert that women should have total control over their lives and their bodies - that if they want to wear a mini skirt and boob tube on a freezing night in the Bigg Market, that is nobody's business but theirs - and yet baulk if they choose to wear a burqa?

Could our dislike of the veil actually be - oh horrors! - our latent racism and cultural arrogance bubbling to the surface? Nuns in habits or Amish women in bonnets do not provoke the same visceral reaction. These images speak to our collective Christian, European memory: they seem quaint, rather than frightening. Perhaps we should delve deeper into that memory, the better to understand ourselves. Wimples and bonnets were not always picturesque oddities: they were symbols of female modesty, born of a culture that was, for centuries, every bit as dourly misogynistic as fundamentalist Islam.

Jesus might have treated women with kindness and respect, but his followers had other ideas. They quickly reverted to the Old Testament view of woman as the source of all evil (Ecclesiastes: "From a garment cometh a moth, and from woman wickedness"), and set about punishing and controlling her. And, like misogynists through the ages, they began with her appearance.

The third-century Christian thinker Tertullian set the tone in his treatise On Female Dress, in which he asserted that women learnt the arts of beautification from the fallen angels with whom they fornicated. By wearing make-up or alluring clothes, they not only polluted their own bodily temples, but, more importantly, distracted their male superiors from the path of spiritual purity.

Nor was it enough simply to lay off the mascara: women must dress to reflect their guilt over that unfortunate incident in the Garden of Eden. They should "go about in humble garb ... and affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that she might more fully expiate ... the odium attaching to her as the cause of human perdition".

Then, as now, misogyny had two faces. When they weren't being hated, women were revered. If they weren't wicked, they were pure - and this, too, necessitated a certain dress code. Modest attire was imposed upon them for their own "protection", thus making them responsible for men's inability to keep their hands to themselves.

And then, as now, there were many women who were content to go along with this. Women have often been their own worst enemies, fighting liberation all the way lest it lead to moral chaos and the collapse of family values.

Some would say that it has: that Western women have swapped the tyranny of religion for that of capitalist hedonism - all binge-drinking, lap-dancing, declining fertility, divorce and spiritual loneliness. I would say that is a price worth paying for the privilege of making our own mistakes.

And that brings us back to the conundrum. In a free society, no woman should be told what she can and cannot wear. Perhaps, though, she can be made to understand the effect that her choices have on others. If feminists are to join the "debate" that Jack Straw has called for, we must be able to express what it is we are so afraid of. And the answer, I suspect, is the ghost of our collective past.

It is not the veil that offends, per se. When I pass a woman in brightly coloured sari veil, my first thought is "How pretty". But the joyless black of the naqib is something else entirely: a rebuke to prettiness, a denunciation of femininity to satisfy even Tertullian. When we see a woman in a naqib, we hardly see a woman at all: just a dehumanised shape with eyes.

For such flimsy items, clothes carry enormous weight. They advertise what kind of person we are, and they shape the person we become. In the case of women, clothes are - or at least reflect - our destiny. And the veil represents a condition that we hoped was history.