Joan Smith: A burqa for Steven Berkoff: now that's progress

Words like sluttish, wanton and obscene are thrown around
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The Independent Online

Well, it's good to see the misogynists coming out of the woodwork. What's all this fuss over the veil, they ask, and isn't it rather charming to see modestly dressed women on British streets instead of the usual parade of sluts and fashion dupes? I'm not exaggerating: words like sluttish, wanton and obscene are being thrown about by men who still haven't come to terms with the female body, expressing their nostalgia for the time when we were female eunuchs. One correspondent to our sister paper, The Independent, asked what Jack Straw's reaction might be to a young female constituent who turned up at his surgery "with more than half her bosom exposed, a bare midriff and wearing a skirt so short that her underwear can be seen".

Those of you who feel sympathy with this bashful gentleman may wish to throw a coat over this column, for I am writing with a third of my bosom exposed. But the prize for rank misogyny, in what has admittedly been a very good week, goes to the actor, director and writer Steven Berkoff. The veil may be archaic, he admitted, but it is neither "sluttish" nor "repulsive" - unlike "Western women whose sense of self-respect and dignity has long been eroded by their slavish following of the most absurd iniquities of fashion".

Gosh, I have no recollection of meeting Mr Berkoff and I had no idea he knew me so well; I guess he didn't like the red Moschino corset dress I wore to a party the other night, but then you can't please everybody.

What's so instructive about these eruptions of visceral woman-hating is that they explode the argument, made by a number of left-leaning male columnists, that women like myself and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown are getting too worked up about a bit of black cloth. Throughout history, men have expressed their anxiety about women's bodies by insisting on such practices as veiling and claustration, quoting one or other religious authority to justify themselves. Apparently God wants us to stay indoors, avoid talking to strangers, cover our faces, scurry along in garments that make us invisible - and the more women who obey such injunctions, the more vulnerable the rest of us are to contempt and sexual violence.

That's why the veil is an issue that affects us all; not all men are misogynists, and I know many who dislike the puritan ethic behind it as much as I do. Of course we are entitled to say this, in a country whose laws are based on notions of equality and universal human rights. And could I please point out the distinction between telling women not to cover themselves, which I have never done, and explaining why I find the practice of veiling women offensive? On this occasion, the call for women to return to medieval religious standards of "modesty" is coming from conservative Muslims, but the ideology isn't exclusive to Islam. Might I make a suggestion, which is that men who like the idea of women being covered could show solidarity by adopting the veil themselves? A burqa for Mr Berkoff - that's the best idea I've heard all week.