Mary Dejevsky: Lifting the veil does not liberate women

'It ill behoves Western women to denounce the veil as a symbol of oppression alone'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was a consummate logistical operation of the sort that showed the "special relationship" at the very top of its game. As the First Lads of the US and Britain plotted how to finish off the Taliban without handing a free pass to the Northern Alliance, the First Lasses were deployed in a pincer movement of their own.

From Washington at the weekend, we had Mrs Laura Bush – becoming, so the White House boasted, the "first First Lady to deliver an entire presidential radio address" – denouncing the "severe repression and brutality against women in Afghanistan".

Then in London yesterday we had Cherie Booth QC – speaking on this occasion from Downing Street as Mrs Cherie Blair – exposing the plight of women in Afghanistan, along with some of those fortunate enough to have escaped the Taliban's clutches and a bevy of sympathetic (women) MPs. Now, there are several observations that could be made about these two events. One, invited by the White House press release, would be to congratulate the one-time primary school librarian on being the first First Lady to manage "an entire" radio address by herself. Another would be to remark how America's Republicans would have howled if First Lady Hillary Clinton had tried the same trick.

Yet another, more serious, response would be to lament the gender apartheid implied in both leading ladies' appearances that separates women's issues from mainstream politics and regards women as the only people capable of representing their cause.

It pains me to say so, but I suspect that until the people at the very top, such as President Bush and the Prime Minister, make the cause of women more prominent in their everyday war talk, the male half of the population – either here or in Afghanistan – will see no compelling reason to sit up and take notice.

All of which is by way of a preface to my main concern, which is that we in the West risk simplifying the women's issue in Afghanistan to the point where we do no one a service, least of all the Afghan women themselves.

This is not to detract from the closeted torment of women's lives under the Taliban. Nor to dismiss the unmistakable joy of many women in Kabul and other Afghan cities when their oppressors fled town. It was a delight to see women – some boldly, some more shyly – uncover their faces after five years behind the veil. And it was an inspiration to listen as individual women told of how they were returning to their professional lives as doctors and teachers after their enforced inactivity, even prison.

To listen to much of the Western commentary, however, you might have thought that the liberation of Afghanistan's women boiled down to one thing: liberation from the burqa. There has been a widespread assumption that once women had been freed from the requirement to wear this all-concealing garment, their troubles were at an end. They would be free to work, enjoy themselves and be protected by the law. This is a misnomer. Burqa burning will not automatically generate rights for women where they do not exist. Women can be as powerless uncovered as they were covered, and in societies of overt male dominance, more vulnerable.

To the First Ladies' credit, they dwelt more on fundamental rights – to health, education and personal safety – than on the freedom for women to show their faces in public. Both, however, thereby landed themselves in a new contradiction: how to condemn the Taliban without also condemning other (politically friendly) Muslim countries for their treatment of women.

If there has been much wishful thinking about what casting off the burqa will mean, however, there has been almost as much unthinking condemnation of the veil. Underlying much of what has been said about the defeat of the Taliban and the re-emergence of women has been a simplistic and culturally restrictive equation: uncovered – good; covered – bad.

The burqa, which is so heavy and so all-encompassing, has been raised to totem status in the West and among Westernised Muslims as worst of all, a symbol of all the evils inflicted upon women by Islamic fundamentalism. The reality is, however, that it ill behoves "liberated" Western women to denounce the veil as a symbol of oppression alone. The veil – whether it takes the form of a full burqa, a black chador or just a headscarf worn low over the forehead – is a cultural phenomenon that cannot just be thrown off overnight. For many, especially in rural areas, it is less a mark of subjugation than a protection. In their male-dominated societies, they will be treated as "loose". Their husbands may leave them: and few have an education or means of sustenance outside their marriage.

While the enforced wearing of the veil is something Western women can justifiably condemn, it is the force, not the wearing, that is wrong. To take another view is patronising to Muslim women and may spell danger for them, too.