Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The beauty secrets of Asian women

'Behind that moving shroud, Afghan women still felt the need to adorn themselves, even if it might lead to a torture chamber'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two separate stories, seemingly unconnected but actually entwined, emerged this weekend, each in its own way questioning the idea that Muslim women who wear hejab or the burqa are serene and content with the way they look, untouched by the punishing pressures of media-generated beauty myths which have left most of the rest of us unable to live in peace with our faces and bodies.

Story No 1: A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders reveals that the veil does not protect women from those compulsions and anxieties which flow from feeling physically imperfect.

The study, by Tracy Mann, a professor of health psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles, compared female Iranian university students in Tehran with those studying in western universities. Professor Mann wanted to find out whether attitudes to beauty and body shape differed significantly and to test whether media images were causing higher levels of eating disorders and anorexia in western countries.

The results were startling. Women in Iran were just as obsessed with their weight as those in the West and were as likely to suffer from eating disorders. What's more, they felt they needed to lose twice as much weight, on average, as their Western counterparts.

Story No 2: News is emerging, so my human rights friends in Pakistan tell me, of how the Taliban tortured women in prisons for disobedience to their menfolk, for alleged immodesty or adultery, for being suspected of political activities and for being interested in make-up and ornaments. In the women's prison in Kabul, they have found lipsticks, bangles, perfume, even stockings, all evidence, apparently, of the depravity which the regime wanted to stamp out. So behind that moving shroud (And please don't tell me women must want the burqa because they have not all thrown it off to dance semi naked in the streets. They can't give up something that they have lived under for so many years without fear and they don't trust the men from the Northern Alliance not to violate them.) these women still felt the need to adorn themselves, even when they knew that it might lead them into a torture chamber. In two cases, my informants tell me, their husbands reported them to the Taliban because they hated the women making themselves look beautiful, even though they were seen only by other women, mostly in the family.

There has been much argument this week over whether Cherie Blair was right to say that the burqa worn by the women of Afghanistan symbolises utter degradation and oppression. Perhaps it is to be expected that those for and against this position have argued loudly and with immovable conviction. Uproar on both sides. Feminists and liberals wholly applauded her statements while devotees of the hejab hated her presumptuousness and felt she had no business attacking religious and cultural practices which she knew nothing about. Did she not understand that covered women had greater freedoms and equality than Western women?

In her book, A Glimpse Through Purdah (1999), researcher Sitara Khan, who works in Yorkshire, found these views were widespread among the Muslims she interviewed. One reader's letter to a newspaper captured what I have heard many times over: "I wear the burqa, and would want my daughters to because this frees us from the horrible looks and wants of men outside the family and also makes us happy to be what we are. I don't need to diet, or to colour my lips. My husband likes me how I am and always will. Non Muslim women [have] nervous breakdowns because they must be young forever and look like film stars."

As ever, the truth is more messy and complex and I hope the stories I alluded to will lead us to reconsider the bland and brash statements we have all been making on the lives and desires of women in veils. I am convinced that Western ideas of beauty have been stamped across the world and that it is hard not to be influenced by them. I cannot look in the mirror without feeling a failure because the whole world is thinner, younger and indescribably lovelier.

Bollywood actresses were once plump and pretty and of all ages. Now they all look like Cindy Crawford and seem always to wear green contacts to hide their dark eyes. The same is true in Africa and elsewhere. Maybe the Iranian women are simply reflecting this other pernicious kind of globalisation.

But it could be that these anxieties are worse for Iranian and other veiled women because they are so desperate to get some kind of control over their lives, some kind of autonomy, in an existence which offers so little personal freedom and choice. I wonder if being forced to wear the veil (as happened to educated women in Iran during the revolution, when they were imprisoned and beaten if they refused to cover themselves) made them start to focus inwards. Denied the right to be attractive in public places, perhaps they become obsessed with attractiveness in private places, inside their cloaks. Professor Mann found that Iranian women in Tehran craved empty stomachs and hard exercise regimes.

Remember, too, that these societies, which allow men so many more rights, may be making women fearful that they will be easily discarded. Mary Wollstonecraft was right when she wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Women: "Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round in its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison." I know many Arab women who wear the burqa and who spend a fortune on make-up, expensive perfumes and fabulous underwear and who queue up in Harley street for cosmetic surgery, especially when they get to their thirties and begin to fear that their husbands will dump them for younger wives. But maybe it is subversion which motivates all this beautifying and ornamentation. This may be how Afghan and Iranian women reclaim some power. Even in the worst days of Taliban rule, secret beauty salons in the backs of houses still permed, hennaed and waxed hair and had fun little make-up parties where they could defy the powers and regain some joy in their bleak lives.

I met a student from Afghanistan in April who is studying beauty and hairdressing in London. She chooses to wear the hejab but this, she tells me, is 'nothing, just a scarf. Doesn't mean I don't like make-up or nice things like you." She can't wait, she told me, to get back to Kabul. "Women here are so busy they have no time to look beautiful. At home they have so much time so they sit all the afternoon making their skin and hair look beautiful, to make fashionable clothes, not for the men but each other. This is important for us, so please understand and don't just think we are stupid like quiet cows under a stick." One day, perhaps, such activities will once more be possible and my friend will go back and open her salon. I accept that for her and others this beauty business is empowerment. But I fear that for others, like the anorexic Muslim women in Tehran, it is an expression of self doubt and desperation. And we should all be concerned about that.