Joan Smith: Heels show the humanity burkas lack

When a Romanian minister brought flood victims a gift of stilettos, she was giving them more than shoes

Sunday 18 July 2010 00:00 BST

Until last week I had never even heard of Elena Udrea, but now I'd like to give her a big hug. Ms Udrea is a tourism minister in Romania, where there have been heavy rains, and she turned up in the flood-stricken town of Saucesti with 20 tonnes of aid – and boxes of high-heeled shoes. She also brought chocolate, which made me warm to her even more. I just hope I encounter someone like her if I am ever caught up in a natural disaster.

It goes without saying that Ms Udrea came in for a barrage of criticism. "I would like to see her try walking over a mud-filled road in high-heeled shoes," one local complained. That would be fair only if the minister had brought nothing but boxes of black stilettos, and anyway it misses the point of the gesture. "We have beautiful shoes for you," she told local women, showing her superior understanding of human nature. When dreadful things happen, people temporarily lose sight of the future. A beautiful pair of shoes isn't just a reminder of another world; it's a promise that a moment will come when you belong to that world again.

A few weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, I was looking at photographs of a family living in the most dreadful conditions and there, in the middle of their makeshift home, was a cat. You might argue that this family had enough problems without looking after a pet, but I think that such impulses show human beings at their best. We are creatures with imagination – which is what Ms Udrea's gift of shoes was intended to stimulate – and a need to connect with other living entities, human and otherwise.

Naturally this brings me to another event which happened last week, which is the vote by French lawmakers to ban the wearing of the burqa in public places. The other day I found myself standing next to a woman wearing one of these ludicrous garments in a London supermarket. All I could see were her eyes, darting across the vegetables in front of us, and it was quite an effort not to burst out laughing. Was she anticipating an assault by rampant carrots? Did she feel threatened by the display of naked lettuce? I am not fond of Tesco, which is where I happened to be, but I'm also not aware of the staff having a reputation for rape and pillage.

I'm not surprised that there is massive public support in France for banning the burqa (and, by the way, to punish men who force women and girls to wear it). It's expected that the ban will be approved in the upper house, the Senate, in September; only one deputy voted against it in the lower house, although most socialists and communists abstained. That doesn't mean I think it's the right thing to do, and my guess is that when it becomes law there will be a parade of burqa-wearing martyrs. We'll see television footage of "modest" Muslim women being marched home by French police, and I have no doubt that Islamists around the world will love every minute of it.

Political Islam is always on the lookout for opportunities to present Muslims as victims of evil Western governments, despite its own failure to develop a consistent critique of human rights abuses; Islamists will campaign for the right of women to wear burqas, but not for their right to wear Western clothes or for the abolition of barbaric punishments such as stoning. That's why I think the French vote is a political mistake, even though I sympathise with some – not all – of the impulses behind it. The chief problem with the burqa isn't that it's unFrench or unBritish; the most cogent objection is that it's inhuman, no matter where it's worn in the world.

At the same time, the debate about it tends to be curiously ahistorical and divorced from class. When I arrived at a Muslim wedding in a palace in Beirut a few years ago I was momentarily taken aback, but that was because my outfit came from Portobello market in west London and all the other women were wearing Valentino or Prada. These women were Shia Muslims but they would no more think about covering their faces with black cloth than I would, and I expect they'd have been absolutely thrilled if someone turned up with gifts of high heels in the darkest days of the Lebanese civil war.

It is predominantly Muslim women from poor backgrounds who wear the burqa or the niqab, just as poor Catholic women in Ireland used to dress head-to-toe in black. The natural sequence of events is that the custom begins to wane with the emergence of a prosperous middle class, but political Islam is a conscious attempt to halt that process.

It moved up a gear with the Iranian revolution, which forced women into chadors against their will and ignited a contest with some Sunni Muslims to see who could produce the most pleasure-hating form of Islam. So far it's been a close call as Shia Iran competes with Sunni Saudi Arabia – don't even get me started on the Afghan Taliban – to exercise the most paranoid forms of control over women's bodies.

In Western countries, Muslim women often say they have chosen to wear the niqab or burqa of their own free will. That's true in some cases, but I'm not convinced that they're being completely frank about the reasons behind the choice. Face-covering isn't prescribed by mainstream Islam, and I have been to plenty of Muslim countries where women cover just their hair or don't cover their heads and faces at all; interpretations of Islam which demand face-veils are linked either to tribal customs which pre-date Islam or puritan sects such as Wahabism, which are a fairly late invention.

There is nothing new about the conflict between puritanism and the desire to celebrate the human body – it has gone on throughout history – but in the case of the burqa we should be clear that the motivation for wearing it is almost wholly political.

A woman who walks down a street in Paris or Nice or London in a burqa is signalling several things, none of them life-affirming or friendly. She is expressing suspicion of people she doesn't know, perhaps even hostility, and a rejection of the relaxed attitudes to the body which characterise modern secular culture. She's also embodying a series of paradoxes, including the fact that in western Europe the supposedly "modest" burqa is as eye-catching as a bikini, and perhaps more likely to draw "unwanted" attention. Here's another: a British Muslim who wears the niqab once boasted to me that she kept it on while giving birth, conjuring up a hilarious scenario in which she was more worried about NHS doctors catching sight of her nose than her vagina.

This is preposterous – so preposterous that it isn't worth legislating against. Frankly, I'd much rather live in a modern country where flood victims are offered stilettos than one where they're expected to scuttle about in grim black cloaks. In the historic struggle between burqas and high heels, I'm firmly on the side of the shoes.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde:

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