This media storm about Jack Straw’s thoughts on veiled women got me thinking at the weekend. Not that my thoughts led to any meaningful conclusions, but still.
I decided to only consider the issue in terms of women who have made the decision to wear a veil – let’s leave aside issues of compunction and oppression – I don’t want to deny these women the right to, for whatever reason, cover their faces in public if they wish to. To say that they are misguided or somehow incapable of making that decision in a positive way strikes me as insulting in the extreme. So, I started by wondering why it is that women’s clothes are considered to be so politicised. I thought about our society’s commoditisation of women’s bodies. Are these women revolutionaries – removing their faces and bodies from our shared economy? Seen in this light, I could imagine the freedom that the veil brings women – it’s a big get lost to a society that encourages young girls to dress as “available”. Do we need to see their faces; do we need to lay them bare against their wills? I thought that there wasn’t a male equivalent, but then realised that there were at least two.
I imagined a time before the balaclava had been adopted by the world’s paramilitaries. Was there ever a time where a balaclava’ed silhouette was innocent of menace? Then I remembered the signs on the doors of shops and banks that show a crash-helmeted head: friend or foe, we don’t know. I smiled as I imagined a new sliding scale sign that shows a balaclava, a crash helmet and then a niqab – friend or foe? We don’t know.
I guess I’m slow on the uptake because it took me a while to realise that this isn’t about openness and conversation, it’s about our fear of terror. Today’s newspapers with their stories of niqab-wearing airport-security dodgers and escaping terrorist suspects makes it clear: choose not to face the world and we will assume you’re turning your back on us before blowing us up. Which brings me back to my original thought – this society has made the attempt to avoid the commoditisation of the self an inescapable crime.