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Karen von Hahn- Oct 22, 2006 (author's email below)



October has been all about the veil. Ever since British House of Commons leader Jack Straw revealed that he has issues with Muslim women in full niqab -- the extreme form of the veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes -- a heated debate has erupted over black polyester.


"Veils suck," said Salman Rushdie (really, he did). The Economist called the choice of an increasing number of young Muslim women to veil themselves "an in-your-face version of a 'Free Palestine' T-shirt." My colleague Margaret Wente wrote that she gets "a chill" whenever she sees a veiled woman in the street, because the veil "stands for a set of behaviours and beliefs that are fundamentally incompatible with those of a liberal democracy."


In The Guardian on Tuesday, British Muslim journalist Zaiba Malik describes seeing herself in the niqab for the first time in her life: "I'm horrified. I have disappeared and somebody I don't recognize is looking back at me." I, too, confess to finding the veil difficult. In the breakfast room of a London hotel, I once sat next to a woman wearing a niqab, and each time she brought a morsel of food to her veiled mouth, I could not help thinking of the medieval figure of Death, sickle cast aside for the moment, over breakfast.


But let's talk fashion for a minute, shall we?


Whether I believe the young women who claim relief from the oppression of the male gaze in donning the hijab, or believe in their right to religious self-expression, I do believe this: They are making a fashion statement. Balzac wrote in the 19th century that dress is a "continual manifestation of intimate thoughts, a language, a symbol" -- an idea that's held sway over semioticists ever since. If the way we present ourselves is full of signs and symbols, the hijab speaks volumes.


First, it is the opposite of white -- the colour that Western culture traditionally associates with religious purity. The colour black, as Alison Lurie writes in The Language of Clothes, is associated with the "powers of darkness rather than those of light. . . . And just as white suggests innocence, black suggests sophistication -- which after all, often consists in the knowledge or experience of the darker side of life: of evil, unhappiness and death."


Black in the West is for mourning, it is the colour of the dangerous (see The Wild Ones), the colour associated with the Dark Arts.


Second, the full hijab is so radical in its concealment that it transforms the wearer's appearance from that of a human being into a sort of apparition. As with the manner in which Western culture depicts ghosts, the vision of a fully cloaked figure, because its means of movement is concealed, appears to hover and suggests mysterious origins.


And then there is the question of modesty. In Judeo-Christian tradition, sexual modesty originates with Adam and Eve, who, once they realized they were naked, were so filled with shame and revulsion, they "sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons." In the Victorian era, a woman was so burdened with crinolines and fastenings that her virtue was as certain as if one had dressed her in a burka. Until the 1960s, it was considered immodest for a Western woman to appear in public without a hat or shake hands unless wearing gloves.


And yes, in 2007, we have all surely had enough of waist-deep décolletage and visible thongs. Yet there is something in the niqab that disturbs in its almost pathological modesty. So hidden is the woman beneath the veil that she appears (rather immodestly, it must be observed) to be shouting, "You are not allowed to look on me."


Young Islamic women who have adopted the veil claim to see it as liberating. But what is the flip side of this radical fashion statement? As British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, backing Straw this week, the full-face veil is a "mark of separation." Inherent in its language, whether or not such a message is intended, is an undercurrent of revulsion -- directed not only at those who would dare to walk around uncovered, but at their very glance.


Ultimately, what troubles me about the black veil is not only that it represents beliefs incompatible with the mainstream. The problem is that, as a sign, it cannot help but be read in Western culture as hostile -- a shield from the hope of any mutual understanding.


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