I can’t look inside your head: you’re wearing a burqa

Indulge me while I persevere with the content of Marie Claire magazine. For all Marie Claire’s apparent attempts to create a global consciousness among women, albeit through the purchase of cosmetics and fashionable apparel, there was one article, by Marian Keyes, that caught my attention for its patronising smugness and parochialism.

Marian Keyes writes enormously successful novels about women and aimed at women. I would doubt if any of her books’ protagonists has ever voluntarily donned a burqa, but this is the subject of her Marie Claire column this month.

Titled ‘Burqas for Modesty? Do me a favour.’, Keyes charts how her ‘bleeding-heart liberalism’, which had indulged such conceits as liking gay marriage and disliking Augusto Pinochet, ground to a halt when she got round to considering whether or not people should be free to perform female circumcision. This led her in turn to consider whether she should consider extending her censure to other less, ah, clean-cut cultural practices.

She says:

‘Freedom for Muslims to live their lives according to the Koran = good. Freedom for Muslim women to conver their heads…. No, I’m sorry, I can’t go through with this: I have to say that I’m not comfortable that some Muslim women voluntarily cover their heads. (I’m not happy about the ones who involuntarily cover their heads either, but there’s nothin I can do about them)’

She does not say if she is comfortable with non-Muslim women, such as nuns, chemotherapy patients and camogie players voluntarily covering their heads. We can assume, then, that it’s not so much the women covering their heads that’s the problem, but the fact that they are doing so in accordance with exclusively Muslim beliefs.

She continues:

‘The reason for the head-shrouding is ‘modesty’ – a lack of it ‘inflames’ men – and I can’t help feeling that creating a culture where ‘decent’ women are expected to cover themselves is very dangerous. It’s making women responsible for men’s sexual urges and it’s setting things up for a return to the days when a woman in a short skirt was ‘asking for it’: if women don’t dress or behave modestly and they’re assaulted, it’s their fault.

In short, then, Muslim women voluntarily covering their heads will lead to the rape of women in short skirts. And rape, Keyes continues, is a very horrible thing indeed:

(It is..) a humiliating, ugly, angry crime, the only form of violation that I can think of that’s experienced almost entirely by women.

Male victims of rape in prison might beg to differ. Perhaps these people are irrelevant to the matter at hand, as their rapists are unlikely to have given very much consideration to Muslim women in burqas. In any case, the key issue here is women’s rights:

Women’s rights have advanced slowly and we’re still a long way from enjoying equality with men. If women begin behaving as if their own body is sexually incendiary unless it is covered up, they are presenting themselves as sex objects and putting the chances of equality back by not just years, but decades

The ‘modesty’ that the burqa affords them then, is anything but: paradoxically, it signifies sexual objectification and inequality. But why the burqa, worn by scientists, engineers and in some places police officers? Why not Celebrity Love Farm? Why not The Thong Song, or the fantastically glossy advertisements in Marie Claire featuring emaciated waif models?

As one of Marian Keyes’s characters might say, let’s not even go there. At least not yet.

According to her interpretation, the voluntary wearing of the burqa sends out the message that women are sexual objects. But worse than that, according to her judgement, it’s not even an authentic religious practice, but a mere conceit for British and European Muslim women, who, she speculates are probably unaware of what it really means to cover one’s head:

‘And I can’t help wondering how the British and European Muslim women who choose to cover their heads would fare in Saudi Arabia, where they’d be forced to spend their days swathed head-to-toe in stifling, heavy shrouds. Women still don’t have the vote there, for God’s sake.’

Eh? Why should covering one’s head in Rotherham or Marseille have anything to do with cultural practices in Saudi Arabia? Does wearing a ‘hoodie’ in Dalkey presuppose a direct link to members of the Crips and the Bloods in South Central LA? According to Keyes’s logic, it could do.

She continues:

Muslim women will accuse me of not understanding them and I’ve two words for them: Irish Catholic.

Cue the sound of jubilant cries as burqas all over England are tossed in the air. Ignore the fact that Irish Catholics, unlike Muslim women, do a fair amount of drinking. No. Wait. There’s more:

we were advised against wearing patent shoes in case men saw the reflection of our gussets in them

Hmm. I’m not too sure about this. In the last patent shoe craze, back when Bros were popular, I was starting secondary school. A Catholic secondary school, with some nuns in it. And the odd visiting priest. Patent shoes were permitted as part of the school uniform, for boys and girls alike. Although I don’t recall too many boys wearing them. Maybe those who did are now Marian Keyes fans, who knows?

Anyway, this is getting tiresome. It seems that anecdotes about wearing patent shoes in Catholic Ireland are adequate credentials for understanding Muslim women. All 400 million of them.

She concludes:

So I’m not just concerned about a Muslim practice, I’m slagging off aspects of Christianity, too.

Which is nice of her. No mention of nuns, though.

And any other belief system that seeks to objectify women

Apart from the belief system propagated by women’s magazines, presumably.

I realise that this has been a rather hopeless exercise. Railing against the opinions on head covering expressed in the column of a women’s magazine that makes quite a lot of money advertising shampoos and cosmetics is a bit like railing against the characters in an episode of Dynasty for a lack of moral agency.

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May 2005

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