Local Time

Friday, June 11, 2004

Forget fashion, this is freedom

By Stella White

The Muslim veil has become a hot political issue in France - but Stella White cannot see what the fuss is about. A Catholic from Kent, she explains the joys of the complete cover-up

To liberated Westerners, the hijab, or veil, is a stain on womankind. It symbolises the crushing of the female spirit and is the mark of slavery, transforming a woman into a passive lump who is only allowed out of the house to buy her husband's dinner.

When faced with this piece-of-cloth-on-legs, English women will often meet the eyes peeking out of the hijab with an expression of pity and sadness. For them, the veil represents a living death. This might also be the feeling of the French authorities, who have decided to ban the hijab in schools, believing that no young girl should have to carry the burden of repression on her tender head.

Yet for many, including myself, the veil is not an instrument of coercion, but a means of liberation. Personally, I have never felt so free as I do when I am wearing it.

Before you presume that I am regurgitating propaganda from a culture that has brainwashed me, I should point out that I am a Catholic, not a Muslim. I am not from the mysterious East, but am a 32-year-old woman from boring Kent. Nor am I a prude: my life has included spells as an exotic dancer, kissogram and glamour model. Three of my best friends are strippers. I have had relationships with Muslim men, but none of them ever demanded I wear the hijab; in fact, they found my behaviour slightly embarrassing. There is nobody in my past that has coerced me to wear a veil. I do so simply because I love it.

I relish the privacy; the barrier that the hijab creates between myself and the harsh, frenetic world, especially in London. I find a great peace behind the veil: I don't feel invaded by nosy passers-by; the traffic, noise and crowds seem less overwhelming. I can retreat into my own safe world even as I walk and, on a practical level, I feel completely secure from unwanted advances.

The hijab is also a financial security system. Like most pedestrians in London, I can't afford to give money to every homeless person I see, but feel stressed and guilty when I walk past them. In my hijab, my conscience can hide. I also feel fairly safe from muggers. Thieves glance at me and probably think, "illegal immigrant; not worth the effort", presuming that my big carrier bags contain only weird, knobbly vegetables for my 16 children.

In my hijab, shopping is also cheaper. A small minority of Muslim traders operate a two-tier pricing system with the "one of us" price being considerably lower than the price for Westerners. If I want a bargain, I make sure I am "hijabbed-up".

The most amazing effect of wearing the veil is that you automatically seem to become a member of the Muslim community and are accorded all of the privileges and dignity of a Muslim woman. When I walk into a Muslim shop, a man will say to me, gently, "Salaam aleikum [peace be upon you]. How can I help you, madam?" On the bus, Muslim men from Africa, the Middle East or the Far East will move aside for me and say, "After you, sister."

The offices, bars and clubs of London are full of English girls in short skirts and strappy sandals, many of them looking for love. Women who wear the hijab, often despised by the West, actually feel sorry for these Western women who have to harm themselves with crippling high heels, skin-choking make-up and obsessive dieting in order to find a man.

My Iranian friend Mona is a successful businesswoman who goes out every day looking impeccable, with painted nails, stilettos, sharp suits and perfect make-up. "It was just so much easier when I was in Iran," she says. "You'd get up at nine, throw on your big black hooded dress and jump in the car. Now, I have to spend two or three hours getting done up every morning."

Too often, the hijab is dismissed as the preserve of Muslim fundamentalists. But in the Christian tradition, St Paul ordered women to cover their heads and, until the Sixties, no woman would be seen in an English church without a hat and gloves. Many English women wore hats out in the street or headscarves tied under their chin. Hindu and Sikh women are still expected to cover their heads loosely for their honour, or izzat, and Orthodox Jewish women have traditionally worn wigs over their real hair to conceal it from men who are not their husbands. Yet, among all these cultural groups, only Muslim women seem to have been described as weak or oppressed on account of their headgear.

Two of the most unlikely bedfellows are the woman who wears a hijab and the militant feminist. When women in the early Seventies began cropping their hair short, and wearing dungarees and comfortable shoes, they were rejecting the idea of suffering for fashion and were refusing to take part in the desperate ritual to attract spoilt, fussy males. Similarly, a woman in a hijab can retain her identity without being a slave to finicky Western notions of beauty.

A particularly sad article appeared in a popular women's magazine last week, entitled: "How to hate your body less." I showed it to my Arab friend Malika, who shook her head and said: "In my culture, men are so grateful when they marry a woman that they see her as a gorgeous princess, whatever shape or size she is."

Within the hijab, Muslim women know their power and their value. One Muslim man told me: "My wife is like a beautiful diamond. Would you leave a precious diamond to get scratched or stolen in the street? No, you would wrap it in velvet. And that is how the hijab protects my wife, who is more precious to me than any jewel."

Of course, if anybody tried to remove my veil or force me to wear it, I would react violently. I am privileged to live in a country in which I can wear whatever I want to. Not all women are so lucky. Personally, I have found in the hijab a kind of guardian angel. My mother, on the other hand, claims that I wear it because I can't be bothered to brush my hair.



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