Sunday 20 June 2010

Behind the veil of prejudice

By Richard Morley.
For the past four Saturdays as I have journeyed on the metro into Madrid city centre, I have travelled, quite coincidentally, in the same carriage as an attractive young lady. I have no idea who she is, but we are obviously creatures of habit. She has a pretty face with large, intelligent, brown eyes. She wears light make up and bright, colourful attractive tops and jeans and stylish shoes. In almost every way a typical modern young lady. Except one. I have no idea what her hair is like. She keeps it covered under a cream coloured headscarf. Or as she would call it, a hijab.

She is one of Madrid’s Muslim population.

Twice a week I take the number 122 bus. I often see a quite tall lady board the bus with her two young children she has just collected from school. All I know about her is that she wears a modern style of spectacles. That’s all I can see. Two bespectacled eyes through a tiny slit in the veil that covers her face. Her head and face is completely hidden, as is her body, under the shoulder to feet black abayah that swathes her.

She is one of Madrid’s Muslim population.

None of this is strange to me. For nearly forty years I have worked in Muslim countries. From Tunis to Muscat I have encountered Muslim women. On shopping expeditions into Surt, in Libya, I would regularly chat to the tee-shirted, blue-jeaned girl at the check-out. In Tunis I went to the zoo with ladies who would not look out of place in any European capital. In Egypt our office typist wore sweaters that had us poor guys eating out of her hand. In Somalia, where the sun beats down and the humidity drowns the girls wear light, thin wraps that disguise nothing. And in the gulf states the women dress in black from head to foot and are totally unapproachable. I went to a Saudi wedding where women were not allowed. When I offered to drive my boss’s wife home I was told this was not allowed as I could not be in the company of a woman who was not a relation. In fact, I rarely met a Saudi woman at all. I had lunch at a friend’s house and his wife hid in the kitchen while he fetched the food.

I wrote the last paragraph to demonstrate that pretty obviously, the rules pertaining to female dress in the world of Islam are not fixed and are a matter of tradition rather than religion. The Koran simply states that women should “dress modestly”, but from country to country the term, “modest” is up for interpretation. I remember reading of an old lady in western Saudi Arabia who said when she was a girl the veil was not a requirement and she was dammed if she was going to start at the age of seventy, as her local imam had told her to. Others told me that the introduction of the abayah into Saudi Arabia came when they were part of the Turkish Ottoman empire. Women had not dressed like that since the days of Mohammed. In the fourteen hundred and odd years of Islam, the abayah and the veil are relatively new. Strangely, the modern Turkish state now bans the veil!

The young lady on the metro with whom I began this piece is actually more “traditional” than the abayah swathed lady on the bus.

What prompts me to write this is the news that the town council of Barcelona has recently passed a law that will make it illegal to wear the veil. A statement from the Barcelona municipal government says, “Barcelona will forbid the use of the burqa, niqab and any other item which hinders personal identification in any of the city's public installations." Actually, this is sloppy reporting and / or interpretation by Reuters as the Burqa is the heavy drape worn in Afghanistan. They really mean the abayah.

Alberto Fernandéz, a member for the conservative Party Popular faction of the Barcelona ayuntamiento, says, "The use of the burqa and niqab undermines the dignity and freedom of women.” He continues, “"The mayoral decree is a half-measure, because as well as forbidding the burqa and niqab in public installations, it is necessary to forbid it on the street”.

The ban will take effect after the summer.

There are similar voices to that of Señor Fernandéz here in Madrid. Not long ago a young Muslim woman was forced to change schools when her school banned the use of head coverings.

Statistics from last year claim that three percent of Spain’s population are Muslim. It used to be much more. (Honestly, no pun intended!) From 711 until 1492 much of Spain was under the rule of Islam, which is about two hundred years longer than the current Catholic church has existed here. Spain is actually very proud of its Islamic architectural heritage. The Alhambra in Granada is one of the country’s most visited sites, as is the mosque in Cordoba. Yet I hear the voice of Madrilleños who dislike this new incursion.

A couple of years ago the ayuntamiento of Madrid gave a building near the Retiro park to the Muslim community. There were posters stuck up everywhere opposing this. Of course, the number of posters, which were the work of Spain’s very right wing Frente Naciónal party, do not accurately reflect the voice of the moderate majority. But they are very vocal and the publicity must make people think.

And I have heard their concerns voiced. With the increase in immigration over the past few years people have voiced concerns about how some neighbourhoods are changing. Places they have lived for years are taking on a whole new character with which they are unfamiliar. Low paid jobs that used to be done by Spaniards and are now performed by immigrants have become a hot topic for discussion in this time of economic crisis.

And there is definitely some prejudice. I remember having this discussion with a Spanish man and he went on and on about the “inmigrantes” and how they were changing the face of his country. After twenty minutes, when I could finally get a word in edgeways, I smiled and said, “But I am an immigrant. I live here permanently, use your health service, your subsidised transport and pay those taxes I have to pay”.

Quickly, perhaps to backtrack a little, he replied, “But you are different”. Meaning, I am quite sure, that I am a white, western European and not different at all, but just like him.

There are a few tens of thousands Western European and North American working in Madrid, and we have been here a long time. Because of the way we dress and act and support ourselves we assimilate and go un-noticed. (I write “in Madrid” because I am all too aware that a lot of my countrymen and women live in other parts of Spain and never try to fit in, which is a pity.) But in the past five years immigration from other parts of the world where people look and dress and act and believe very differently from the Spanish has increased dramatically. The people who arrive on flimsy boats from Africa and other economic migrants cost Spain a small fortune, which is a matter for another post. But they come and are now a very visible presence among us.

And to some, that is frightening.

I was halfway through writing this when the minister of Justice, Fransisco Caamaño, made a decree in the Spanish government. Following on from what I wrote earlier about Barcelona he declared that “the use of the burqa in pubic spaces would be banned nationwide”. He stated, “(The wearing of these clothes) is incompatible with human dignity and above all with the fundamental elements of identification of people in public areas”. In his judgement, “The burqa does not respect the dignity of humanity, and especially that of women”. In our society he probably voices the opinion of many.

Now, there are some ladies, and I use the term loosely, who are not of immigrant descent around Madrid who also dress in a not very dignified manner. Especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Should they be legislated against also?

And while I am reporting the Justice Minister’s edict, I might point out that he was talking about a change in the “Ley de Libertad Religiosa”, the law of religious liberty, to restrict the wearing of these clothes that are only worn by those of the Islamic faith. There is some irony here, surely. If he is to change this particular law, to be just, he cannot restrict the wearing of apparel for only one religion. No one will be able to wear any clothing that pertains to a religion. So if Muslims cannot wear what they feel most comfortable in, then to be fair, neither can any other religion, which would encompass all the nuns, monks and priests in Spain.

And what would the Pope be allowed to wear if he made a pastoral visit?

One of his predecessors, Pope Innocent III, in 1215, decreed that those of differing faiths would indeed wear different clothing as he considered it important to be able to tell a Jew or Muslim at a glance. His point was that if no one knew who was who the Christian church could be infiltrated and Christian values distorted. Two of the canons he enacted stated that, “Jews and Muslims shall wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians. Christian princes must take measures to prevent blasphemies against Jesus Christ”.

Today, Islam is concerned about Christian doctrine influencing the philosophy of Mohammed.

There has been some debate about the appropriateness of clothes for young girls that imitate those of their more mature sisters. Recently in the UK there was an outcry about padded bikini tops for pre-pubescent girls. But the truth is that girls do want to grow up quickly. And funnily enough this is also displayed in Islamic cultures too. A few years ago a mother in Saudi Arabia wrote to a newspaper asking for advice about her young daughter who WANTED to wear the abayah despite not yet having reached the age of menarche, when she would have her first period. Before that age the abayah is not required, but her daughter wanted to emulate her elder sisters and her mother wanted her to stay a little girl.

You see, it’s cultural - not religious. And that little girl did not think it infringed her dignity to wear the abayah. It made her more grown up, more dignified. So before politicians start making claims they should understand the facts.

My own feeling is that people should wear what the hell they like. I must confess to having a prejudice against hats. I can’t trust anyone who wears one. But then some people feel like that about beards and I have one of those. So that fear, like mine with hats, is irrational. It’s the same with someone else’s traditional dress.

However, I will also confess that when the veiled woman gets on the bus with her kids, I feel uneasy. I cannot make that first impression we all do when we see a stranger for the first time. We have good reason for asking motorcyclists to remove their helmets when entering a bank or other public building and see no reason why another group of people should not also obey those rules.

I have no problem with the girl on the metro. A headscarf does not present a danger to security. For purposes of security the veil should be banned, but don’t try to disguise this legislation under laws of equality, women’s rights or religious freedoms. This would actually remove a freedom.

Close to where I live is Madrid’s mosque. As I walked past it yesterday on the way to lunch with friends I saw lots of kids outside playing like any other kids. Watching over them was a woman in an abayah, her face UNcovered. It seemed all perfectly normal to me. Why does it frighten others? Is it because they are different?

I thought Spain approved of being different.


  1. Very interesting post! I've also been told by Spanish people that I am not an "immigrant", but that I was merely an American living in Spain. It's interesting to hear the changing definition of immigrant. Also, I agree with the law for security purposes, but the fact they are claiming to do this to protect human dignity or women's rights is just silly.

  2. Agreed entirely. Back in the UK, I worked with a few Muslim women. Some wore the headscarf, some didn't. None wore the full niqab. I once asked one of the hijab wearers, out of curiosity, why she wore it. She told me chose to wear it, it made her feel closer to her religion but she did not feel under any pressure at all to wear it, and most female members of her family chose not to wear it. She didn't believe that it was even anything to do with "modesty", simply that it was the style of cultural/traditional dress that she chose to continue wearing when she came to the UK.

    It is a sad fact that we have to have rules/laws based on security issues, but that is the world we live in. And I too equate people being asked/forced to remove such head-coverings in public buildings with that of motorcyclists having to remove their crash helmets in banks etc. It is a simple question of being able to identify people, should the need arise. I'm sure there are those who are against that very principle, probably the same people who don't think we should have CCTV cameras or ID cards (yes, I know the latter is no longer an issue!) I have always wondered, though, how one of those people would feel if something happened to them in a public place (a robbery, a rape, a violent attack), if the police were unable to identify the perpetrator because there were no CCTV cameras to capture the images, or if the person had been able to carry it out while swathed from head to foot in material.

    I realise that this would only apply if the attack happened in one of these public buildings, and I don't think for one second that a government can, or should be able to, dictate what people wear when walking in a public street. However, they need to do what they can!

    To disguise the recent laws in Catalunya as an attempt to avoid the oppression of women is insulting. Tell the truth - you want to be able to see everyone's faces in case they do anything illegal!

  3. I pretty much despise all religions so I don’t really know where I stand on this argument. I think that it’s a bit naive to think that women in Muslim society do much of the choosing. How many women in Saudi Arabia can choose NOT to wear the hijab? Muslim women are excluded from much of the decision making. I think that a society has the right, even the duty to inculcate its citizens with the values it holds dear. I think that the intention of these laws banning strict Islamic dress is an attempt to give women a bit of leverage to reject it themselves. This may be a bit misguided and it’s almost certainly ineffective but I don’t think it is about prejudice, at least not at its core.

    In the West we have spent over a century trying to raise the status of women to something along the lines of equality to men. Are we supposed to let this progress slip away simply to accommodate medieval religions practices?

  4. When the new King suceeded his brother in Saudi Arabia he raised the point of bringing women into the workforce, to allow them a greater say in what they wanted, a degree of independence. He wanted to do away with some of the more restrictive laws concerning women and, of course, many women, especially those with experience of life outside of the country, welcomed this. However, one group of women raised a petition against this. I have met Saudi men who supported women's right to chose - and also those who basically thought that women did not possess the intelligence to choose! Brave women who have chosen not to go covered in public could be punished by the religious police - with a big stick! Changes in that country will take a long time. However, women who appear on TV do have their faces uncovered.
    You write about "society" which, suposedly democratically write the rules for us to follow, but "society" is in a state of change and those new members of our society must also be allowed to have their views respected.

  5. I would say that their views must be tolerated. That's not the same thing as respecting them. I don't have to respect someone's ridiculous religious views but I am obliged to tolerate all sorts of stupidity.

  6. I lived in Riyadh for a year, and I'm still not entirely over it after 17 years. The way they treat women is nothing short of abominable. My following 13 years in Dubai were somewhat different, but still, I knew ladies who wore the abaya and covered their faces and hair because their fathers / brothers insisted on it. I never knew one who chose to do that. And in the outrageous heat of the Arabian peninsula, black is not the best choice of colour to wear.

    To be frank, fundamentalist Islam (or Christianity, or Judaism, come to that) freaks me out. I know lots of moderate Muslims who are also pissed off with what the Fundies say. But they don't have a voice you'll ever hear.

    At the risk of sounding bigoted or racist or whatever, I have to say that expressions of extreme Islam are not welcome to me when I am in Europe - I had penty of that in the Arabian Gulf, thank you. I might even go so far as to say, 'when in Rome...' My wife had to wear an abaya in Saudi, we had to observe Ramadan in Dubai. That was understood as part of our being in those places. So how is it wrong for Europeans to say 'don't cover your hair / face, and wear proper clothes please'?

    Oh, and if anyone tries to introduce Sharia law in Europe, I will gladly get me a big stick and seek them out.

  7. For purposes of facilitating easy identification, face coverings should be banned and that has nothing to do with religious beliefs, or otherwise.

    The Muslim world should also realize that they only have themselves to blame when reacting to the ban. If the world did not have to put up with terrorism, perpetrated by some of the religious fanatics, we would not have to consider such actions.

  8. This was not meant to be an article criticising Islam. To show my credentials, I have been described as an "Evangelical Aetheist". I was trying to demonstrate some people's reaction to a cultural form of dress, not denigrate those who wear it. It is just another side to Spain, a country I find facsinating in its diversity.

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  10. I didn’t know that you can’t trust me to bring hat, but it requires my bold.
    It’s interesting your review of political developments on to avoid the Burka and others common Muslims clothes:
    The transpolatión that you did can lead to a homogenization that who do not use the regulated dress would be outcast from society.
    But it’s clear, the society must governed by rules and these always limit the freedom of one or to the other.
    An intelligent position seemed of Figueras hall, which avoid carrying masked in public buildings without reference to any particular piece, ignoring the religious connotation.
    Hide the face may have two different connotations: the first it’s the women can’t do it voluntarily because of pressure from the husband, so that society must protect women, historically and actually she suffer frequent limitations and differences sex. The second: the facial expression, eyes, faces, eyes, health, a part of the language, equally or more important than the sound of words, hide half face is like to close half mouth when she wants to express something.
    The norms of a society can not be transferred to another, neither here can dress, eat or behave like the desert or we could go there with bikini or share to our colleagues at work or studies as we do here.
    Best regards

  11. Hi Richard, you write really well, and what a great post with some refreshing insights! My father is muslim but I consider myself pretty much atheist - and I have really mixed feelings about hijab... one one hand I think it does represent oppression, and on the other I know from first hand experience (my family) that many women choose to wear it - in my Sudanese cousins' case despite the outrage of their fathers!! It's almost like a fashion for some modern muslim women. Some being the operative word here. I think you're very right to highlight the variety of dress in the muslim world as I get quite tired of people making generalisations about muslim women. This will sound controversial I know, but as a 'western' woman I don't always feel particularly free either - here it's not a question of obligation though, no-one's going to make me cover my hair (and often it's not obligation 'over there' either - with obvious exceptions like Saudi), but there is this constant pressure from society and media to have the right body, the right hair, the right clothes, and juggle this with a super-woman career and being a domestic goddess in the kitchen - I know it's a somewhat different argument, but thought I'd get it off me chest anyway! I wrote a short post on hijab here - thought I'd share :-)

  12. I sat through a similar rant from a Spanish woman who was complaining about her foreign (mainly Eastern European) co-workers. Apparently their high work ethic was making the native workers look bad.

    What she didn't realise is that the majority of people at the table had at least one foreign parent.