Henry David Thoreau, a poet and philosopher whose writings I wish I were better acquainted with, once said, “It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.” It certainly conjures up some interesting images, but I suspect the point he was making was that if clothing were simple, primarily functional and generally stripped of its layers of meaning, then we would necessarily have to judge people by who they are rather than what they wear.
Clothing is full of meaning. Clothing is seldom ‘just clothing’. Clothing is a cultural statement indicating power, wealth, identity and intention. It is a language, one of many spoken across the world and throughout recorded history, each with its local dialects. Cultural misunderstandings are easy and all too frequent: someone might make the statement, “I am a confident, independent woman and open – perhaps – to sexual advances from the right someone,” only for someone else to see them and understand instead, “I am a woman of no intrinsic worth and may be treated entirely without respect.”
Defenders of the veil (in its many forms) often argue that it’s ‘just clothing’ and people should be allowed to wear what they like. If people genuinely were allowed to wear whatever they liked, then there wouldn’t be such an outcry at public nudity. In truth there are rules upon rules of what is permissible. Some are enshrined in law, some are simply convention and fashion, some are tokens of cultural identity.
Arguments in support of the veil are so often presented in the guise of feminism (‘the liberation is in the choice’) or religious freedom that to speak out against the veil is perilous indeed. Intelligent people with legitimate concerns are reluctant to speak out for fear of an organised backlash from a religious mafia.
I am a feminist and I find the sight of a woman concealed head-to-foot, save perhaps for a glimpse of eyes, highly distressing. Does, I wonder, the woman have any real choice? Is she happy to be isolated from the outside world, or utterly miserable? Is she content to be the property of a man? Added to that is the offensive implication that men are unable to control their desires, or that it is the responsibility of a woman to conceal herself from the uncontrollable desires of men.
If you genuinely believe people should be allowed to wear what they want, then you should fight for the right for all people to wear what they like, and to be safe and treated with respect no matter what. In communities where the veil is the norm, a woman who chooses not to wear the veil cannot be assured of either safety or respect. Sadly, neither can a woman who does choose to wear the veil be assured of either.
I have been thinking much about the veil this past month, and stumbled across Refusing the Veil by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who writes with the clarity and the passion of one who sees a hard-won freedom slipping away.
In August I started writing a sequel to Alexis 5-1-8 without a real sense of where to take it, but it occurred to me eventually that it would be far better to rewrite much of the new material and thread it into the original story. Alexis 5-1-8 is now sitting at 24,000 words, edging into novella territory.
I sent the new version off to yet-another-independent-publisher – three weeks ago, and have heard absolutely nothing so far. Not even a receipt. Sigh… Getting very tempted to just publish it myself.
On a happier note, four of my haiku were accepted for the October edition of Failed Haiku.