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Hijabs, niqabs and wimples

October 05, 2006

When clothing affects relationships

Hello again,

The English language already has words that describe the clothing worn by Muslim women: we can speak of a headscarf, a veil, or even use the old word for a nun’s head-covering, wimple. But, clearly, these words won’t do. The dictionary must open its word store to the new terms to add to other forms of exotic clothing already accepted in English, such as the sari or the toga. None of this seems very controversial, yet ten years ago, we felt no need to use these words. In the past, the Middle Eastern students I taught ...

...seemed to enjoy the opportunity to wear western-style dress when they came to the UK to learn English. I remember a young Saudi doctor very vividly for her vivacity and beauty, who was studying in the UK with her husband. She relished the freedom of choice available to her while she was away but said she was also happy to return to the restrictions of her country as her medical skills were of crucial importance to the women she cared for.

But all this has changed and Muslim women seem much more determined to draw attention to their cultural and religious allegiances while in the West, or because, as natives of a western country, they wish to assert their special identity by wearing their all-enveloping clothing. Fair enough. Many groups proclaim their identity through their costume and the freedom of expression we are proud of allows them to do so. Also, the modesty of covering up is surely more seemly than the flesh-exposing fashions of young British girls. So far, so good.

At least, so it seems on the surface. Yet, there is a deeper issue. In reality all our freedoms are limited by various tenets, some laid down in law, others maintained by common assent and adherence to certain cultural norms. For example, we do not allow people to walk around naked. Sometimes we refuse to let clothing (or lack of it) suitable for one activity to transfer to another: as we saw in Paris in the summer, when people using the banks of the Seine for sunbathing and swimming were arrested if they were not adequately clothed, even though they would have been free to go topless on many French beaches. Safety issues are also a factor. We require protective clothing to be worn for some kinds of work and helmets for motor cycles.

So when it comes to the wearing of the niqab, the veil that covers a woman’s face except for her eyes, I’m with Jack Straw, the UK politician who likes to see the face of the person he is talking to. In western culture the act of hiding the face symbolises guilt and furtiveness, not modesty. We recognize people primarily by their faces. We interact with each other by interpreting facial expressions. I accept absolutely the freedom of women to walk the streets veiled, if that is their choice, but it they want to participate as equals in our institutions, I think it reasonable that they should do so on our terms. That means not covering the face when talking to people and certainly not in the classroom. I would refuse to teach people who did not have the courtesy to show their face to me because I would feel grossly insulted. Yes, I would stick to this principle and would suggest that if these students want lessons, they should have them by telephone or Internet if they won't remove the veil, and that means nobody is aggrieved.

When the Franch banned the hijab (the headscarf) from state schools, I felt at first that it was a heavy-handed and dictatorial move. Now I have changed my mind. We in the West have rights and cultural norms too, and among them is the right to lay down the rules by which people may participate in our institutions. For me that means, for example, that little girls should not be set apart from their peers by being clothed differently at school and that personal interactions are carried out on equal terms, not with one party hiding behind a veil.

Unfortunately for Jack Straw, his comments resulted in a barrage of complaints from sectors of society quick to see intolerance and prejudice as his motives. I shall probably receive the same response but, as a teacher, I have never had any trouble in relating to my students, whatever their background. I have always respected the sensitivities of the various groups I have been in contact with. On this matter, however, I think my sensitivities should be upheld.

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  1. ginnyrossin Says:

    While I do support recognizing the customs while living in the target culture, I think we as ESL teachers (especially!) need to respect the diversity of our students and if it causes someone undue stress or comfort to conform to our standards, I would certainly NOT deny them an education by barring participation in the class. I remember when my married and mother of 2 sister-in-law lived in the Netherlands. She went to the beach with people from the embassy where my brother worked. They asked her if she was a prude because she would not go topless at the beach. Everyone has to draw the line for themselves where they would not compromise their values and morals. As someone who has also lived overseas, I would certainly not defer to the norms of the target culture unless I felt comfortable doing so. And I was never asked to do so, thankfully.

  1. willard underburg Says:

    What is it like the first few days in another country like Japan, when you go there to be a Teacher? Still Wondering, Wills1352@hotmail.com

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