By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
The Evening Standard
Last week when I was browsing in shops on Chiswick High Road, I became aware of awoman shadowing me, rather too close in that private space we all subconsciously carry around us.
She was covered from head to toe in a black burkha Tight, white gloves covered her hands and her heels clicked. She wore perfume or hair oil smelling of roses . At one point, I nearly tripped over her foot and she said ‘sorry’ softly.
I drove home and twenty minutes later the doorbell rang. I opened the door to see thewoman standing there, her raven cloak billowing as gusts of wind blew up from the park opposite. Her eyes were light brown. She said nothing at first, then asked in perfect English if she could come in. I felt panic rising. Because I write on controversial issues at this fraught time, death threats come my way and I have been advised by the police to be extremely careful about loitering strangers.
‘Please, please, l know who you are and I must speak to you, I saw you in the shops, and followed you in my friend’s car. I must show you something’ . ‘Who are you?’ I asked, even more scared now. She pleaded some more, told me her name, showed me her EU passport.
She was from somewhere near Bolton she said. I let her in. She took off her burkha to reveal a sight I shall never forget.
There, before me was a woman so badly battered and beaten, that she looked painted in deep blue, purple and livid pink. The sides of her mouth were torn- ‘he put his fist in my mouth because I was screaming’, she explained.
‘Who did?, who did this to you?’ ‘My father and two brothers and then they forced me to wear the niqab (burka) , so no-one can see what they’ve done.
Many families do this, to keep their black secrets. They beat up the women and girls because they want them to agree to marriages or just because the girls want a little more independence, to go to college and that. Then they make them wear the burkha to keep this violence a secret. They know the police are now getting wise to honour killings and so they have this sheet to hide the proof’.
Over the afternoon she sobbed and told me about the horrors of her own life and her dead friend, killed, she claims by family members who felt she had shamed them:’ But she had done nothing at all. Someone told the family they saw their daughter talking to a couple of guys at the bus stop and that she was holding the hand of one of them. It was a lie.
But this gossip can kill us’. In her own case she says at first her father and brothers wanted to know if she too was as ‘bad’ as her friend. So they beat her to get her to confess to things she hadn’t done. Then they tried to get her to quit her teacher training course and when she refused, they locked her in a bedroom and carried on abusing her, the youngest brother in particular who was, she said, maddened with suspicion.
A few days ago she escaped, with her passport and a friend drove her to London. I have a contact who runs an safe refuge in the north west of the city. We trust each other. I got ‘S’ a place there and gave her some money, enough to live on for a few weeks.
She has my number and I hope she calls if she needs to. As I dropped her off she said she was feeling guilty that the escape would break her mother’s heart. Her mother’s heart, I said, should have broken to witness what was done to her daughter. ( including what I did next to help I THINK YOU NEED TO GIVE AN IDEA: IECALLED A RFEUGE) Some of what she told me has to be kept confidential for her safety and mine.
‘S’ was twenty five, from a chemistry graduate, and a battered woman imprisoned in black polyester.
This incident set me thinking again about the burka and whether we, as a liberal country, should accept it. There has been a marked increase in the use of burkhas in Britain. This is the next frontier for puritanical Muslims who believe females are dangerous seductresses, liable to drive men mad with desire.
Women and girls as young as twelve, they say, must cover up to avoid suchprovocation. ( Don’t Muslim men mind that they are portrayed as wildly lusty? And if they are, why don’t they wear blindfolds or avert their gazes?)
The pernicious ideology is propagated by misguided Muslim women who claim the burkha is an equalizer and liberator. In a film I made for Channel4 I met an entire class of teenagers at a Muslim secondary school in Leicester who told me negating their physical selves in public made them feel great.
I confess I respond to this garment with aversion. I find the hijab and the jilbab ( long cloak) problematic too because they again make women responsible for the sexual responses of men and they define femininity as a threat. But the burkha is much, much worse as it totally dehumanizes half the human species. Why do women defendthis retreat into shrouds?
When I try to speak to some of them on the street they stare back silently. In a kebab café in Southall last week, a woman in burkha sat there passively while her family ate - she couldn’t put food into her own mouth.
One mother told her young daughter in Urdu to walk away from me, a ‘kaffir’ in her eyes.
Domestic violence is an evil found in all countries, classes and communities. Millions of female sufferers hide the abuse with concealing clothes and fabricated stories. But this total covering makes it absolutely impossible to detect which is why S and other victims of family brutality are forced to wear it.
I now have twelve letters from young British Muslim women making these allegations, all too terrified to go public. Several say that in some areas where hard line imams hold sway the hijab is seen as inviting because it focuses attention on the face. If the women refused to comply they were beaten.
Heena, Iman write that their husbands insist on the covering because it is easier to conceal the brutality within the marriage. Mariyam writes:’ He says he doesn’t want his name spoilt- that his honour is important. If they see what he is doing to me, his name will be spoilt’. Not all woman in burkha are the walking wounded, but some are and the tragedy is that it is impossible to pick up the signs.
The usual network of concerned people- neighbours, colleagues, pupils, teachers, police or social workers would need to be approached by the traumatised women and girls- as I was by ‘S’. There are other risks too.
A body denied any contact with the sun must lack vital vitamins. Some London University colleges have decided to disallow the garment for security reasons. (What will happen when ID cards come in? And how do examiners recognise candidates?)
Should the nation support all demands in the name of cultural or religious rights? In several schools already Muslim parents are refusing to let their girls swim, act or take part in PE, interference I personally find appalling. This is a society which prizes individual autonomy and the principle of absolute gender parity.
The burkha offends both these principles and yet no politician or leader has dared to say so. Even more baffling is the meek acceptance of the burkha by British feminists who must be eepelled by the garment and its meanings.
What are they afraid of? Afghani and Iranian women fight daily against the shroud and there is nothing ‘colonial’ about raising ethical objections to this obvious symbol of oppression.
The banning of the headscarf in France was, in fact, supported by many Muslims. The state was too arrogant and confrontational but the policy was right. A secular public space gives all citizens civil rights and fundamental equalities and Muslim girls have not abandoned schools in droves as a result of the ban.
Shabina Begum should have been the moment to confront the challenge. This spring Shabina Begum took her school to Appeal Court for refusing to let her ‘progress’ from the hijab to the jilbab, a full body cloak. She won the right. For many of us modernist Muslims this was a body blow and today we fear the next push is well underway for British Muslim woman to wear the body cage of Afghani women under Taliban.
Interviewed by the journalist Andrew Anthony, Rahmanara Chowdhury, a teacher of interpersonal and communications skills in Loughborough defended her burkha by saying she felt more empowered being just a voice. A teacher, can you believe it? Well soon some Imam will pronounce that the voice or scent of a woman are too seductive to be allowed in public spaces. Then what?
Who said a mother had to hide her face from her babies in the park?
Not the holy Koran for sure. Its injunctions simply call for women to guard their private parts, to act with modesty. Scholars disagree about the wrap and even the hijab. More than half the world’s Muslim women do not cover their hair except when in mosque.
There are some who do choose the garment without coercion, the nun’s option you might say. I judge this differently. My experience of S and other women who have written to me in despiar is that many are being forced or brainwashed into thinking their invisibility is what God wants. That is not a choice. The British state is based on liberal values- individuals can decide what they want to do as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others. Sometimes that right is taken even if there is harm caused to others- smoking and excessive drinking for example.
But within this broad liberalism, there are still restrictions and denials for the sake of a greater good. Nudists cannot walk our streets with impunity, and no religious cult can demand the legal right to multiple marriages.
Why should the state then tolerate the burkha, which even in its own terms turns women into sexual objects to be packed away out of sight?
WHAT ABOUT SHORTER HEAD COVERINGS? MID LENGTH VEILS ETC _ YOU NEED TO SAY WHERE YOU STAND ON THOSE
There is much anxious tip-toeing around the issue but it affects us all. Thousands of liberal Muslims would dearly likethe state to take a stand on their behalf. If it doesn’t, it will betray vulnerable British citizens and the nations most cherished principles, including liberalism.
Worst of all it will encourage Islam to move back even faster into the dark ages instead of reforming itself to meet the future.