It seems France is in the news again…

Yesterday, a law came into being that has been reported across Europe. The law of October 12th 2010 says that it is forbidden to wear in public any of the following items: a hijab, a burqa, a hood or balaclava or a mask. Before you think of the absurdity of banning masks when it’s Hallowe’en or Carnival in Venice, I should also add that these are allowed for sporting events, festivals or artistic or cultural demonstrations, including religious processions. This law applies to everyone, including muslim tourists. You cannot wear these items in public places, on public transport, on the beach (because I wanted to wear a balaclava on the beach!) in public gardens, in shops, in businesses, restaurants, banks, stations, airports, town halls, tribunals, prefectures, hospitals, museums or libraries.

Of course, the media’s first reaction (especially in England) was one of ‘ban the burqa’. This is ridiculous. Firstly, the integral burqa is worn by very few women – the hijab is far more popular. Secondly, it fails to take account of the (perhaps token) statements about balaclavas (cagoules – at first I thought they were banning the nifty showerproof overcoat thing worn by trainspotters, planespotters and other fetishistic ne’er-do-wells, which smacked of ‘fashion police’ rather than ‘gendarmes’)

The over-reaction involves the fact that people seem to think they will be ripped off women’s heads. Not so. The wearers of any face-obscuring item will first be asked to remove it. This enables identity checks and every other Big Brother process about being who you say you are. Then, if you don’t, you might be carted off to a police station and fined 150€. So, should an IT-girl on French slopes decide she doesn’t want to remove her ski-mask and balaclava, she would be treated in the same way as a muslim woman who refuses to remove her veil.

Of course, the populist press only want to hear ‘ban the burqa’ and it was alarming to see in British newspapers that the two arrests in Paris yesterday were for ‘wearing a veil’ when in fact they were for demonstrating in a public place without permission. Quite a difference. But that’s not news, is it? The women arrested at Greenham Common in the 80s were arrested for similar things. Protesting is fine as long as it’s organised. With rights come responsibilities. But this mis-reporting has incited the British and the English MPs.

Theresa May, the MP not the dodgy ‘adult’ movie star said that no such ban would happen in England and this has brought out two different sides of the camp.

The first are those who think it is a good idea. They see the veil as a living tomb, the citizens within them as ‘non-citizens’. They see it as a symbol of repression. They point to the fact that you cannot kiss on Dubai beaches as a matter of public decency and that we abide by muslim rules when we are in muslim countries. And they are right. In Morocco, I got a really great insight into what I would say is a fairly progressive muslim society. Bear in mind the predominant culture is bedouin and that the ‘Arabs’ were just as much an invader in Morocco as they were in Spain. The djellaba is de rigeur.

Djellabas are pretty neat items. You put them on over whatever you’re wearing – like jeans. Some have a hood, jedi-style. I even saw a camouflage djellaba. Colourful djellabas are fine, and many of them were beautifully adorned with embroidery and amazing detail.

It’s impossible to see these as religious oppression. On the whole, they are practical to keep sand out of your inner regions, voluminous enough to keep a breeze circulating and I had a really good chat with a woman on a train about them – and she made me realise that it’s as much about respect as anything else. Not covering up so men can’t see you – because the men wear djellabas too – but that it’s a premise that you don’t go around flaunting your wealth, you have a little more dignity than the desire to show bling. It’s anti-bling. The houses, most of which are windowless high walls, open onto beautiful courtyards. This is the same. It’s a private beauty, not ostentatious beauty. France is quite like that anyway. You don’t see bling or show, fancy BMW X5s, Manolos or Jimmy Choos. It’s anti-commercialism.

Not only that, Morocco has a wide range of bedouin outfits, western outfits, muslim outfits – and people are sensible. It’s based on respect.

Now, the other side of the argument holds with free-will and that in a democratic country we should have freedom. And this is also true. This is something very dear to me.

But personally, and this has been forgotten in all of this, we dress appropriately. We use our discretion, because with rights come responsibilities. So, just because some suffragettes chained themselves to fences and fell under horses to get me a vote as a woman, and just because some bra-burners in the seventies made it illegal (in law, if not in practice) to pay women differently or to sack pregnant women, or to ask about intentions towards pregnancy doesn’t mean that I should now use this equality and freedom, liberation, to do as I goddamn please. It’s INAPPROPRIATE to wear certain things in school – so I was always suited and booted – I didn’t display tattoos. I didn’t wear jeans. I didn’t wear too-short skirts or silly revealing tops. Mainly this is because I was working with teenage boys, and having seen Leroy Parker’s eyes on stalks when a trainee teacher bent over and reveal a whale-tail thong sticking out of the top of her too-tight trousers was precisely why. I don’t want teenage boys perving over a flash of thong. I don’t want to do anything that distracts from the central purpose of the classroom: learning. I did once wear a ball gown, but that was for learning.

Likewise, it is INAPPROPRIATE of me to:

1. Go naked in the streets, unless I am my good friend David and I’d quite like to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, or unless I am an animal when fur is de riguer.

2. Go to a Manchester City vs Liverpool match wearing a Manchester United shirt.

3. Go to a Pakistan-Bangladesh cricket match wearing an Indian team shirt

4. Turn up at a South Africa/Australia match in an England shirt

5. Wander around Dubai’s streets in a bikini

6. Go to Iran wearing a mini-skirt and boob tube

7. Go into a mosque wearing a swimming costume

8. Wear a Ginger-Spice-inspired Union Jack dress in the middle of Bradford

9. Dress up as John Lydon if I’m going to meet the Queen

10. Wear lederhosen and slap my thighs in a science classroom

11. Put on a Nazi costume and go wandering around the streets.

12. Wear a ballet tutu to work in a packing factory

I’d be a provocative idiot if I did these things. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should.

And so it’s all very well to say we should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear particular clothing (or none at all) but there’s also a degree of provocation in wearing it. “It’s my right” is offensive to many other people. It’s my right to erect a huge Union Jack on my driveway in Bolton, but I don’t. It’s my right not to wear a bra, but I don’t take advantage of that. I can wear a bikini in M&S if I like, but I don’t. “It’s my religion!” is another argument altogether. It’s not in the Qu’ran to wear a veil, only to be dressed modestly. If it were, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Morocco would all be wearing a burqa. “My husband makes me!” is not an answer at all, and terrifies me.

What is important to remember though is that whilst France has the largest Islamic population in Europe, it also has only between 350-2000 (estimate by Le Figaro) veil-wearers. Why is it then that so many of my formerly free-faced Bolton neighbours feel the need to wear the veil? 15 years ago, veil wearers were not so frequent. Now most of my neighbours and clients wear one.

There is, to me, an issue about integration. My veil-wearing clients often were not English speakers and would ask their children to call me. Some of them were just members of mosques where it was the habit and it was the habit for me. My other Muslim clients who didn’t wear a veil included a very intelligent second-generation Pakistani girl who had three older sisters – a doctor, a lawyer and an accountant. None of them wore a veil at all, although their mother wore a headscarf.

What’s more concerning is that so many of the women who wear one are young, independent and ‘English’ who don’t feel integrated enough into ‘English’ customs not to wear one. And that’s an issue.

Maybe France is wrong to be secular – but I uphold its values. Having worked in a Catholic school where you cannot teach sensible sex education (because sex is only allowed in marriage!) and you cannot advise them to be careful or avoid disease means that religion comes before education. If you cannot teach evolution, then something is wrong. I like that religion falls outside French state schools. Of course, you can elect to send your child to a private school where religion is allowed, but there’s a distinction. And someone in this modern world has to say religion has no business in politics or education. After all, America, our great ‘secular’ nation whose dollar bill proclaims, ironically, ‘In God We Trust’ and in which four states are prohibited from teaching evolution, so my personal thoughts are that religion has no place in law or in education. And I applaud France for being secular.

I also strongly believe that it is your responsibility to integrate into democracy and equality, never making yourself ‘more equal’ than someone else. If you are allowed to wear a hijab and I am not allowed to wear a cross, then you are more equal and the respecting of your rights violates mine. And that’s wrong. Either everything is allowed – whereby people will take advantage of that, teachers will end up dressing like prostitutes, ‘sexy’ t-shirts will be on sale for 7 year olds along with push-up bras and someone somewhere will decide naked is best – or there are limits which people will complain about. Since people are unable to act responsibly and appropriately, liberalism must be a little conservative. And that’s sad.

But not everyone thinks like I do – and that’s why a degree of intervention and restriction is needed. Maybe if we weren’t all so bothered about it, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is. Unfortunately, some people are provoked by the sight of a burqa, and some criminals have used it to disguise their identity and so laws like this will continue to be passed to appease the majority.


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