Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Burqa Burks

Listening to all the talk about Muslim dress, I wonder if Muslim women need to march down main street New Zealand in the full burqa? Like the slutwalk only... not.

When someone is totally covered up, we westerners have a tendency to feel a bit nervous around them, after all ... they could be hiding anything! We don't actually think that but it is behind the feeling that manifests as turning our heads away and pretending it's not happening.

The burqa is the whole thing, the big dress, the head-scarf, and the face veil, all together. The full dress is not actually Koranic and here are indications that the practice predates Islam - much as many Christian traditions have pagan origins. We tend to feel that this is oppressive to women and get puzzled when the women in question don't welcome being "liberated". As with any human activity, it's complicated.

It is difficult, however, to imagine a woman being an effective or persuasive orator all covered up like that - the audience needs to see the face to gauge the emotional content properly or to get any subtexts. Facial cues are so important that we draw little face pictures when we use text. This could keep women from having an important role in public life. It's an encounter suit - designed to separate the woman from her surroundings ... are the wearers are a kind of Vorlon?

I had this debate with a Muslim cleric (in training) some years ago. He maintained the I dressed "my" women like prostitutes... I countered that he dressed "his" women like lepers. It's easy to lose the point which is this: clothing is a form of communication: a social signal like a birds plumage. When I wear a business suit, I am sending a message which is quite different to when I wear t-shirt and jeans. When I want to be taken seriously I'll trim my beard and wear shoes. That's what the slutwalks were really about - not some ill-defined "right to wear what you want". When a woman dresses in a revealing way she also sends a message, maybe saying she is sexually available but this does not mean she is available to just anybody - interested: you have to pass muster too. It certainly does not mean "rape me please"! She's probably just indicating she's in a fun, playful, mood - enjoy.

Revealing dress can be a status symbol - as in the health-fad subculture of Venice Beach, Florida - all those posing-pouched body-builders and bikini skaters ... they are saying "look at me, I am wealthy enough to be able to maintain this body". Men don't mind having a scantily clad woman on their arm - it shows that they are the kind of guy who can score that kind of woman. In more macho terms he is displaying his power - other men may look on in envy but they do not try anything because... whatever.

There is a lot of scope for crossed signals here.

Think about it the other way around: when would a woman cover up - I mean really cover everything? Well, pretty much whenever she has some deformity or disease that cannot be hidden in makeup. Or maybe she's carrying something under that cloth... smuggling vibe. We cannot even begin to guess her mood - no face contact. When we hide our faces it usually means we are embarrassed or deliberately snubbing people: how rude!

So is it any wonder, then, that people acclimated to western dress signals are intimidated when confronted by a burqa?

1 comment:

  1. All very well from a secular point of view. But what about from the Muslims point of view? They're covering up because it's what they believe the creator of the universe thinks they should do in order to be worthy.
    I myself believe that even if there is a creator (and I doubt this), he/she/it would have much more pressing problems than what we mere mortals are wearing, down here on this tiny, tiny, little ball of rock. So I don't get what all the fuss is about. I think all religions are fundamental distortions of consciousness that cause reason to take a back seat to mysticism and superstition.