Yesterday at a beach on the Granada coast, we plopped our towels and parasol down on the white pebbles next to a family from North Africa.
It was one of those slightly awkward scenes, where I wanted to do the Muslim camaraderie thing and give salams, but also aware that I wasn’t in full burkini-esque gear to swim (though it was a sight more than most of the other swimmers, a blush short of their birthday suits) while she went into the water in long, looseish trousers and a tunic top with a small scarf tied back.
The usual irritating problematics of being scrutinized as a woman reared their ugly heads in me. Whatever you do, whatever you wear, if you happen to be endowed with mammary glands you are going to be judged by how you look. Frumpy, tarty, religious, free, on fleek, minging, this category, that category. Isn’t it one of the world’s favorite pastimes, observing women’s bodies and forming completely irrelevant opinions on them? If we were dead cows being scored up by a butcher we’d probably get more respect.
Reading that armed French police ordered a sleeping North African woman to remove her long-sleeved shirt on a beach in the interests of “good morals and secularism” made me want to barf into my surf shorts. Apparently it is now immoral to be too clothed. They didn’t reference the spurious link to Islamism, of course, in case the forces of logic might close in on them and shut the whole operation down.
What really grates is the reference to morality, that famously speculative field where pretty much anything can be passed off as good or right without a scrap of evidence. If they start criminalising clothing, what’s next – criminally bad makeup? Terrible coiffes? Mismatched colors? “You combined purple trousers wiz an orange blouse?! Zis is an affront to French values! €43 euros or a night in ze clink!”
What often gets overlooked in the debate over women’s clothing whether or not they are themselves comfortable in it. Any woman who is not used to wearing an abaya (the black cloak worn in Gulf states and beyond) would initially find it cumbersome. You’d shut it in car doors, trip on it going up stairs and whatnot. Even wearing long skirts when you’re used to trousers feels weird.
But the opposite is also true, in a different way. If, for instance, you go out on what seems to be a sunny day wearing short sleeves, and suddenly it turns windy and cold (or starts to hail, as it might do in an August day in England), you feel underdressed, naked even. If you were quite comfortable in cardigan, and a bunch of armed policemen ordered you to take it off for the sake of public decency, and while you’re at it, take off those jeans, here are some regulation hot pants approved of by the Home Office, wouldn’t you feel stripped bare?
Yes, you would probably get used to it eventually – what, I imagine, right-wing French lawmakers want to happen in order to ‘integrate’ Muslims. But feeling exposed engenders a vulnerability that the law should never be responsible for.
The broader issue is, of course, whether covering up the body is a sign of shame, or the oppressive insistence of the other sex. The latter doesn’t need any comment. Every fibre of my being howls against the idea of a man telling me what not to wear, unless it’s to point out a nasty bolognese stain.
This is not diminished even when virtually every hijabi I know wears it out of choice; in Iran, for instance, some women complained about having to wear hijab publicly, while others didn’t seem bothered. In fact in many cases, when worn with dazzling sunglasses and half a bar of lipstick, it actually gave women a kind of 1950s glamour they were rather proud of (look up Tehran street style and you’ll see what I mean).
The former, however, is in serious need of unpacking. By traditional standards, pretty much anywhere on the planet except for a few ethnic groups in Subsaharan Africa and the Amazon, covering up signified dignity. Before the mechanized textile industry, fabric had to be laboriously made by hand, which made it expensive. The more of it you wore, the wore wealthy you appeared.
By contrast, there are narrations from the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s) regarding people who were so poor they didn’t have enough clothes to wear, impeding them from entering mosques. Shame consisted of having so little you were literally naked. One couple only had one item of clothing between them which they took turns wearing in order to pray. Hence the command not only to feed the poor but to clothe them.
It’s a classic byproduct of affluence that the more we have of something, the less we value it. Tons of food, produced for nothing by illegal immigrants in direly polluted greenhouses? Let a third of it rot in heaps because it’s not perfectly shaped! Too much food produced in restaurants? Chuck the leftovers into skips! We have so many clothes, some even sewn on boats on their way from China so as to be as cutting edge as possible, that half of it ends up in charity shops after six months. Of course we look at an excess of it with disdain.
Apart from that, Islam takes the view that whatever you value most, you don’t rub into people’s faces. It might be hard to believe, with all the bling in the Middle East, but the Islamic concept of modesty doesn’t simply mean covering the body; it refers to an overall attitude of concealing your gifts, partly to not arouse envy, but partly also to encourage you to appreciate them without needing other people’s awe. Kind of an inversion of our habit of sharing everything that happened to us on social media because we need a dozen likes to believe we truly exist.
The meanings we invest into clothing are deeply complicated – I’m only scratching the surface here. We could all do with reassessing our ideas of what it means, but we need to look in a mirror before projecting those ideas onto others.
It’s all a bit idiotic, really. Lower your eyes, mankind. And don’t use that as an excuse to judge women on their shoes, either.