When there is an elephant in the room, it is probably best to acknowledge its presence before it decides to take a mini roundabout size dump on your Axminster, or stick its trunk between your granny’s legs hunting for a bun. It is often quite difficult to take afternoon tea with the vicar when Jumbo is blowing raspberries into your face. The other thing about an elephant is that it is often so big that you cannot see what is behind it. That could be a disadvantage if it is blocking the view of either the Martian invaders running amok on your lawn, or your ability to appreciate the first daffodils of Spring.
I have always thought that when it comes to pachyderms, it is probably best not to have them around in the first place and certainly not lurking around unsuccessfully hiding behind the lounge curtains. However, this is not always the case and therefore there is no choice but to get the metaphorical elephant gun out and shoot it. Ignoring it might be the English way and ‘not making a fuss’ is a gold medal winning trait in the hearts of suburban England, but that will not do.
The Elephant I have currently spotted has come charging into view as a result of my evening strolls along the Corniche. As I amble, and amble I must in this heat, I come across many families doing similar. I am met with the familiar scene, both here and in Bahrain, of women clad head to foot in the black burqa. If I was to put a % on it I would have to say it is about 90%. Another 9% wear a head covering and the long, flowing sometimes colourful ‘abiyah’. I have seen a few women in jeans and blouses but with their arms covered up. There are no short skirts, no cleavages, no shorts, no bare midriffs. Nothing.
In every other sense though, the women are doing what every wife, daughter, sister is doing…they stroll, eat picnics, and just relax in the sunshine. But in black. They do not walk a few paces behind the men, they walk alongside. The only variation I get to see is the shoes and sometimes the eyes. The latter is not easy because as it is anywhere, it would be rude to stare, but when I do catch the odd glimpse the phrase ‘window to the soul’ seems wholly appropriate. It might be something to do with the full body covering enhancing that which remains, or more likely it is to do with their ethnicity, but I have to note that they could stun any man into submission with just one flirtatious look if they wanted to. They wear eye make up which their large dark eyes hardly need, but that is it as far as I know, for underneath that black cloth is a total mystery.
I have it on decent enough authority that underneath it all the women wear whatever they like and are no different from any other women on the planet. In one of Bahrain’s many shopping malls, I came across ‘Victoria’s Secret’ which ironically was no secret at all given the shop front display. The wide entrance revealed an Aladdin’s cave of luxury lace of all colours. The full range of silky lingerie was on offer, including a dominatrix set complete with horse whip. My colleague, a woman from the UK, then told me that in her discussions with the local women, it was very clear that behind the veil ladies could be as drab or as vampish as the best of them in London, New York and St Austell. Well, of course they would be, they are normal women after all. They are not to sort to sell themselves to ISIS fanatics as baby factories in the desert of Syria.
Appearances often can be deceptive, wearing a Burqa does not a terrorist make. Nor does it make them religious fundamentalists by default. We only have to look across the Atlantic to see how ‘normal’ a religious fanatic can look, be it man or woman. Fascism wore Boss suits. Authoritarians are in Savile Row buying Gucci.
Which brings me to how I feel about all of this, and I make no apologies for bringing it back to me. I have no idea at all what Saudi women think or feel as I don’t have the opportunity or know if it is appropriate to discuss it with the women in the office (answer: no, it is not, I don’t know them well enough).
A few years ago in London, I came across a small group of women dressed in exactly the same way. It is not uncommon of course, but for a Camborne boy who considers the folk in Redruth to be a bit weird it was, if not unsettling, then definitely a novelty that sparked a minor emotional reaction. That emotion was fear, fleetingly, but it was there.
Fear of the unknown, the strange and the unsettling. At heart many racists are fearful. They see something they have never seen and fear it. It is easy to let go of the fear if you just stop and think. Better still, get to know what it is you fear. Tragically the UK press will not let us do that, and ever since 9/11 fear has been their stock in trade.
Jeddah forces one to confront the strange. The burqa is so ubiquitous it is no longer strange, and seeing women doing ordinary women things such as taking a picnic, shopping, eating in restaurants and choosing Victoria Secret’s underwear kind of undermines the terrorist narrative. Especially so when you learn that Saudi Arabia has its own IS problem. So which is it, do only terrorists wear Burqas or do ordinary Saudi women? If the answer is both which of course is both true and falsehood, what is our problem with a bit of black cloth? Who am I to tell women what they can and can’t wear? There is no doubt that cultural and religious norms still ‘mandate’ modesty for many, and women themselves are self policing.
One side of the brain (informed by the Sun, Express and the Daily Fascist) says the burqa is the dress of choice of the IS terrorist and yet ordinary Saudi women wear it. Granted I have no idea about the degree of choice they have. And nor do you. I have no idea if it is only a cultural choice, it is certainly not Islamic by default, for there are millions of Muslim women who do not wear it.
Thinking sociologically, this takes me into agency, culture and structural issues in an attempt to understand, but that is for another article on another platform.
I personally don’t like the burqa. So what? I don’t like a good deal of what goes for fashion in Bodmin either. Yesterday I hear Sri Lanka is banning it, the burqa that is, not Bodmin. That seems weird to me when in the West for decades we have argued that women should be able to wear what they like, even if it looks daft. But daft is in the eye of the beholder. Yes on one level it is symbolic of patriarchal oppression, but I’ve no idea if they feel oppressed wearing it? Meanwhile, Bristol is banning lap dancing causing some lap dancers to complain that their livelihood, their choice, is being taken away. So, it seems we are all at it…policing what women can wear and do. I think thats normal, it will always be the case.
Complicated ain’t it? In any case. This elephant in black will not go away.
What next for the spotlight? Men in beards?
One thought on “Elephants.”
Banning Bodmin seems reasonable, on balance