Tuesday, 11 December 2007


With thanks to Beirut Spring (http://beirutspring.com/blog/2007/06/18/the-bikini-versus-the-niqab) for this superb image.

In the Gruaniad Gary Younge has nicely distilled an argument about the current climate of Islamophobia in the following phrase:

"If an imam doesn't like women walking past his mosque in a bikini, that's too bad for him. If an MP doesn't like women walking into his surgery in a niqab, that's too bad for him, too. Both have the right to say what they think - provided it doesn't promote violence - but women have the right to wear what they like."

This is a 'hot button issue' as my ex US colleagues used to be able to say without sounding ridiculous. The debate is centre stage at the moment, and it is intriguing because it does cause some fractures in the tectonics of normal political alignment. Also, there is a world of spin associated with it - apologias for the Iraq/Afghanistan debacles, and justification for further hardening of 'anti-terror' legislation. Elements of the left have been accused of defending the oppressive regime (in the widest sense of the word) of Islam against the values of tolerance and free speech which we in the west uphold. All of this has recently been thrown into sharp relief by - of all things - a bleedin' teddy bear. I have been trying to figure out where I stand on the question. So here goes.

My gut feeling, as I hope I have made clear from some of what I have previously written here, is that all religion (with the possible exception of Buddhism) is inherently anti-intellectual. Whatever lies at the root of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic myths (I know little about Hinduism or Sikhism, but these religions are, I think, irrelevant in this case, so I will exclude them) in terms of helping to elucidate an understanding of humanity's place in the cosmological scheme of things, the present interpretations of them are a million light years away from that.

Organised religion and the pursuit of knowledge are ultimately mutually exclusive, but the lines are drawn in different places in each religion. At the end of the day, you have to believe, don't you? Faith is the key. Faith in some kind of force outside and above ourselves which shaped the universe and continues to shape our destinies - free will notwithstanding. It is largely irrelevant to me whether it's some nice chap in a woolly jumper at the local C of E pile, a bloke in a flowing robe standing in the street in Finsbury Park, or a man (again, a man!) in coloured ermine with a pointy hat swinging around a bucket of incense, telling me what to 'think' and do. I am capable of making up my own mind, thank you very much. Therefore, I would stand up against any form of oppression based on religious belief, and (though I can hardly claim to be a scientist) would encourage anyone to examine the facts of a given situation in a scientific manner, rather than saying 'It's God's will'. I would stop short of denigrating a person's religious beliefs directly, partly because I am aware that this is usually the hottest button you can press, and any hope of a rational discussion flies right out of the window, but mainly because I am a nice guy, and have observed that an irrational fixation on an imaginary Super Being doesn't necessarily make someone a bad person.

Then again, even within the same religion, the lines are drawn differently depending on the cultures in which that religion exists. It would be entirely fatuous to compare a Welsh Methodist with a Brazilian Catholic for example, but it does appear acceptable to lump a Saudi Arabian Wahhabist in with a Palestinian Ismaili - as long as we're not talking about state visits of course. Therein lies the problem. Politics. It is clear that the current bunch of criminals in Whitehall, on Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere have a need to foster a climate of mistrust against anyone who is, or appears to be, a Muslim. Back to the bikini (the phrase seems to have excited more comment than anything else in the article) and the niqab. Obviously, that 'old fox' Jack Straw knew what he was doing when he made the comment about the Muslim woman who came into his surgery (this is Blackburn after all) wearing her niqab. He may have been purporting to raise a valid and interesting argument around cultural pressures, women's rights, etc., but it is my firm belief that this was not his primary motive when he spoke (the incident occurred one year prior to him writing about it, BTW) and that is why I am concerned about slagging off the Muslim faith. Much more than I am about having a go at the Christians, who are after all bigger than elephants, and can look after themselves.

Central to this is not (as some commentators have said, and as many people attempt to portray the issue when posting to online forums) one of a secular world view pitted against a religious one. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not feature in this argument, to my mind, because the forces lined up in opposition to the nations of Islam are also couching their politics in a heavily value-laden religious framework of their own. Though Gordon's upbringing within The Kirk is well known, he is less obviously religion motivated than the late great Tony B, who recently (as I posted) came out as a genuinely messianic wannabe. Dubya is an out-and-out god botherer, and who knows what kind of nut will next be sitting in the Oval Office?

Before I make the next statement, I want to make it clear that I do not think that killing civilians, whether it be in New York, London, Spain, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, is acceptable.

So for now, somewhat against my better nature as well as my baser side, I have to opt for the niqab against the bikini. You have the chance to vote in the poll at the top of the page.


marie said...

depends who' s wearing it really... i mean..

ep said...

Sorry to have to ask you to turn your poetry into prose, but what does "So for now, somewhat against my better nature as well as my baser side, I have to opt for the niqab against the bikini" actually mean?

marie said...

i didn't dare asking.. i'm glad you did. I don't think he will tell us though.

Myeral said...

My better nature is that which says 'Damn religion and all its follies! Especially where the oppression of women is concerned' My baser side is that which enjoys looking at women in bikinis. Simple really.

ep said...

I appreciate your question is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I have to point out this bit: "but women have the right to wear what they like".

Yes, I know you can find examples of women who will stand up and claim that they find wearing a bag over their head empowering. Whatever. I'm sure you could probably find a few who would claim the same thing about not being allowed to drive, vote, ride a bike or think for themselves. I doubt in either case they are representative.

Walk the streets of London or of any large city in Britain and you will see women in niqabs and even burkas. Go and sit in a muslim country and count the number of women in bikinis. Yes, there is the odd knuckle-dragging idiot in this country who will give a woman in muslim garb a hard time. They are the exception. Yes, there maybe examples of women in muslim countries who wear revealing clothing without being reviled, spat on, dragged away by the morality police. They are the exception. If you doubt that then think of the picture you have posted above - it is proving the rule by being such a notable exception. And that is a picture taken in a liberal part of a liberal muslim country.

So the anwer is bikini or niqab, I don't care so long as it's freely chosen.

Actually...a bikini AND a niqab sounds quite kinky...can I choose that?

Myeral said...

It's a free country. Choose away.

For some reason, I've been reminded of the Alexander McQueen (I think) fashion show a few years back where the models were dressed as nuns, but with triangular sections strategically cut out of the lower parts of their habits. Not sure if you remember it...

* Goes off to sit in a Muslim country to count women in bikinis...*

ep said...

I don't specifically remember it but I promise I will give the lower parts of nun's habits some thought tonight.