Sunday, 23 January 2011

London Loves.....The Veil

Photograph: Shannon Dermot Friel

Ten years ago I worked as an apprentice telecommunications engineer. It involved a fair amount of driving around London from site to site (usually telephone exchanges in office blocks around the city; Old Street, Southwark, Docklands etc.) One day, on Commercial Road I saw, possibly for the first time in my life, a group of girls all of whose faces were covered by niqabs (the full face veil).

They were clearly girls and not women as they had their school bags overflowing with books and were chattering to each other in that excitable way schoolgirls do when waiting for a bus in the morning. It was an astonishing sight and, for me, perhaps the first tangible signs that a stricter form of Islam had arrived in London than previously seen.

This was pre 9/11 a time in London where the term Islamophobia was virtually non-existent. In those 'innocent' days, the 1990s, when racial harmony largely prevailed in this hugely mixed city, before the world went war mad and racial and religious divides became evident even in multicultural London, it was commonplace to see muslim women and men from Somalia, Pakistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and other places wearing distinctly Muslim attire simply blending in with the other cultural garments of everyday London - the turban, the kippur, the rastafarian hat.

How different has it felt for practising Muslims in the decade that has passed since? A decade of overt global prejudice towards this particular religious group. An era of false media portrayals and an environment in which even the former Home and Foreign secretary Jack Straw felt it appropriate to recommend women in his constituency not to cover their faces when attending his political surgery.

How self-conscious and stared-at must young women in hijabs (head scarves) have felt? And the niqab (or burka as it's sometimes known) is on another scale of aesthetics all together - prompting, in some parts of England, outright discrimination. It has become a symbol of 'othering' and a fallacy has arisen around it that assumes it is automatically and by its very nature an oppression of women's rights. That idea is surely too simplistic and hypocritical. It is claimed strict Islam forces women to cover themselves. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states this is largely the case. In London it is almost unanimously a woman's choice (taken of course, within the context of family background and community norms). The hypocrisy of labelling it oppressive is that women of all cultures (British, American, Jewish, Burmese, Maasai, Hindi) are all 'forced' by their societies to wear certain types of clothing - see the miniskirt, the 6 inch stilleto heel, the Hasidic Jewish women who shave off their hair and wear a wig in its place. It is in fact true to say that many men are also forced by their societies to conform to wearing 'appropriate' clothing. Yet people single out the veil as oppressive because they feel threatened by it.

I wrote last year for Ponderboxes on the French government banning the niqab in all public places and argued this was a clearly racist piece of legislation and a violation of human rights. It is worth imagining what such a move in London would instigate. It would be quite frankly unthinkable. It is something to be proud of that all Londoners, not just Muslims, would feel subjugated by a piece of politics like that. Because, despite claims by notable figures such as Trevor Phillips and George Alagiah about the failure of multiculturalism (depressing, inflammatory and unwelcome publicity-seeking comments) London continues to thrive on its diversity. Multiculturalism adds interest, excitement, brilliance and a wealth of experiences and opportunities that are absent in cities where everybody looks, sounds and thinks the same.

It is hugely positive that despite the continuing presence of Islamophobia in our society, Muslims themselves, and particularly Muslim women, have rediscovered a confidence, strength and pride in wearing what they like, where they like and celebrating their religion not hiding it.

This is wonderfully represented in this set of photos by Australian photographer Shannon Dermot Friel. Taken discreetly, almost secretly, but respectfully in locations across London from Regents Park to Bethnal Green.

There are stories and life histories behind each of these pictures that it would be tactless to imagine here in this blog. Instead I find these images provide a reminder of the beauty of the veil and Islamic dress. They serve to normalise a sartorial choice that has been negatively pigeonholed and the wistful, placedness of the women within ordinary, mundane urban ambiences shows how such dreary settings are enlivened by finely tailored nods toward times and places infinitely more intriguing.

All photographs © Shannon Dermot Friel 2010

1 comment:

  1. hopefully my problem with the niqab is not due to islamaphobia - i imagine i would find it equally off-putting having to conduct conversations with someone wearing a balaclava.