Religious Tourism

Houriya at The Spittoon – where one can encounter real Muslims – has a missive up which requires a re-read to appreciate the enormity of just what took place.

Three women, two police constables and one community support officer, decided to wear full face veiled burkhas and other ‘Muslim women’s clothing’ in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, as part of an effort to understand ‘diversity’ in a police initiative titled ‘In your shoes’. The three went out shopping to feel how it was to be a Muslim woman.

religious tourism

Reported on at The Independent (in brief, one sentance paragraphs which reminded me of Twittering), Sgt. Deb Leonard (left, recognize those eyes?) said:

I have gained an appreciation and understanding of what Muslim females experience when they walk out in public in clothing appropriate to their beliefs.

We are keen to gain a better understanding of issues which our communities face.

And I am the Queen of Sheba. During the winter, when wearing a cycling balaclava, I gain an equal understanding of what Muslim women experience – i.e. apart from muffled hearing, nothing at all. As Houriya asked, why not wear jeans and t-shirt which is a far, far more frequent choice of attire for women from a Muslim background than burqas?

Even amongst religiously-observant Muslim women in the UK as a whole and, from anecdotal reports, definitely the Sheffield area, hijabs are far more common pieces of head-wear. In the discussion thread at Harry’s Place, Judy of Adloyada called this patronizing clap-trap and:

Absolutely the worst sort of religious tourism. Those women whose particular sect of Islam leads them to wear burquas bring a particular cultural tradition and religious mindset to doing so; they will usually have come from families where this has historically been the norm, including how they think of their mothers and grandmothers’ typical ways of appearing. A set of Anlgo (possibly Afro-Caribbean, Irish etc) women dressing in burquas can’t draw on those experiences simply by putting on the garments. The exercise is totally misguided and foolish.

I quite agree. For a start, as well as being sartorial sore-thumbs in many of the predominately Muslim council wards of British cities, I would wager that they plainly would *not* have been adopting a walking-style and posture of be-burqa’d Muslim women. Men walk differently to women, and be-burqa’d women walk differently to other women.

Furthermore, at the end of this jolly jape, Sgt Leonard (is it appropriate to ascribe personal names to individuals who have concealed themselves completely) and her colleagues would have removed their apparell and returned to a (more or less) equal status in mainstream British society. The same escape is not available for those SE Asian women who may be disempowered and pressured into retreating behind fabric barriers.

It is difficult to find sterile terms to describe the grossly patronizing attitude in which individuals who consider themselves entitled to be part of secular Western society to believe that they have attained any insight into diametrically opposite attitudes – be they religiously-mandated or culturally-dictated – just by donning a few garments. So, I will settle for wide-eyed Anglo twits.

I discussed in a previous missive the oft-seen disparity between some Muslim men who feel justified in wearing comfortable Western-style clothing whilst their chattels belabour under burqas, and the admirable rejection of these double-standards from an American female convert who blogs as the Southern Muslimah.

I have said before and will say again, a basic courtesy when expecting to be able to operate in Western society is to reveal one’s face. Not just out of courtesy, but also security. Back to my cycling balaclava: absent-mindedly wore it into a bank in Thurso. Even though my face was visible, hijab-like, and even though I was clearly a cyclist and recognized by several members of staff, I had one frantic cashier asking me to take it off.

Which I did willingly and apologetically.

I would consider it be a basic requirement to reveal one’s face when entering a school (not just for security, but also so not to suggest to children that a men are dire threats to women).  Still in the vicinity of Sheffield, The Daily Telegraph recently reported that Police were called in April to Our Lady and St. John Catholic Art College in Blackburn, Lancashire when one woman refused to remove her burqa but continued to attempt to gain access to her son’s parents’ evening.  Although Police were not called during a similar incident  at St Mary’s Sixth Form Catholic College elsewhere in Blackburn, the Lancashire Telegraph reported that a visiting teacher from the adjacent Islamiyah School declined to remove her burqa and was required to leave.

The local MP is Jack Straw, who in 2006 had made public his desire for be-burqa’d constituents to reveal their faces when consulting at his surgeries. Not only to facilitate interaction but also because, as I understand, he is partially deaf so benefits from seeing lip-movements.

When discussing the Southern Muslimah, I linked also to a statement from the Lancashire Council of Mosques which decreed that the burqa is religiously-mandated and not culturally-dictated:

Islam places great emphasis on dressing modestly. The Almighty says in the Holy Qur’aan, “O Prophet! Ask…(believing) women…to draw their cloaks (Jilbâb) all over their bodies” (33:59).

Representing the Queens Park ward within Straw’s Blackburn constituency is Cllr. Salim Mulla, whose Islamist-inclined politiking and adversion to Harry Potter I have discussed before.   Reported in the Lancashire Telegraph, in his guise as the senior vice-chairman of the LCM, he stated of the incident at St Mary’s:

“I think the college staff should be understanding towards the needs of the community.

“It is a belief they have themselves.

“I don’t think people should be forced to take it off, it is what they have chosen to wear because it is their belief.”

Heartingly, two 15 year old girls accompaning her appear to have accepted that their choice to follow a certain religious confessional should not over-rule societial rules, and removed their burqas and therefore entered.


Malalai Kakar undercover Afghani officer fighting Taliban and teaching women about their rights <a href=

Malalai Kakar undercover Afghani officer fighting Taliban and teaching women about their rights photo by Lana Šlezić.

So, back the the title story, it would appear that the LCM and Islamist ethos, of patriachial control and concealment of women’s fissogs has been internalized by in a neighbouring authority area and by at least one state institution. Whilst Lubna Hussein faces a flogging in Sudan for wearing trousers, Police women in Sheffield are free to hop into and out of whichever cute ethnic costume their choose and then wax lyrical about the culturally enriching experience.

The sound we have just heard is Malalai Kakar turning in her grave.


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6 Responses to “Religious Tourism”

  1. jess Says:

    “I would consider it be a basic requirement to reveal one’s face when entering a school (not just for security, but also so not to suggest to children that a men are dire threats to women).”

    I’m not sure I totally agree here. In general, I’m not sure that a woman’s covered face necessarily suggests to children that men are a dire threat to women. In the Anglo-American context, I feel like a burqa at school is probably more indicative of the fact that people wear different sorts of clothes (although children’s parents will say all sorts of things about them obviously).

    Anyhoo, this post vaguely reminds me of some of the goings-on around our last federal election (or second last maybe, there’ve been a few in recent years) in Canada. It was probably around the time Jack Straw made those statements. Someone got all excited about women with covered faces committing fraud at the ballot box (and by extension all Muslim women casting double votes or something) and then one of the Muslim Canadian organisations and Elections Canada had to talk it out when there had been no history of fraud or confrontation with regard to proving one’s identity in elections past. All those excited parties (patriarchal institutions?) completely neglected to recognise that a) few Canadian women cover their faces, and b) those that do (especially those who care to vote, which is nice when we have such low voter turnouts anyways) are happy to identify themselves for official purposes (voting, passport control, driver’s licenses, etc.) It was really silly i.m.o. People get way to excited over clothes.

  2. Alec Says:

    Hi, Jess.

    Part of it, I suspect, will be down to differing degrees of assimilation in New France and Brytain, with the former, as far as I can see, being less riven with the plural monoculturalism which has taken hold in the latter; where immigrant populations and their progeny being more universally aspirational (although we don’t have anything as grostesque as the Canadian Human Rights Commission).

    I do recall the bro-haha over voting, but don’t know enough to pass comment (no doubt Terry Glavin has covered it, and whatever he says I’ll agree with). Whenever voting here, I never have felt as if a deep security check was made at the polling station – even without the letter of confirmation, it’s easy just to confirm one’s name.

    So, it would be difficult for me to expect faces to be shown if I accept this. If tougher checks were required, I would have no problems in requiring voters to show their faces. Individuals should be as socially/religiously conservative as they wish, but it is not the state or society’s responsibility to humour their voluntary choices (setting aside questions of disempowered women feeling obliged to don burqas).

    People do indeed get silly about clothes; demonstrated no more clearly than the likes of Salim Mulla and the LCM which have decreed that it’s a religious requirement to wear a veil, and no-one can object. I don’t think individuals should be forced not wear something in their personal lives, therein lies the difference.

    I am struggling to think of instances in Western/secular literature in which women have been portrayed as hiding their faces behind a barrier – I suspect we have to go right back to the Athenean period for that. Even in religious imagery, where a bride is concealed behind a veil, religious Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox women) still reveal their faces despite wearing the garb.

    I commend readers to return to Judy’s remarks, which I reproduce in their entirity:

    Absolutely the worst sort of religious tourism. Those women whose particular sect of Islam leads them to wear burquas bring a particular cultural tradition and religious mindset to doing so; they will usually have come from families where this has historically been the norm, including how they think of their mothers and grandmothers’ typical ways of appearing. A set of Anlgo (possibly Afro-Caribbean, Irish etc) women dressing in burquas can’t draw on those experiences simply by putting on the garments. The exercise is totally misguided and foolish.

    I remember when there was a fashion for absurd exercises of this kind in some of the loopiest teacher training circles when anglo women teachers would put on saris and make samosas in the belief that this would help them understand the culture of the Gujerati children they were teaching in Bradford.

    Patronising clap trap. Next up-let them put on kilts and go and sapend a few weeks living in Balmoral, so they can understand the outlook of highlanders. It’s obviously done wonders for the cultural sensitivity of Prince Charles & his dad over the years.

    Some training outfit or other will have been paid a good few hundred quid of our money as taxpayers for staging this particular bit of futility.They should be made to repay it and struck off the list of training providers.

    Alternatively, perhaps a few of us could start up a nice little earner–work on reducing recidivism by getting young crims to put on policemen’s uniforms and judicial wigs and robes for a day.

    Judy’s an Orthodox Jew who, as far as I recall, declines to shake hands with unrelated men. I think this is daft, but cannot praise her above remarks highly enough.

    This is not a Multicultural Theme Park in which the three women can play at being Muslim women for a few hours, and then return to a life of representation undreamt of by their pet subjects and tell Muslim women like Houriya how they should dress.

    As Houriya said, even most practising British Muslim women do not wear the burqa. As Judy said, it is a cultural-dictated more from a certain part of the world – including Malakai Kakar’s stomping ground. This amazing Afghan woman did not wear a burqa, or even hijab, and came to fame when she shot dead three drug-dealers. She proceeded to fight to protect the equal status of Afghan women, and then was assassinated for her troubles.

    PCSO Turner (centre, wearing the hijab and kermise looking, I have to admit, quite fetching) is, at the very least, idiotic. Sgts Leonard and Pickering (left and right respectively, although it might be right and left) have even ensured that they covered their *hands*.

    If they genuinely wish to “experience what it’s like to be a Muslim woman”, I would suggest that they take on board differing levels of proof required from women and men’s testimony, as well as maybe resigning their jobs (Leonard and Pickering should definitely return to Constable rank so they don’t command men). Surely anyone who’s read Philip Pullman must see this for the gender apartheid it is?

    As human beings and as women, I have far more respect for Kakar than any of these stupid, stupid individuals.

  3. jess Says:

    I totally agree with you on the meaninglessness of religious (and by extension, ethnic) tourism by donning the sartorial hijab but I really have to say that your last paragraph on a more “authentic” experience of religious tourism is kind of equally limited in my view. The cliche of half-valuing a woman’s testimony says very little about the position of women in the expanse of Islamic law, and likewise positing resignation from economic activity isn’t anymore representative of “the experience of Muslim women.” Lila Abu-Lughod has an essay in the American Anthropologist (104:3, 2002) called “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others” that probably says what I mean to say best. I already feel silly discussing what “the experience of Muslim women” is or isn’t on the internet anyways.

    Side question: What does “kermise” mean?

  4. Alec Says:

    Oh, but ever careful Jess, I spoke of the lot of “Muslim women”, not of “Islamic law”! It’s fairly uncontested that the former are disadvantaged in comparison to men in more Muslim-majority regions than not (and much more so than women in Western societies): be it in Pakistan, even with the nominal repeal of the Hudood Ordinance; or of Lubna Hussein in Sudan; or of Saudi rape victims being punished for being in the presence of an unrelated man.

    Islam, like any set of abstract ideas, is subject to human interpretation. Although I do think that the authority claimed for the Koran as the direct word of the Big Fellow and unimpeachable position of the 6th Century desert warlord is part of the serious problem, such as when Iranian legislators were considering the raising in the age of consent for girls (nine year olds are not women) and counter-arguments were made concerning Aisha.

    But, in the safety of liberty of the West, quietist Muslims can find their own fiqh which allows them and their families to live in pious observance rather than under repressive terror? That’s great!

    And these morons above have spat on that, and then took off their fancy dress and returned to a secular and free life which, by her own admission, Leonard does not think “Muslim women” desire. The burqa is *not* standard apparel for practising Muslim women, let alone women of Muslim backgrounds, but Leonard and Pickering went for what… wait for it… the likes of men at the LCM say women should wear.

    Then onto Lila Abu-Lughod. Setting aside the perversity of anyone claiming to represent free-thought and unencumbered academic enquiry then calling for the isolation of other academics based on their nationality, she still comes across as a spoilt scion of mollycoddled academia. The article you mention is found here, and – even were I not familiar with her or her father’s mentor, Edward Said – I would have got a feel for it from the first sentence of the abstract: “This article explores the ethics of the current “War on Terrorism, asking whether anthropology, the discipline devoted to understanding and dealing with cultural difference, can provide us with critical purchase on the justifications made for American intervention in Afghanistan in terms of liberating, or saving, Afghan women”.

    I’m sure there are honourable anthropologists who were appalled by Napoleon Chagnon’s treatment of the Yanomano, but just as the Hodood Ordinance didn’t arise de novo from the Koran, nor did his destructive approach arise de novo from this otiose collection of post modern gobbledegook or racist patronizing claptrap (just as Leonard et al. thought they were being so inclusive and compassionate).

    When I think of anthropology, I think of an image I saw in a textbook showing the circumcision of a young Egyptian girl. She was strapped down, screaming in terror, and the caption was to the effect of “should the observers intervene to protect this one individual and potentially offend the traditions of the family which has offered them hospitality?”.

    Oh, gee, let me think… YES!!!

    The idea that all cultures are equal or that all religions lead to Jainism seems to be more commonplace amongst pampered Western academics or the neo-puritan left, and not the culturally interesting ‘natives’ they believe should remain in their neat little ethnic boxes so to preserve multiculturalism.

    some conversations I had with a reporter from the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and First Lady Laura Bush’s radio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, The presenter from the NewsHour show first contacted me in October to see if I was willing to give some background for a segment on Women and Islam, I mischievously asked whether she had done segments on the women of Guatemala, Ireland, Palestine, or Bosnia when the show covered wars in those regions; but I finally agreed to look at the questions she was going to pose to panelists,

    No, you fatuously asked whether she had done segments on […]. Afghanistan =/= Guatemala, Ireland, Palestine or Bosnia (she uses the Oxford comma, is there no limit to this woman’s depravity?). It’s a childish syllogism which, when Bush et al. started talking about Afghanistan, opportunistic nihilists like this started prattling about any other society they could think of.

    ~*wipes spittle off screen*~

    ~*goes for another pot noodle*~

  5. Alec Says:

    Also, I see I mis-spelt kamiz. It’s to loose-fitting tunic worn by Turner.

  6. Choosing to Wear the Hijab « A Rabbit's Eye View of the Hyperborean North Says:

    […] I did for two female Police sergeants and one Police Community Support Officer from Sheffield who donned Islamic dress to “understand how Muslim feel”; that is, not […]

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