Sunday, 20 June 2010
She is one of Madrid’s Muslim population.
Twice a week I take the number 122 bus. I often see a quite tall lady board the bus with her two young children she has just collected from school. All I know about her is that she wears a modern style of spectacles. That’s all I can see. Two bespectacled eyes through a tiny slit in the veil that covers her face. Her head and face is completely hidden, as is her body, under the shoulder to feet black abayah that swathes her.
She is one of Madrid’s Muslim population.
None of this is strange to me. For nearly forty years I have worked in Muslim countries. From Tunis to Muscat I have encountered Muslim women. On shopping expeditions into Surt, in Libya, I would regularly chat to the tee-shirted, blue-jeaned girl at the check-out. In Tunis I went to the zoo with ladies who would not look out of place in any European capital. In Egypt our office typist wore sweaters that had us poor guys eating out of her hand. In Somalia, where the sun beats down and the humidity drowns the girls wear light, thin wraps that disguise nothing. And in the gulf states the women dress in black from head to foot and are totally unapproachable. I went to a Saudi wedding where women were not allowed. When I offered to drive my boss’s wife home I was told this was not allowed as I could not be in the company of a woman who was not a relation. In fact, I rarely met a Saudi woman at all. I had lunch at a friend’s house and his wife hid in the kitchen while he fetched the food.
I wrote the last paragraph to demonstrate that pretty obviously, the rules pertaining to female dress in the world of Islam are not fixed and are a matter of tradition rather than religion. The Koran simply states that women should “dress modestly”, but from country to country the term, “modest” is up for interpretation. I remember reading of an old lady in western Saudi Arabia who said when she was a girl the veil was not a requirement and she was dammed if she was going to start at the age of seventy, as her local imam had told her to. Others told me that the introduction of the abayah into Saudi Arabia came when they were part of the Turkish Ottoman empire. Women had not dressed like that since the days of Mohammed. In the fourteen hundred and odd years of Islam, the abayah and the veil are relatively new. Strangely, the modern Turkish state now bans the veil!
The young lady on the metro with whom I began this piece is actually more “traditional” than the abayah swathed lady on the bus.
What prompts me to write this is the news that the town council of Barcelona has recently passed a law that will make it illegal to wear the veil. A statement from the Barcelona municipal government says, “Barcelona will forbid the use of the burqa, niqab and any other item which hinders personal identification in any of the city's public installations." Actually, this is sloppy reporting and / or interpretation by Reuters as the Burqa is the heavy drape worn in Afghanistan. They really mean the abayah.
Alberto Fernandéz, a member for the conservative Party Popular faction of the Barcelona ayuntamiento, says, "The use of the burqa and niqab undermines the dignity and freedom of women.” He continues, “"The mayoral decree is a half-measure, because as well as forbidding the burqa and niqab in public installations, it is necessary to forbid it on the street”.
The ban will take effect after the summer.
There are similar voices to that of Señor Fernandéz here in Madrid. Not long ago a young Muslim woman was forced to change schools when her school banned the use of head coverings.
Statistics from last year claim that three percent of Spain’s population are Muslim. It used to be much more. (Honestly, no pun intended!) From 711 until 1492 much of Spain was under the rule of Islam, which is about two hundred years longer than the current Catholic church has existed here. Spain is actually very proud of its Islamic architectural heritage. The Alhambra in Granada is one of the country’s most visited sites, as is the mosque in Cordoba. Yet I hear the voice of Madrilleños who dislike this new incursion.
A couple of years ago the ayuntamiento of Madrid gave a building near the Retiro park to the Muslim community. There were posters stuck up everywhere opposing this. Of course, the number of posters, which were the work of Spain’s very right wing Frente Naciónal party, do not accurately reflect the voice of the moderate majority. But they are very vocal and the publicity must make people think.
And I have heard their concerns voiced. With the increase in immigration over the past few years people have voiced concerns about how some neighbourhoods are changing. Places they have lived for years are taking on a whole new character with which they are unfamiliar. Low paid jobs that used to be done by Spaniards and are now performed by immigrants have become a hot topic for discussion in this time of economic crisis.
And there is definitely some prejudice. I remember having this discussion with a Spanish man and he went on and on about the “inmigrantes” and how they were changing the face of his country. After twenty minutes, when I could finally get a word in edgeways, I smiled and said, “But I am an immigrant. I live here permanently, use your health service, your subsidised transport and pay those taxes I have to pay”.
Quickly, perhaps to backtrack a little, he replied, “But you are different”. Meaning, I am quite sure, that I am a white, western European and not different at all, but just like him.
There are a few tens of thousands Western European and North American working in Madrid, and we have been here a long time. Because of the way we dress and act and support ourselves we assimilate and go un-noticed. (I write “in Madrid” because I am all too aware that a lot of my countrymen and women live in other parts of Spain and never try to fit in, which is a pity.) But in the past five years immigration from other parts of the world where people look and dress and act and believe very differently from the Spanish has increased dramatically. The people who arrive on flimsy boats from Africa and other economic migrants cost Spain a small fortune, which is a matter for another post. But they come and are now a very visible presence among us.
And to some, that is frightening.
I was halfway through writing this when the minister of Justice, Fransisco Caamaño, made a decree in the Spanish government. Following on from what I wrote earlier about Barcelona he declared that “the use of the burqa in pubic spaces would be banned nationwide”. He stated, “(The wearing of these clothes) is incompatible with human dignity and above all with the fundamental elements of identification of people in public areas”. In his judgement, “The burqa does not respect the dignity of humanity, and especially that of women”. In our society he probably voices the opinion of many.
Now, there are some ladies, and I use the term loosely, who are not of immigrant descent around Madrid who also dress in a not very dignified manner. Especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Should they be legislated against also?
And while I am reporting the Justice Minister’s edict, I might point out that he was talking about a change in the “Ley de Libertad Religiosa”, the law of religious liberty, to restrict the wearing of these clothes that are only worn by those of the Islamic faith. There is some irony here, surely. If he is to change this particular law, to be just, he cannot restrict the wearing of apparel for only one religion. No one will be able to wear any clothing that pertains to a religion. So if Muslims cannot wear what they feel most comfortable in, then to be fair, neither can any other religion, which would encompass all the nuns, monks and priests in Spain.
And what would the Pope be allowed to wear if he made a pastoral visit?
One of his predecessors, Pope Innocent III, in 1215, decreed that those of differing faiths would indeed wear different clothing as he considered it important to be able to tell a Jew or Muslim at a glance. His point was that if no one knew who was who the Christian church could be infiltrated and Christian values distorted. Two of the canons he enacted stated that, “Jews and Muslims shall wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians. Christian princes must take measures to prevent blasphemies against Jesus Christ”.
Today, Islam is concerned about Christian doctrine influencing the philosophy of Mohammed.
There has been some debate about the appropriateness of clothes for young girls that imitate those of their more mature sisters. Recently in the UK there was an outcry about padded bikini tops for pre-pubescent girls. But the truth is that girls do want to grow up quickly. And funnily enough this is also displayed in Islamic cultures too. A few years ago a mother in Saudi Arabia wrote to a newspaper asking for advice about her young daughter who WANTED to wear the abayah despite not yet having reached the age of menarche, when she would have her first period. Before that age the abayah is not required, but her daughter wanted to emulate her elder sisters and her mother wanted her to stay a little girl.
You see, it’s cultural - not religious. And that little girl did not think it infringed her dignity to wear the abayah. It made her more grown up, more dignified. So before politicians start making claims they should understand the facts.
My own feeling is that people should wear what the hell they like. I must confess to having a prejudice against hats. I can’t trust anyone who wears one. But then some people feel like that about beards and I have one of those. So that fear, like mine with hats, is irrational. It’s the same with someone else’s traditional dress.
However, I will also confess that when the veiled woman gets on the bus with her kids, I feel uneasy. I cannot make that first impression we all do when we see a stranger for the first time. We have good reason for asking motorcyclists to remove their helmets when entering a bank or other public building and see no reason why another group of people should not also obey those rules.
I have no problem with the girl on the metro. A headscarf does not present a danger to security. For purposes of security the veil should be banned, but don’t try to disguise this legislation under laws of equality, women’s rights or religious freedoms. This would actually remove a freedom.
I thought Spain approved of being different.
Posted by A View Of Madrid at 13:49