For the benefit of the eyes

curious eyes Today we can add another top news headline to the long list of what I call ‘the veil idiosyncrasy’. Ian Murray, a judge, refused to deal with the case of Zoobia Hussain, a entirely veiled defendant. He argued that he could not have been sure of the defendant’s identity, and left the court in a perfect primadonna style. Well, unfortunately fingerprints tell more about your identity than your smiling face. Mr Murray is now facing investigation and possible dismissal, leaving him with his main job; driving taxis.

There has not been any other piece of cloth which has fascinated and attracted so much attention than the variegate styles of Muslim dress, and in particular women veiling. Yet the veil for Muslim women, caps for men, and long tunics for both are probably the only dress code to raise ‘public concern’, if not outrage, while covering instead of “dis-covering” the body, turning it into a rainbow of colours through tattoos and hair dyes, or even metalicising it with kilos of piercings. The Mr Murrays and Straws and Blairs hoped that their actions would reduce the number of Muslim women wearing the full veil, however their efforts have been as successful as the war in Iraq has been.. Even the BBC had to confirm, (and indeed you do not need to be Nostradamus) that ‘the veil idiosyncrasy’ mimicked the dynamics of the 1950s miniskirt scandal: just as the shorter the miniskirt, the more popular it became, the stricter the veil the more successful it is today. Both however, have other things in common.

  1. As beauty and aesthetic are not the main reasons for leaving the house with drastically short miniskirts, so faith and Islam are not the main reasons for strict veiling, such as the burqu. Both styles are actually political statements, which paradoxically state the same: ‘I have control over my body, and I decide how to present it’, one exposing it, and the other concealing it. Both are the product of particular places and cultures.
  2. Neither of them is comfortable to wear.
  3. Both of them attract often unwanted male hormone-driven looks or disapproving nodding heads and whisperings of contempt.
  4. Both of them provoke competition among the wearers: ‘Mine is shorter than yours; I am more woman than you’, and ‘Mine is stricter and darker than yours; I am a better Muslim than you’.
  5. Both of them, because of the attention that they attract, can expose the wearer to harassment.

So, who, at least in the western world, benefits from extreme miniskirts and extreme veiling? The eyes, in particular if male. The eyes can be directed to the miniskirts or the burqu for even opposite reasons, lust or condemnation, but surely they will be there, pointing, focusing and enjoying it, either through the shot of hormones or the thrill of (secular or religious) indignation.

Yet, some may wonder, ‘surely the extreme veiling of a niqab or burqu can not arouse lust!’ Often the wonderer is a woman. I decided to conduct a small experiment and I projected a series of slides to some students representing Muslim women in strict veils, which left barely the eyes visible. As usual, some boys joked that possibly the woman was not so beautiful and had to cover. Yet when granted anonymity, the result was pretty different. When shown a picture of a young woman dressed in long clothes and total veil, and asked to match the possible face from a selection, they selected the most intriguing and pleasant. Also, they confirmed that they were highly intrigued by the fully veiled woman, and found her attractive. Indeed, the time they spent staring at the veiled women was longer than at the miniskirted ones.

Fantasy it seems, in the former case, had to kick in. Yes, if you are thinking that this may be a symptom of old latent Orientalism, probably you are right! But there is also another psychological aspect that our Victorian great-grand-mothers in their art of seduction knew: covering the face (and they did with a fine net attached to their hats) makes you more interesting and desirable than just the naked flesh. Seduction, as the Italians say, is the paradise of the eyes.


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