Gary Day

October 27, 2006

There was outrage in some quarters last week when it was suggested that academics should spy on their Islamic students. I can't see what all the fuss is about. It would make a nice change to monitor only a few students instead of all of them. What do those who protested think we do most of the time if not constantly check that our charges meet the approved criteria for their courses? And don't we keep a close watch on their opinions? Rewarding them when they come out with the right ones, penalising them when they come out with the wrong ones? It is called education.

Jack Straw started the whole thing by asking women to undress in his surgery. Since then we've all been wondering if those who wrap themselves up warm are truly English. Don't they know that the custom in this country is to go out wearing only a mini-skirt and a skimpy top in the depths of winter? When in Blackburn... Look, I'm not saying that the burka isn't attractive. Concealment excites the imagination. In fact, I'm surprised The Sun hasn't latched on to its erotic character. But then a hint of skin is probably too subtle for Britain's best-loved daily.

Oh dear. I've suddenly realised that talking like this merely confirms one of the reasons why women choose the niqab. Because they think that if they show their face a man will immediately want to have sex with them. At least that's what one said on the radio, although she put it more poetically:

"Women were the flames and men were the moths." If only all women were as considerate. Then I wouldn't have to lose any time thinking about sport.

Of course, there are other reasons why women wear the niqab. One is that they are told to by their husbands, brothers or fathers. But many deny that. They claim that it was God who decreed that they should cover themselves from head to foot. Which strikes me as a bit odd since he didn't bother to veil the rest of creation. There it is, in all its glory, from the thick-petalled rose to the spilled light of a sunset. Perhaps it is the sight of so much beauty on display that provokes us to throw acid in nature's face. So to speak.

Some say that there is no directive from on high on what to wear. God is not Christian Dior, he is the Supreme Being. Yet the belief persists that the veil is a sign of piety, though I'd have thought true piety doesn't need to advertise itself.

In any case, aren't there better ways of demonstrating your religion than by how you dress? Of course there are, "making a full contribution to society" for a start. There are some who doubt you can do that if you wear the niqab. I am inclined to agree. Obviously, those who make the most contribution to society are the most highly paid. For example, Chelsea fullback Ashley Cole receives more in a week than a nurse probably earns in two years. But a fully covered woman can't possibly sign for a Premiership football club. She'd trip up trying to dribble the ball, though that might come in handy for winning penalties. So it's not fair to expect her to make "a full contribution to society", especially when the rest of us don't.

Actually it is about time we subverted what George Eliot called "that every culpable entity" society. And here the more radical element of female Islam is taking the lead. You can't blame them. They belong to a community that suffers from poverty, poor housing, high unemployment and regular diatribes in the Daily Mail .

Just because you wear a burka it doesn't mean you want to burn books. There are many suited Christians who would be only too delighted to close down the theatres again. No, the burka is a protest against the fact that we are the most watched nation on earth. What better way to preserve your privacy, your sense of self, than to cover up for the cameras, one to every 14 of us?

In fact, we should all adopt the burka.I know there may be some men who are a little uneasy with the idea but there are precedents of a sort. Remember Demis Roussos belting out "forever and ever you'll be the one that shines on me like the morning sun" while several sheets floated round him like adoring ghosts? And who could forget David Beckham's sarong?

The burka is not a perfect way of preserving your identity, it is true. But until scientists have perfected a way of making people invisible as well as objects, it will have to do for now. And it is a lot cheaper than botox.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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