Say ‘Islam’ and one of the first things that will spring to mind is the burqa. The connotations of the burqa are not normally positive; in the western mind it has become synonymous with extremist groups like the Taliban; a symbol of religion’s enduring contempt for all that is feminine. Worries arise as to whether this kind of association is little more than a sign of our own cultural prejudice; we are often prone to view the culturally distinct as in some way threatening. What is notable in the case of the burqa, however, is that the negative reactions have come not merely from armchair pundits but a wide range of intellectuals, many of who are otherwise in favour of cultural pluralism. A charge of ethnic prejudice against opponents of the burqa also seems ill-conceived when we consider how little attention these critics direct at other cultural exports. Dreadlocks or bindis have been fondly adopted by many westerners and not merely despite but precisely because of their ethnic flavour. Recognition of dreadlock’s and bindi’s religious origins should also go some way to showing that we in the west, secular as many of us appear to be, are not predisposed to shun religious artifacts.
The majority of westerners, whether politically left, right, or centre, remain heavily sceptical of the application of hijab (modesty of dress) in Islamic communities within the UK, and beyond. To go one further and actually picture non-Muslim girls rushing down to a busy mall to pick up the latest burqa or niqab sex doll torso seems to require quite some imaginative leap. Even the young who remain conveniently imperceptive to a range of moral issues seem to cotton on to something amiss with the burqa. By completely eclipsing the female form, the burqa invites immediate suspicion, becoming the ostensible expression of women’s final and absolute banishment from public life. Due to this rather dubious honour, the burqa (unlike henna tattooing, dreadlocks, or even the St Christopher) has little chance of catching on in modern, secular, parts of the world.
Daring as it may seem to say, this might be more of a shame than we are inclined to suppose, and one need not be a person of Islamic faith to think so. There are reasons available to people of a secular leaning that commend the more modest style of dress adopted by women across the Muslim Diaspora. Whilst these reasons will be presented in the course of this paper do not expect to find a knock down argument in favour of a public requirement of modesty, do not expect to find a knock down argument at all. Instead, the forthcoming consideration of modesty of dress aims at little more than providing a reassessment of present attitudes toward dress, considering some of the over-looked benefits that accompany a more sexually reserved approach to dress.
The sex orientated and appearance obsessed nature of modern western culture provides the backdrop by which our reassessment of the burqa may begin. Turning our eyes to the cultural shifts that took affect on our own society over fifty years ago we start to unveil many of the reason why the burqa can be viewed, as some of its female Muslim apologists claim it to be, as liberating in a range of ways.
In the 1940s the first hatchlings of a free-market attitude toward sex were born. Rita Hayworth’s silver screen shenanigans had sex starved wartime soldiers in a condition most un-conducive to good military protocol. Elvis, in turn, showed that women were not invulnerable to their own form of sexual idolatry. The exponential growth of media technology, coupled with irresistible market forces, focusing with new fierceness on a sex sells mentality, meant conservatives clinging to the idea of a sex-free public space never stood a chance.
Rita Hayworth and Elvis were no less revolutionary than the Bolsheviks, and like most revolutions theirs would have its share of failings. That the sexual revolution produced a range of positive changes can not be denied: whoever fails to rejoice in the steady decline of the sexual dissatisfaction and shame that plagued an earlier generation’s attitudes toward sex has succumb to the kind of masochism that all to often dresses itself up as the stern voice of morality. Be that as it may, a population of sexually harmonious and balanced individuals has not been in any way the result of this revolution.