The French may be banning the veil—but as Brits, we should go one better and insist on it. And hats for men too, while we’re at itby James Hawes / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
President Nicolas Sarkozy recently urged French Muslims not to feel “hurt or stigmatised” by the planned ban on burqas. Sarkozy’s argument is watertight: to make sure it gets every sou of what is Caesar’s, the French state has for generations fought off cardinals. So why should it not also defy imams? We mere fudging Brits can only stand helpless before the shining logic of Gallic etatism.
But I propose a more cunning solution to incorporate fully “an immense body of persons who, however patriotic, able and industrious… still, by their own action, remain a people apart” (that was Arthur Balfour in 1906 on Jewish immigration, by the way). Rather than playing into the hands of Islamists, we should call their bluff. Let us not ban the veil—but insist upon it.
And hats for men, while we’re at it. It is high time for a British sumptuary law. Who better to enact it than the coalition of Eton and Westminster, those institutions so notoriously fixated on garderobial niceties? Let it henceforth be an offence for any man to appear in public with his head or torso uncovered, and for any woman to show her hair, face, or flesh above the wrist or ankle.
Like every good revolution, ours will look back—and not very far back at that. The artists of the Eagle comic in the early 1960s could easily imagine a world with an interstellar Fighter Command run by the UN—but not one without a trilby for Colonel Dan Dare when he sallied forth in mufti. No, we need only turn the clock back a single generation to find a Britain where hats were not just for Hasids. And what a world of gentle social literacy we lost when we chucked our titfers. My partner gave me one of those indestructible Indiana Jones-style felt Stetsons last Christmas and, after a brief period of self-consciousness, I was soon raising a forefinger to it, tipping it slightly, lifting it minimally, brandishing it ironically or doffing it with respect, as fluently as any Japanese salaryman with his neatly-graded bows.
As for female coverings, well, the burqa is often denounced as “medieval,” but my own Granny Fry, though resolutely irreligious, would no more have stepped out into the streets of Cricklewood without a hat or scarf on her head than she would have done with a cigarette in her hand. Many a living circuit judge has espoused positively Talibanic notions of what constitutes Dressing for Public Whoredom in the mind of a reasonable, if intoxicated, male brain. As recently as the 1980s there was a sign at the entrance to Padua Cathedral, warning that “women in low, short or immodest dresses and members of either sex in Bermuda shorts may not enter the house of God.”
Only just beyond living memory (say, in the works of Henry James), a posh lass who raises her veil within cigar-smoke range of a man is clearly hinting that she is absolutely bally gagging to slip away and get rural. Arthur Schnitzler, the Viennese playwright of the fin-de-siecle, was aiming for belly-laughs when, in La Ronde, he had a married woman enter her lover’s flat and declare passionately “I cannot stay”—while removing her veil. That comic moment from 1900 would play perfectly in Tehran today, though the work itself would be banned, as it was in Germany until 1920. And it was only performed uncut in Britain in 1981. You see, with just a gentle nudge of the timeline, our allegedly profound cultural differences are revealed simply as the disjuncture of a few piffling decades of social change.
Radical Islamists, faced by a host country modestly clad cap-a-pied in lace, cambric and tweed, will be utterly discomfited. They (and their idiot allies on the post-left) will have to stop claiming that they are a gratuitously oppressed cultural “other.” When we are all dressed so very Britishly, yet in fulfilment of “Islamic” demands, it will be as clear as day that these codes are mere tribal habits from the most ghastly and illiterate parts of the Caliphate, and no more to do with the Koran than dressing up as an 18th-century Ukrainian is to do with the Torah. Many moderate Muslims who have far more reason than we to dread radical imams will thank us for making this little point.
It will be fun to dress each day as if for a posh wedding, of course—but it will also profoundly change everything. With our bodies covered once again as in our grandparents’ day, the art of courtship will no longer be governed by the display, or the blatant suggestion, of flesh and sinew. Since we will only be revealed as buff or not when it is too late, armies of personal trainers shall wither away, to be replaced by tailors, voice-coaches and evening-classes chez Alain de Botton. For what matters in this new age will be the cut of our clothes, of our conversation, of our jib—these alone will win the breathless tryst at which the gloves come off, the hat is spun rakishly away and the veil (ah, ecstasy!) is raised at last.