Archive for November 8, 2010

Burkas: The Punks of the 21st Century?

I can just about remember the start of the punk era. I was at junior school and I can recall the moral outrage these young men and women created by their wearing of mohikan hair styles, ripped jeans and pierced noses. It seemed the moral fabric of society was being shaken to its core. The values of a shared decency of dress were being challenged, and the backlash was both intense, and in hindsight, reactionary.

With the passage of time, the innovations of punk are now the common currency of the fashion zeitgeist. We can pierce our bodies, shave our heads and rip our jeans with impunity. And why not?

Fashion, of course, still retains its capacity to shock. I look with incredulity at young men wearing jeans that hang down the seat of their bottoms revealing the larger part of their underwear. Why would they do such a thing? I reflect, but this is quickly followed by the bitterness of realising, as a middle aged man, I am long past being able to pull off the look!

If fashion now presents us with the freedom to dress how we choose, it seems the new moral panic is about women who choose to wear the burka. This, though, presents us with a different issue. In essence, the burka is the antithesis of fashion. It represents the rejection of the very freedoms to express one’s ‘individual’ self of which the punks were pioneers. It represents a rejection of sexualised dress which has come to characterise western fashion for both men and women. To reject the freedom to dress how we choose now seems as antisocial as the punks seemed in the 1970’s. Fashion has come full circle. Women who wear the burka are the punks of the 21st century.

The wearing of the burka, of course, presents the West with an inner contradiction. We now value the right to dress how we choose, yet we seem to have difficulty with people who choose to dress in a religiously conservative way. The burka wearers, like the punks before them, were making a political point. To be who they want to be. So why is it so disturbing to us?

Well I think the simple truth is that if the Burka were the conservative religious dress of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism or even Jainism (who also wear a veil of sorts) we would not represent them as a problem. The outrage is because the burka is Islamic conservative religious dress and reflects a deep mistrust in society about the motives of the Muslims that live amongst us. It is Islamaphobia.

If women dress in the burka because they feel uncomfortable in sexualised Western dress. Good luck to them. If women dress in the burka as a political protest at Muslim oppression. Good luck to them. If women dress in the burka as a religious observance. Good luck to them. Why should I find the freedom of another intolerable?

If wearing the burka was to be outlawed in this country as it has been in France I would be outraged. It strikes at the heart of our political freedom to be who we want to be, and receive the protection of the law in so doing. I would join the protests against such a ban, and I would wear the Burka myself. If I cannot wear the Burka, it is my freedom, as well as my Muslim sisters, that has been eroded. And I would willingly defy the law and make a mockery of it.

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