Atavism and Practicalities

Scribbles has written an interesting and very personal reflection on the seemingly interminable debate around the Muslim practice of Hijab – and specifically the burka which represents the most ‘extreme’ (to Western eyes) form of this practice; one which charts, I suppose, the evolution of her own views on this subject.

I will say, from the outset, that I disagree with her conclusion (she supports the proposed Dutch ban on this form of dress and would support a similar ban over here) but that’s not really what I want to write about to begin with.

Instead, there’s a short passage early on in the piece that I want to pick up on; not to disagree or argue but, hopefully, to try to explain and inform as best I can.

Here’s the passage:

I didn’t know then what it was or why it was worn, but the sight of a women on a hot sticky day encased from head to toe in several thick billowing layers of black cloth, with even the eye slit covered in gauze, genuinely shocked me. I remember being unable to shake the feeling of upset for the rest of the day.

What drew may attention straight away was Scribbles’ description of her reaction to the sight of woman wearing a burka – which is not actually such an uncommon sight around these parts*

*In case anyone hasn’t picked it up in the past, we both come pretty much the same area and although we’ve actually never met from comments she’s made in the past I suspect we live no more than a mile or two apart – maybe less. I live on the Bearwood/Smethwick border if that means anything to anyone other than the two of us.

And at first sight you could be forgiven for thinking her reaction rather extreme and irrational. Some might even be inclined – wrongly – to ascribe such a reaction to some degree or form of racism; although if you’ve read her blog for any length of time you’d know that isn;t the case.

In fact, her reaction is far from being extreme or irrational at all. In fact it’s all too natural reaction in anyone not brought up in a society wear the burka is not a part of mainstream culture. It also, has nothing whatsoever to do with race, ethnicity, xenophobia or an intractable fear of the unknown, rather its her discomfort is all a matter of communication.

Yes. Communication.

As human beings only a very limited amount of the way we communicate with each other comes down to speech and language; according to some studies only about 7% of human communication relies on speech. Of the rest, 38% comes from paralinguisitics and chronematics (the ‘way’ we speak, i.e. intonation, timing, rhythm) with the remainder being made up of kinesics, proxemics (so-called ‘personal space’) and semiotics, which collectively is usually refered to as ‘body language’.

Communication is an innate human faculty. Yes, it is a skill we all have to learn as we develop but our capacity to learn is part of our fundamental genetic and physiological make-up. For good old Homo Sapiens Sapiens, the eponymous ‘Nekkid Ape’, communication is as natural as… well, breathing and the capacity to communication (and some would argue the need/desire as well) is something that hardwired into to us all.

For me, as an atheist, this is merely a matter of simple logic. Communication is the key to our intellectual development and our ability to act cooperatively, both of which are major evolutionary advantages and this is, therefore, fundamentally to who and what we are as a species.

Why should this be relevant to Scribbles’ obvious unease, even revulsion, on encountering, for the first time, a woman wearing a burka?

Well quite simply because because the burka, in covering the body so completely, strips away almost all possibility of nonverbal communication.

But, you may well ask, what has this got to do with her reaction? After all, from her account Scribbles wasn’t even trying to communicate with the woman.

For the answer to that you have to look at our nearest genetic relatives, the other primates. Amongst Chimps, Gorillas, Organ-utans, etc. non-verbal communication plays an extremely critical role in establishing and maintaining social order and social hierarchies within the group. Gestures, facial expressions and, particularly posture all play a crucial role in identifying and reinforcing the position of a particular individual in the social hierarchy providing a whole set of visual cues which establish, from the outset, where one sits in the ‘pecking order’ and how one relates, therefore, to other members of the group.

In encountering the woman wearing the burka, Scribbles appears from her account to have experienced a degree of profound psychological discomfort, this being a direct product of her inability, due to the nature of the burka, to acquire sufficient visual and other non-verbal cues to establish a ‘relationship’ and an understanding of their relative positions in the social hierarchy. This was simply an atavistic reaction in which, unconsciously, she was reacting on the basis of instincts we all share, not just amongst ourselves but with all other primates.

Ok, one could argue that this is, indeed, irrational in the sense that the reaction is one of hardwired instinct and not rational choice but this ignores the fact that it remains an entirely natural and readily explainable reaction, one which can be accounted for rationally in terms of evolution and basic biological imperatives.

Why I’ve chosen to try and point this out is not to try to explain to Scribbles why [I think] she reacted as she did but rather to make a more general point about reactions to the burka in general and to note, in particular, a key reason why many people fell uneasy about it, often without ever really knowing why. It’s not a matter of racism, xenophobia or disrespect for another culture – although such things do obviously (and unfortunately) exists and are a factor in the reactions of some – it is often an unthinking, instinctive and atavistic reaction to a situation which, unconsciously, causes psychological discomfort for reasons over which we all have no immediate control.

Of course, it is a reaction that can be readily and consciously overcome if one is aware of it, but many people aren’t – they just know it makes them uncomfortable without knowing quite why that should be the case. It really is nothing personal.

The second point I want to pick up on relates specifically to this particular comment:

the sight of a women on a hot sticky day encased from head to toe in several thick billowing layers of black cloth, with even the eye slit covered in gauze

In other words the burka itself.

Look around and there is no shortage of analysis, comment and opinion on the subject of the burka and its perceived symbolism both from an Islamic and Western standpoint – that’s not a debate I intend to get into overmuch.

Instead I just want to point out a simple and very basic fact, that customs and cultural values – howsoever they may eventually come to be defined and/or enforced – almost always have practical roots. At some time in the past virtually ever custom began because it served a practical purpose and/or a basic need.

Here’s a fact for you. Both Judaism and Islam require prompt burial of the dead – usually within no more than a day or two of death. Anyone ever wonder why?

Ok. So the obvious answer is that this a practice which forms part of their respective faith and culture and which operates under an express religious injunction – but the question still remains why? Why does Jehova/Allah insist that burials be carried out within a couple of days? Why not a week or a fortnight? What’s the big deal?

In fact the practical roots of Jewish/Islamic burial customs should be fairly obvious.

Consider, for a moment, the environment and climate in which both faiths originated… now what do you think happens to the deceased human body in that environment if its left lying around for days in the absence of modern innovations like refridgeration?

You see my point?

In cultures which develop in hot climates there are very pratical and obvious reasons for adopting the practice of speedy burial. Not only is the dear-departed going to very rapidly get to be an pretty unpleasant sight (and odour) if left lying around while the natural process of decomposition kicks in but with all the flies, bacteria, etc. that come with territory thing are very quickly going to get pretty insanitary and rather a hazard to public health.

Not for nothing was the first historical use of bio-weapons [in siege warfare] based on the idea of killing a few sheep, letting them fester nicely for a few days and then lobbing over the walls at the enemy with a catapult in the hope of infecting the water supply with whatever nasty diseases had managed to develop in the meantime.

Rapid burial is a very practical solution to a very practical problem and like many such solutions, over time, it has become wrapped up in layers of custom and belief to the extent that the original purpose fo the practice has largely been forgotten.

The same principle applies to the Burka.

It is a peculiarly Western thing that people assume that the burka must be a hot, uncomfortable and extremely impractical garment and that, on those rare occasions when the British weather struggles its way up into upper 70’s fahrenheit or better , the poor woman that’s actually buried under acres of cloth must sweating like nobody’s business.

In fact, nothing could be further that the truth. The burka is a garment which developed in a hot climate and which has the virture of being both relatively cool during the heat of day and relatively warm during the night when, in desert climates across North Africa and the Middle East air tempertures quite readily drop down close to and even below freezing.

It something of a cultural curio in Western attitudes that we spend so much time focussing on the Burka without really noting its obvoious similarities to the tradition robes worn by male bedouin, even down to the practice of covering the majority of the face, which is simply a practical measure when living in regions where sandstorms are a common occurance.

As with burial customs, garments like the Burka have very practical roots and offer a set of practical solutions to the problems of living in a desert environment and equally they have become wrapped up over time in all manner of customs and belief, some of which we find, in the West, rather difficult to accept because they clash with our own values.

This, more than anything else, explains the wide variations in interpretation of what, precisely, constitutes hijab, the garments that Muslim women are required to wear according to the customs and traditions of their faith. These variation are simply reflections of local culture. Islam introduces the concept of hijab and this, in different areas, in interpreted and adapted to fit existing local customs, many of which have their roots in simple, practical considerations. Only later did particular forms of hijab acquire the degree of symbolism that we in the West appear to find problematic.

I did, right from the outset, that I disagree with Scribbles on the issue of banning the burka and this anthropological view of its development explains, in part, why.

As a garment it is an entirely neutral object – only when worn do we vest any particular significance or symbolism in it and what it symbolises is very much a product of culture and cultural conditioning.

Now that may well be either benign – in the sense that a Muslim women may freely choose to wear the burka – or malign – in the sense that some women are seemingly coerced (so it is alleged) into wearing it but neither is, for me, any reflection on the garment itself.

The fact is that it is perfectly possible for attitudes within Islam towards women to change without it necessarily resulting in the end of the burka or any other aspect of hijab; in many cases no change may even be necessary – Islam, like Christianity, has many different variations and interpretations and is in no was a homogeneous a culture as it frequently depicted.

Banning the burka and its perceived symbolism (as seen through the lens of Western culture) seem to me to be little more than trying to tackle the symptoms of a problem in the vain hope that one might someone end up tackling the cause – it’s like treating influenza with Lemsip, you may end up temporarily feeling a little better but it isn’t actually going to cure you.

And that really is my problem with this whole idea. It seems to me that this whole suggestion has everything to do with making us feel a little better but little or nothing to do with actually improving the lot of Muslim women at all.

It’s what Buddhists would call ‘maya’, an illusion and what I, personally, would see as nothing more than ‘The Spectacle’ at work, as usual.

3 thoughts on “Atavism and Practicalities

  1. If Irshad Manji is to be believed in her book “The trouble with Islam”, Mohammed only agreed his wives should wear headscarf as they were “beloved of Mohammed”. It would be perfectly reasonable to interpret this as suggesting that any Islamic woman who wore a headscarf were claiming herself to be equally beloved of Mohammed, which is surely a blasphemy.

    However, the Koran only requires women to be modest of dress, nowhere does it say anything about headscarves. However in the post-Mohammed commentaries, kinda like Paul’s letters in the Bible, the men decided that wearing of the headscarf was mandatory. You don’t have to question too hard to realise that this was not so much a religious issue as one of patriarchal control.

    As for it being a useful garment, read the “Sewing Circles of Herat” where the women describe the suffocating, almost paralysing, effect of wearing their local hijab.

    Don’t believe the hype. It’s only about control.

  2. Helen,

    The point I’m making is both that in certain specific climates the burka is a very practical garment and like most such thing has practical roots – i.e. it developed to serve a specific purpose.

    Likewise the variation in definitions of what constitutes hijab is rooted in local customs and social mores – the reason there is no singular form of hijab is because as Islam spread, the practice was adapted and interpreted in line with prevailing local customs.

    Any religious injunctions that now ‘enforce’ the practice are later cultural overlays on practices which pre-date Islam – that’s fact not hype and a matter of simple social anthropology.

    The fact is, banning the burka doesn’t change religious or cultural attitudes at all – like all forms of prohibition it merely drives the problem underground and out of sight.

    You have to look at where the wider consequences of any such decision might lead. On one level there are Muslim women for whom the burka is a form of dress they choose to adopt of, seemingly, their own free will.

    If they make that choice then what right do you, I or anyone else have to take that choice away from them? Suppose someone were to propose we ban women from wearing, say, jeans with white high heeled shoes on the grounds that it reinforces the negative ‘Essex Girl’ stereotype and they consider it demeaning to women – would you support such a ban?

    On the other side of the coin, just what do you think would happen to those women who effectively forced/coerced into wearing the burka?

    For one thing, if you’ve spent any time around a Muslim community you’d know that it’s often not the men who’re the ones turning the screw but female relatives – mother-in-laws in particular have a well deserved and fearsome reputation and, in fact, in untra-conservative Muslim families it is the mother-in-law that sets the rules for the women of the household.

    Also, do you honestly think that if we ban the burka, ultra-conservative Muslim families are simply going to blithely accept that decision and observe the law or will women in those families merely becoming effectively prisoners who are not allowed out in public because law doesn’t permit them the mode of dress their husband/family expects?

    Prohibition invariably has consequences beyond the mere banning of a particular item or practice – yet rarely does this seen to figure in the thinking of it supporters.

    That’s why prohibition generally fails – not only does it not change attitudes but what it creates is often worse than that which it seeks to outlaw and ends up being self-defeating.

    The only way you change attitudes is through education and rational debate, not by crude measures such as prohibition.

  3. Being slightly flippant, one might point out that according to modern legislation (introduced, natch, to placate Muslims), your correspondent doesn’t actually need a reason to complain about the burka.

    She just needs to feel offended or threatened – or claim to – and that’s it: an offence is committed.

    Somehow I don’t think the law is intended to work that way, and somehow I think if it were tried it would fail.

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