Half in the Bag.
Note: This is a piece I wrote somewhat hungover a couple of a weekends ago. I tried to shop it around to a couple of Op/Ed pages here, but I think, in general, editors want comment pieces about the "veil debate" to say something, not just be ridiculous and poke fun at the debate... Anyway, here it is.
There is a wise, if somewhat unsanitary Native American belief that you cannot really understand someone until you have walked a mile in her shoes. I, for one, certainly gained a deeper understanding of women who wear the niqab after spending a night in a Knightsbridge club with a plastic bag over my head.
Like many Muslim women who wear the veil, I have recently immigrated here from a vastly different country than the U.K.: Canada. It was, in part, my sense of dislocation than led me to me wearing a bag over the weekend.
See, in Canada, to dress fancily means that you leave your sneakers at home and put on a blazer and a tie. Here, however, “fancy dress” apparently means that you dress up like a pirate or a witch.
This bit of cultural confusion resulted in me showing up at a Halloween party across from the National History Museum two weeks ago somewhat out of step with the rest of the partygoers.
Luckily, earlier in the day I had been shopping for pants – what you call trousers here -- at H&M and so I had a ready-made costume on hand. I put the white H&M plastic bag over my face, poked a couple holes for my eyes and mouth, and voila: I was the reclusive American author Thomas Pynchon.
Almost immediately upon donning the bag, I began to gain insight into what daily life must be like for those who wear the niqab. People stared at me suspiciously and felt completely at liberty to ask me probing questions. I tried to explain myself, but no one in attendance had read the sacred text that is Gravity’s Rainbow or understood why Pynchon, praise his name, would wear a bag on his head.
Those who had spent time creating an elaborate costume or money renting one claimed to be offended by what they interpreted as a lack of creativity on my part. I suspect, however, it was really the fact that they could not see my face that offended their Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. After all, there were at least nine naughty nurses at the party and none of the men in attendance complained about that bit of groupthink.
(The second-most popular choice for ladies, I might note, was dressing up as a "Japanese woman." That rather convinced me that British tolerance has advanced little since the time of W.S. Gilbert.)
Class prejudice may also have had something to do with the disdain I felt aimed at my bag-covered face. “H&M?” one woman remarked. “A bit down-market.”
As the evening and the alcohol wore on, those who were uncomfortable with my choice of dress became more vocal about their feelings. A lawyer in attendance echoed Jack Straw when she confessed to me, "It is hard to talk to someone with a bag over his head." Though I appreciated her opening this frank dialogue, I must admit that I began to feel quite hot under the collar. This may have had something to do with the lack of air circulation to my neck, though.
The anti-bag sentiment came to a head when a guest convinced that I was his friend John putting on a funny voice – I don’t see what’s so funny about my Canadian accent -- began demanding to see my face. He pulled upwards on my bag and it tore. It was quite violating. I spent the rest of the evening with the remnants on, my whole face revealed through a gaping hole, looking a bit like the flying nun.
Now, I’m no pro-bag fanatic. I’m perfectly willing to admit that wearing a bag on your head has some inherent drawbacks. For instance, it severely restricts your peripheral vision. I certainly understand now why women are not allowed to drive in certain Islamic countries.
Dancing was also a difficult proposition. On more than one occasion, I very nearly spilt my red wine on a naughty nurse's whites. I suppose this is not a situation that devout Muslim women would find themselves in, however, so I’m not as understanding of Islamic prohibitions on dancing.
Still, though I only spent a scant four hours with a plastic H&M bag over my head, my experience has led me to believe that it is a slippery slope to dictate what men or women of any religion wear. It may be hot and your ears may sweat, but the state has no place advising us on. It may not be your bag to wear the veil, but everyone has the right to look foolish.
Do keep plastic bags away from young children, though.