The Liz Jones theory of just war

I’m not saying that Liz Jones is shallow, and spending a week in a burqa is more than I’m willing to do in the name of journalism. For one thing, I’m not going to risk the rickets. But is she absolutely sure that the right to wear a strappy top is so important it should be defended with the full force of the UK’s military? Has she really and completely thought through the politics of invasion?

In Afghanistan, the burka is known as the ‘chadri’; it became common only when the Taliban came to power.

When I think of the young men who have died fighting the Taliban and the calls to end a war that has ‘nothing to do with us’, I think of how I felt in my mobile prison and remember that, for all those women forced to hide their faces and their bodies, their fight is our fight, too.

The night I finally took off my burka, I wanted to put on make-up, spaghetti straps and the highest shoes I own. All week I’d been wearing scent, so compelling was the need to be feminine.

The Mail, “Liz Jones: My week wearing a burka: Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

13 thoughts on “The Liz Jones theory of just war

  1. And yet oddly I’ve never read an article where a journo spends the week dressed as a nun then points out the garb is somewhat oppressive and clearly designed to de-feminise women. As for Liz Jones, her inanity just stuns me; especially her habit of tossing in the names of designer ‘stuff’ in every sentence. While a normal woman might write “Put my shoes on, grabbed my bag, went to work”, a typical Liz ‘article’ would be “So, I made the stressful decision to forego the black and orange Jimmy Choos and instead wear the lime-green with spots pair I bought in Macey’s and struggled to pick up my big bag – similar to the Dior one all the wags have – which contained my Apple Laptop and brand new iPhone”. Methinks Liz thinks if she boasts about how much crap she’s got people will somehow respect her as a giant among fashion journalist minows…

  2. Bookworm in the latest Private Eye does a witheringly good job on Liz Jones’ new book. Definitely worth buying it. And this interview with her in the Observer is alarming for so many reasons.

  3. Hiya Sarah, a question.

    Do you think there is a time and place for passing comment on what a burqa expresses about men and women?

    And since you are discussing the burqa here, how come this isn’t it?

    PS I enjoyed your CiF post. Absolutely, abortion can be a responsible act. I can’t see how curtailment of choice is compatible with expanding morality.

  4. Compulsion in matters of dress without an ancilliary reason (hygiene, safety, uniform) is utterly illiberal. So why should anyone tell anyone else what they must wear? Is it ok for me to wear a full dress and headscarf, or is it only off limits for Muslims? Liz Jones didn’t like wearing a burqa, but would a habitual burqa-wearer experience Liz’s spaghetti straps as glorious liberty or (I think more likely) miserable exposure?

    By all means make the arguments against a particular form of dress (I made one in this post, by the way: rickets are a genuine health risk resulting from permanantly covering the skin) but if you insist on telling people that their clothes are part of a wicked ideology, you can’t expect them to see you as a friend.

    If a woman is suffering domestic abuse, shelters and support must be made available, and I agree that a woman might be forced to wear a burqa by relatives and in that case, the dress can form a part of the abuse. But in itself, I’d say it’s no more abusive than hotpants, stacked wedges, hobble skirts, corsets or any of the other absurd and uncomfortable things I’ve worn. So either formulate an argument that covers all forms of potentially damaging costume without impinging on freedom of choice, or accept that arguing against the burqa means opening a hell-hole of whataboutery.

  5. I’d strongly protest any move to ban the burqa, or stigmatise women who wear the burqa. But at the same time, since it has come up, it seems right to point out that the burqa is a way, according to a certain convention, of making a woman disappear, incapacitating her and at the same time communicating to men that they are lawless creatures and not expected to control their own impulses without certain forms of cooperation from the objects of those impulses.

    I’m having trouble with your comparison. Who or what is obliging you to wear stacked wedges, corsets etc? You do what you want, you don’t feel obliged on a day-to-day basis (do you?) You don’t feel that it would be more trouble than it’s worth not to wear the corset, even weighing up the fact that you can’t run for the bus, go swimming, or breathe properly on hot days. You don’t feel that the handicap of stacked wedges is a price worth paying for a quiet life, or not to rock the boat.

    If you want to wear a corset you are basically saying “This handicap is worth it”. Day to day, almost nobody does anymore. But burqas, unlike the corsets which women persuaded each other to abandon for everyday wear but which are sometimes worn for kicks, are a barrier and a handicap, I can’t see how they could be turned to a woman’s advantage and I would question whether any professed decision to wear it was a choice or whether it was actually an internalisation of oppression, which is something which deserves understanding rather than ignoring. So I missed your acknowledgement, when you brought it up, of the women who have to wear it. And I thought I’d mention it, not to fight, but to try to figure it out.

  6. It seems to me that you’re taking coercian into the burqa as the norm in a way that implies something specially rotten in Islam, whereas I don’t believe Islam is intrinsically more misogynistic than any other faith, and I don’t believe that all burqa-wearers are coerced. I’m sure you’ve heard a few burqa-wearing women explain the benefits they experience from wearing the burqa: that they feel they’re treated more as equals by men who aren’t distracted by their bodies, the costume brings them closer to God, and so on. And some of these women have adopted it voluntarily an the outward sign of serious religious observance, same as some women voluntarily become nuns and wear the habit.

    I don’t find the arguments very compelling (I don’t think Twisty Faster would be very impressed by my arguments in favour of bunions, either), but it’s representative of how some people feel about their dress, it’s and fair to see it as a benefit to those people in those cases. It makes me very happy to hear people declaring the burqa unnecessary, but I certainly don’t think you can bomb people into becoming more liberal about dress codes – which is what Liz Jones’ mangled logic suggests.

  7. “It seems to me that you’re taking coercian into the burqa as the norm in a way that implies something specially rotten in Islam”

    I don’t see where you’d have got that impression from. I didn’t try to broaden out my point to incorporate the veil or any other Muslim garment – we are talking here about the burqa, which is a garment worn by a minority of women here, as it was in Afghanistan before the Talibs came to power. My query and the conversation we have just had is only tangentially to do with Islam – although burqa enthusiasts – not sure whether to call them radicals or fundamentalists or something else – will try to tell us it is everything to do with Islam.

    Outside societies where women are punished for dressing in ways designated immodest, the reasons you list don’t explain the decision to wear what is effectively a large bag covering the head and body so that you cannot be seen from the outside.

    I agree about Liz Jones. And legislating against dress codes doesn’t help either.

    Anyway, that’s all from me. Gotta hustle.

  8. PS It’s probably best to be explicit, given what you inferred: certainly Islam is no more inherently misogynistic than other faiths I’m aware of. Religions have always been imbued with different content over time and between different societies – Islam is no different.

  9. Sarah, fleshisgrass, you both make points that are valid and need to be stated. Obviously Liz Jones’ article is of the infantile school of journalism, no better than the misguided “I’ll run around blindfolded for a day then I know what it feels like to be blind.” No you don’t. Liz’s spaghetti straps don’t need to come into the argument about the burka at all, and the “hell-hole of whataboutery” can also be avoided by… simply not going there.

    It must be ok to question the reasons for wearing a burka; even those women who insist that it is their own choice, and it must be ok without fearing one’s own internalised worry to appear patronising, colonialist even. If you were to don it and when asked you’d answer “because I get cold easily” “I like the way i can make rude gestures underneath it and no one can see”, I might think you’re an idiot, but I wouldn’t worry about the political, social aspect & impact of it. But when a woman tells me she does this to please her god, because it makes her feel modest, because of her religion – which is an ideology if not necessarily a wicked one – I am troubled (above all because there is no such god). What kind of god have you invented who needs you to hide your physicality from your fellow humans? Why does this invention want you to put a price on modesty? And why does modesty have to do with your body in the first place? And isn’t it strangely coincidental that this invention makes such a point of laying the burden of modesty on you, the woman? Finally, religious beliefs are always communal, never individual. That is their point. And that is why a burka, as an expression of a belief, is never “an in itself”.

  10. Sonja, I agree pretty much exactly with everything you’re saying, and I’d never say that the burqa is outside of criticism (hence the rickets crack) – and nor do I feel it’s a special case. The semiology of the burqa isn’t, in itself, any more distressing than the semiology of many other discomforting garments (and I don’t think it’s only religion that’s communal – fashion is too, albeit in a less centralised way).

    It seems to me – and perhaps I’ve wrong-footed myself here – that Fleshisgrass asked me to comment on the meaning of the burqa, and then informed me that my commentary should have taken in the issue of coercion. Whereas I’d say there’s a general principle of opposition to coercion on which I think we’d agree, but the coercion isn’t inherent to the garment. And if we take the line that, say, the burqa is inherently coercive and don’t apply that logic to other forms of dress, then we’re laying an ethical judgement on the culture and belief system with which the burqa is associated which we wouldn’t apply to capitalist democracy.

    I can cheerfully say “forcing women to wear the burqa is wrong” and “wearing the burqa is probably uncomfortable and obstructive, and sometimes harmful.” But saying “the burqa is wrong” is putting moral agency into a bundle of cloth – and often, I think (probably in Jones’ case where she makes it a justification for war) using that cloth as a synecdoche for a people, culture or belief system which you’re not very keen on.

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