Looking for Sean McLachlan? He mostly hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog these days, but feel free to nose around this blog for some fun older posts!

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Friday, 4 April 2008

Veiled Women in Madrid

A couple of days ago on the Metro I saw a Muslim woman with a veil over her face. That's the first time I've seen that here. There are lots of Muslim women in Madrid, mostly Moroccans and West Africans, but they usually wear head scarves. Those are so common in Western Europe I don't even notice them anymore.

Seeing a person's face covered with a veil bothers me. The face is such a distinctive part of a person's character that it's a bit off-putting to see it hidden. Not that I agree with France's oppressive and counter-productive policy of banning the veil in public institutions. That only serves to marginalize people, or as a female writer friend of mine said, "It's just another instance of men telling women what to wear."

What's beginning to make me more comfortable with veils is that I've seen some professional women wearing them. The woman on the Metro was a mother with a few kids in tow, but on my most recent trip to the British Library I saw a veiled college student. The other women in her study group only wore head scarves, and she was sitting right next to an Arab guy. They were all laughing and slacking off like regular college students.

Once in England I went into a chemists (that's a pharmacy to you Yanks) and the chemist (pharmacist) was wearing a veil. I have to admit I did a double take, but she didn't act any differently than any other chemist as she dispensed my medication.

I have to hand it to these women. They obviously are educated and out in the world, but they still keep their traditions. They might have pressure from their families to cover their faces, but I have a hard time believing that women who are going to college or have professional jobs don't have the independence to dress as they choose. This is something we don't think of in the West, that many Muslim women freely choose to dress the way they do. They must get a lot of pressure from society at large. I wonder how many comments that chemist has to endure every day? And that student wouldn't have been able to go to college if she was French.

I still don't like veils, but if we're really living in a multicultural, democratic society, then I'm the one who's going to have to adapt.


laradunston said...


This post is so inspiring!

When I first started working in Abu Dhabi (around 10 years ago) I was working in the media/film dept at a women's university and we would have the occasional student who would cover completely (face and all) and in the beginning I was thinking "oh my god, how am I going to remember who this is?!". Then there'd be situations where I'd bump into students off-campus who'd cover in public but wouldn't cover at the college and they'd call out to me and want to introduce me to their families and at first I used to think "who the heck is this?!". And what if she asks me a week or month or whatever down the track: "So, what did you think of my Dad?" And I have to try and remember which one it was!

But you know what, it didn't take me long to get to know these women, and I found that the "veil" (shaylah as it's called in the Emirates) wasn't prohibitive at all to me getting to know them as people - their personalities came out in their voices, their conversation, their opinions, emotions and thoughts, their gestures, mannerisms and movements, and - most of all - their eyes. Think about when you talk to someone, you mostly look at their eyes and you 'see' them through their eyes. It's even more so with women who cover. To me they were just like young women in their late teens/early 20s anywhere in the world, sure some things were different - their taste in men for instance, the food they ate, their taste in fashion perhaps (they could afford to buy much more expensive clothes than your average uni student), but generally they were going through the same things young women went through all around the world.

After a while, the 'veil' became meaningless. I'd hear my name called or see a woman and only see her eyes, and yet I'd immediately recognize her. I could talk to women wearing veils for minutes or hours and it didn't make a difference, for me, their personalities shone through in seconds... through their eyes... maybe more than with women who don't cover.

I mean, just imagine if your wife/girlfriend, mother, cousin, best friend, whoever, suddenly covered - you'd still recognise them right? It doesn't matter if they were wearing a bear costume you'd still know them. The 'veil' may at first seem like an obstacle but after a while, you'll realise it's not.

The interesting thing worth noting is that most women cover by choice. In all the years I worked in the UAE, I probably only came across 3 or 4 cases of women who were forced to cover out of scores... most chose to. Now, that's another topic again, and I've already written too much!

Anyway, love the blog - lots of thought-provoking stuff. Love Madrid too!

Sean McLachlan said...


That sounds like an interesting job. The only part of the Gulf I've been to is the Persian side. It was a bizarre experience that I'll post about some time.

What you say about eye contact is true. On the rare occasions when I've interacted with covered women there's been a lot more eye contact. At first I thought that might not be OK but when they held my gaze I realized there was no problem.

Sean McLachlan said...

I like how Google Adsense, which scans posts and automatically puts up related ads, put up a bunch of Muslim dating sites on my blog after I posted this. There was even an ad on Muslim fashion for a couple of days.