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Friday 12 July 2019

A Niqab and a Panama hat

Rational Dress

I don't know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot.

Marilyn Monroe


In summer 2019 I spent a week in Wiesbaden, working. I was helping to describe for auction a collection of nineteenth century documents and correspondence originally sold off in the 1970s to pay the bills of declining and defunct Russian monasteries on Mont Athos.  In lunch breaks and evenings I did my usual thing, strolling the city and taking in people and surroundings.

In a busy midday pedestrianised shopping area a woman appears out of the crowd coming towards me: tall, slender, dressed in an immaculately well-cut, dark blue and seemingly brand new niqab. The man walking beside her is considerably shorter, hunched over his smartphone, dressed according to regulations: a bit of stubble, tee-shirt, jeans, and trainers. My rapid visual profiling doesn’t take in the logo on the trainers so I don’t know if there is a brand he might favour.

The rules are sensible which permit young men to dress in ways which are practical for life in any European city. It means they can run after a bus, vault a barrier to cross a road. They can pick up children with ease, put them on their shoulders and, perhaps most importantly, kick a ball around.

I just wish the rules were a bit more considerate about female dress. The niqab can look very stylish; so too can high heels. But both are impractical. I guess the niqab can be very hot inside on a climate warming summer day and that reminds me of how on hot days in school, decades ago, we were always agitating for permission to take off jackets and ties. More importantly, the niqab is isolating. I will come to that.

I glance back at the woman. She is staring at me, intensely, her eyes a perfect study in black and white because those eyes are beautifully picked out with kohl. But I can’t place the look as angry or friendly or just inquisitive - there is no facial gesture to help out. I’m stumped to understand why I should be worth a very frank stare. She has only her gaze to work with and I can’t interpret it. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m wearing sunglasses that encourages a stare, since from her point of view there is no eye contact and so she can’t figure out my gaze either.

Then as we pass each other, a penny drops and I laugh. I’m old and male and pale and I’m wearing a Panama hat, a proper one with a broad black band. Hitherto I have understood the Panama as standard issue for bald-headed elderly gentlemen on sunny days. But I realise that on my stroll today I haven’t actually seen one. Maybe a Panama is not a German thing, even for elderly bald-heads. Perhaps it’s like this: she is my first niqab of the day and I am her first Panama. It’s the hat which causes the stare.

People do sometimes call out to me when I’m wearing a hat; there seems to be something about hats (or at least, my hats) which frees people to address you. In the central park, later the same day, a young woman sitting on a bench and making out with a boyfriend calls after me, Bonjour, though I am too slow to turn, lift my hat, incline my head, and reply - as one ought - Bonjour, Mam’selle. Anyway, it shows that there’s at least one other person in this city who reckons a Panama notable and, interestingly, French.

That brings me to the point I skipped over. We are often led to believe that in modern urban environments people walk around as if no one else exists, isolated monads who don’t interact. That is not quite right. A lot goes on, an awful lot. I give an example relevant to what I want to say.

If in the street a child is behaving in a way which is charming, delightful or just funny, I will almost certainly smile at whoever is doing the parenting. That is surely very common, not an eccentricity. It is also the case that the parent will acknowledge the compliment about the child which the smile implies - they will smile back. Some who are more bold will end up exchanging a few words, not quite “passing the time of day” but about things specific to the child, like age or name. If I smile at a parent who happens to be wearing hijab, she will smile back.

When women wearing hijab began to appear at shop tills in London and then where I live, I behaved at first in a correct but very restrained manner, as if attending a vicarage tea-party. I didn’t engage, thinking it might be unwelcome. Now I will pass the time of day, sometimes crack a joke, encouraged by the fact that there is usually a smile on offer and even a riposte. It’s quite a good idea for old white males in Panama hats to behave as if they might be ordinary human beings. We can at least try to Pass.

The woman in the niqab is pretty much excluded from the small change of everyday life. It really makes a very big difference that you can’t see a face and from the face gauge whether a compliment or a joke would be appreciated or has gone down well. Leave aside that the man in tee-shirt, jeans, and trainers might not approve. Leave aside that she is not going to initiate any exchange anyway. The face covering inhibits any exchange. I suppose that is its purpose.

The exclusion is not total: if there are women wearing hijab on the streets they do engage with women wearing the niqab and vice versa (I’ve seen this on strolls elsewhere). Perhaps the best hope for the future is that women who wear headscarves enable women fully covered to change their style, at least for everyday street life. Maybe the niqab would then become something reserved for special days, a reminder of the past, like the traditional dress that jeans-and-trainers males put on for formal occasions. It would cease to be a burdensome obligation of everyday life. In the same way, though I can't understand why anyone would want to wear impractical high heels for shopping or work - and most certainly should not be obliged - it’s understandable that someone might want to wear them for special occasions, even if they end up being kicked off and abandoned.

But there are more ways of bringing on cultural change than imagined in my philosophy. In that same lunch break stroll a five-abreast group of teenagers are coming towards me; in the middle a tall, smiling, noisy girl has combined hijab with bright yellow stiletto heels - or perhaps, vice versa.

This re-written version pasted in on 27 January 2023 replaces the original post. The substance is unchanged but the prose has been restyled.

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