At an airport in a Gulf emirate, I once saw something that made me gasp: Two ladies wearing leather masks.
Accustomed to travelling in conservative Muslim countries where adult females usually go about swaddled in black abayas, often with the niqab facial covering, or shrouded in the more restrictive and all-enveloping Afghan burqa, this variation on woman-hiding was still jarring – freakish.
The ladies, judging by their heavily bejewelled fingers and multiple golden bangles – only the hands, wrists and painted toenails left exposed by their jilbaab overgarments – were clearly wealthy. They were also laden with shopping bags and appeared to be returning home from a journey that had taken them through some of the most chi-chi designer emporiums.
But those masks! As ornately crafted and hand-tooled as fancy cowboy boots, they were nevertheless revolting to a Westerner's eyes, almost Halloween frightening.
Researching the subject later, I could find few references to leather masks for Muslim women. Only one source made mention of the practice, explaining that leather niqabs decorated with coins and shells are sometimes worn by tribal women.
The ones those ladies had on, however, were far more intricate and showoff-y than mere leather-fashioned niqabs. Those things were theatrical, like Venetian ball masks.
And that's my point. I think those rich Arab women were making a fashion statement rather than observing religious commands or adhering to a cultural practice, even if either/both were the genesis for cover-up. They reminded me of posh Rosedale chatelaines flashing Hermes scarves and Prada suits – which these ladies very well may have been wearing beneath their coat dresses.Actually, Rosie, it is a fashion statement. And the statement it makes is: Rich as I am, my menfolk feel compelled to demonstrate their power over me by forcing me into one of these "posh" shrouds.
But wait, there's more:
The niqab is a vanity and a fetish, no different, in my mind, than leather executioner masks worn by devotees of S & M.
While I wholeheartedly agree that it symbolizes a cultural oppression of women at stark odds with Canadian values – we are a country of open interaction where faces matter and rejection of paternalism by pseudo-purdah matters even more – no government should be in the business of dictating fashion, or mores.Okay, that may well be the most incoherent argument I've ever read in the pages of the Toronto Star, and that's saying something because lest we forget (not that we're likely to) this is the same rag that provides Harpoon Siddiqui with a bully pulpit twice a week.
Equally, women who wear the niqab should not expect that this society will turn itself inside out to accommodate their wishes.