The Western world, including many of its so-called ‘educated elite’, choose to remain completely oblivious to the facts of Asian, Central Asian, Middle Eastern dress and, indeed, of any other location in which culturally accepted dress codes include head coverings of one kind or another be these worn by the male or female of the peoples concerned.
During a recent trip to Kabul - this must be one of the dustiest cities on earth - I overheard a European man narrating as to how much covered heads and faces unnerved him. On finishing speaking, he stood up to leave the teahouse, pulled out a face mask, one of those fine mesh affairs designed to filter the air, cursed the vile air in Kabul, fastened his mask firmly in place and left!
The ridiculousness of the situation was apparent to everyone present except him, as - irrespective of race, creed and culture - it makes total sense to don face coverings, whatever the description, under such conditions.
Another overheard conversation - sometimes it is impossible not to hear what is being said at the next table when its occupants are airing their opinions in extra loud voices - this time in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman: “Beats me why these Arabs cover themselves in bed sheets from head to toe. Yards and yards of cloth to lose themselves in when all they need is a pair of shorts and sunglasses. Hey guys! Anyone for the beach tomorrow? We’ll make a day of it. Have some fun, but don’t forget gallons of sunscreen. The sun here is lethal. Last time we went to the beach I came back like a boiled lobster. Couldn’t sleep for a full week!”
These mindless observations more than amply demonstrate the narrow-mindedness of many, not all, of Westerners electing to travel or live, either out of choice or via work demands, to countries in which covering up is the most eminently sensible thing to do as, again irrespective of creed, protecting oneself from extreme heat is just as important as protecting oneself from the extremes of cold experienced in locations inhabited by traditional Eskimos for example, who traditionally covered everything except their eyes too and no one objected about that!
It used to be, judging from ‘old’ movies and books that people who covered themselves were considered mysterious and were thus awarded a degree of respect that is totally absent when the people then espousing it viewed half-naked members of their own race: they continue to view semi-clad people the same way. But the mystery of robes and veil has, primarily because of terrorism, been transformed from fascination into unfounded fear as, quite obviously, not every single person on this planet who covers up happens to be a terrorist and the irony of it all is that terrorism was foisted on us by Western ‘interventions’!
In places where peoples way of dressing is directly linked to climatic conditions and/or issues of creed, then those very same people have a basic human right to simply be as they are and live how they chose: people in the East accept and respect this fact, but, apparently, people in the West operate under the crazy misconception that everyone, no matter where or how they live, must be Westernised if they are to be recognised, by the same deluded West, as being human at all.
This all-out battle to force the extremely diverse range of people eking out an existence on the over-exploited planet earth is a serious war of wills and, it must also be said, of corporate greed. The Western way of increasingly materialistic and consumerist life was, until the relatively recent past, completely alien in the East. But as market saturation point was neared, corporations, multinationals, hedge fund investors and other voracious cultural rapists, turned their attention to new, potentially lucrative markets if, that is, they could/can bend Eastern minds to profiteering Western wills and, sadly to observe and even more painful to admit, they are, so far at least, well on their way to winning this particular war.
Everywhere one looks these days, even in small mountain villages and remote desert areas of Pakistan, Western images and Western perceptions proliferate via televisions, the internet, newspapers, magazines, and advertising hoardings and in shops. And it is being drummed, very hard, into Eastern heads that ‘West is best’ when, in many respects, it would be far more sensible for the ‘victims’ of what is a very expensive game of international monopoly, to remember the older saying: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” At the same time, to bear in mind that being branded as ‘terrorist’ still leaves us wide open to cultural exploitation as long as there is a profit to made!
n The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.