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Susan Edwards


In the 1970s in parts of the Middle East and in the Gulf, (United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar especially), the burqa or niqab when worn was worn by women from tribal regions only. Otherwise known as a ‘batoola’ this garment is a head and face covering with an area of mesh covering the eyes, another variation is provided by a mask covering the face and nose. Jonathan Raban in 1979 observed such sights in London ‘ was on the Earl’s Court Road that I first saw the strange beak shaped foil masks of Gulf women...’ There has been a modernist revival in these once rare face coverings for a multiplicity of reasons and correspondingly the wearing of them contain several meanings. The burqa is worn for political, religious and other reasons, but also although not exclusively it is a garment intended to keep women in subjection. Stuart Hall in interpreting the work of Frantz Fanon’s 1960’s writings on the burqa (then called the veil) for Algerian women, explained ‘no sign is fixed in its meaning’emphasising the fluidity of the burqa and also its capacity for appropriation by others. This is also true when considering the symbolic significance of the burqa today. Wearing it is defended as a right to choose, albeit in parts of Asia, for example in Afghanistan in the tribal regions, the burqa is a requirement for women. Whilst in some parts of Africa and the Middle East wearing the burqa is expressly prohibited. In the West and on the streets of London (following recent patterns of migration) the burqa is an increasingly common sight, and whilst it might have been worn by a woman who was subject to the norms of her own society and merely visiting the United Kingdom, many women who choose to settle in the United Kingdom and desire United Kingdom nationality are also wearing the burqa. This demonstration and visible representation of otherness has created anxiety, provoked public debate and criticism, and in France and Belgium, prohibition.  

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Author Biography

Susan Edwards, The University of Buckingham