Thursday, July 22, 2010

Old London Town?

I'm in London and I'm asking myself, "Is this really the place I went to college and used to work for the BBC or is it a foreign city?"
Certainly foreigners outnumber Londoners in the area where I am staying. Men wear beards. Women wear headscarves, complete head coverings or even burkas. It is strange and most unsettling for me--because this is England and these are not visitors, they live here!
I have no objection to someone wearing a headscarf, especially if it is in respect for her religious beliefs. But that someone should be invisible under a complete covering in a Christian country of two thousand years of culture makes me see red. I think it's great that First World countries welcome refugees from Third World places of intolerance and persecution--but I can't see why they are allowed to import their lifetsyle and impose it on the country that has taken them in.
To me a burka or chador or whatever they want to call it is an insult to half the population. It is essentially saying, "I am invisible. I don't matter. I don't count." And women in civilized countries should learn to stand up for themselves and refuse to wear it.
But the government of England has been so falling over backward to be PC and not offend immigrants they they do not try to assimilate--they bring the intolerance and persecution with them.
Another reason to ban the burka is the terrorist aspect. When I pass a tall woman, completely covered including face, I don't know if it's a terrorist with a machine gun or bomb under there.
So I am not easy in London. I can only hope that the next generation of these immigrants wants to fit in, wants to Westernize and refuses to be bullied into submission.
Sorry this isn't a cheerful travelogue, but this is my overwheming feeling in this city.


  1. Rhys, I agree and I posted a comment on the ITV site when they did a piece on it. I get very nervous and uncomfortable seeing a woman in a burka. You hit the nail on the head and echoed my comment about immigrant assimilation. The funny thing is that if you go to most middle eastern countries you are required to follow their dress and cultural rules or face severe penalties. I said, although an immigrant should be allowed to practice religion freely there have to be limits if it endangers or violates the home county's culture. If a person finds it necessary to wear a burka then, sorry, maybe living here isn't for you. And I say all this as an immigrant myself (from the US) :) Janet

  2. Rhys, I agree with you too and I appreciate your honest post about this. I feel too often people worry about being pc all the time.

  3. I am loving your point of view! I agree completely that burkas should be banned basically everywhere. They have nothing to do with the religion and everything to do with keeping women subservient. Head scarves are another matter altogether and I can understand those. But a burka is just plain disrepectful of not only the surrounding culture, but also of the person wearing it.

  4. Rhys, I understand your discomfort. I get a little shy of 'over-dressed' people or unattended backpacks or oddly-placed vehicles these days, just because of all the awful news from around the world (and because of having to scurry out of the London Underground on more than one occasion back during the troubles).
    But, I remember vividly a conversation I had with friends here in L.A. back in the '80s as I was preparing to interview the great playwright Hanif Koureshi when his stories were making film hits. An Indian woman and British guy from a tough low-income background were part of the group gathered in my living room, and they were kind enough and stubborn enough to open my eyes to the fact that when someone comes from a not-entitled background or country, such as a woman who has lived with sexism and oppression her entire life, it is not only unrealistic but unfair to expect that she will suddenly learn to be confident, open and unafraid in her life expression, just because she's surrounded by American women who have grown up taking their freedom and assertiveness for granted.
    I dislike burkhas and what they stand for, but I also recognize that it will be a gradual process of learning and experimentation for any woman who has grown up under one to feel safe and confident in emerging from it, especially if there is a man in her home who aggressively clings to old traditions and seeks to assert his 'protective' control over her dress and social life.
    Karen Tei Yamashita has done some wonderful work in her fiction and performance art in exploring the ways that first-, second- and third-generation immigrants respond to and adapt to their new surroundings, culturally, spiritually and otherwise. I'm guessing that the children of those bearded and burkha-ed parents are rushing right into the iPhone and text-message joys of modernity, and will shake off traditional dress in favor of contemporary fashion as soon as they can.

  5. Rhys, thank you for echoing what so many of us believe. While Laraine is right that it will be difficult for some of these women to learn assertiveness, matters of national security are more important. No Democratic government should cave in to archaic practices based on intolerance and persecution. Please keep up the interesting posts!

  6. Yikes, I went on and on in my earlier comment. Sorry to hog the floor.

    But, I just wanted to add: make friends with a burkha-clad woman. I've discovered among my students that those who are enclosed in the protective dress of Buddhist nuns or highly-conservative Jewish practices or burkhas are also deliciously brave, delightful and engaging women, who may be shy, but are so happy when someone takes the time to approach them respectfully and offer friendship. Seeing the sparkle grow in their eyes (and for some of them, the new, slightly-more-free blouse, or slightly-less-conservative haircut) is a real joy for me.

  7. I felt the same way when I went to London two years ago. It was my first visit there since 1994, and I was amazed at the change. When we were in Whitechapel for a Jack the Ripper walking tour, I was very annoyed to see the street signs were in English and Arabic. That really made me angry. It was as though they were taking over the city. This is Britain, not Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh. If they are so keen to hang on to their home culture and way of life, perhaps they should have stayed there. I also ran into quite a few native-born Britains who were annoyed that these immigrants come into the country and openly dislike Westerners and Western culture. Yet they have no qualms about living on the dole, thus living off the taxpayer money of those they so dislike. I feel like a xenophobe writing this, but I can't help how I feel. As someone already pointed out, many Muslim countries require non-Muslims living or visiting there to adopt their customs. They would never allow such an influx of Western immigration unless they totally assimilated upon arrival. I hope that the new PM takes a stronger stance on this issue and follows France's lead in banning clothing that covers women's faces. For security reasons alone, I feel this is necessary.

  8. I grew up in an area of west London that had a huge influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent -- Hindu and Muslim -- and I saw at first hand the challenges of assimilation into a secular culture that often clashed with both social and religious values, especially when the issue was the equality of women. (Although in 1960s, the West still had some way to go.) Back then, for example, a major problem was parents forcing daughters into arranged marriages. When I was 15, I wanted to date an Indian girl who'd spent most of her life in England, but her family made it clear that was out of the question. Of course, that might have been because it was me.

    But leaving aside the burqa as a symbol of the subjugation and inequality of women (and let's not forget that St. Paul had a few choice words about women's appearance and behavior in church, not to mention the Catholic Church recently declaring the ordination of women to be a crime equal to the sexual abuse of children), there's a more fundamental issue. Surely human social interaction depends on reading faces, looking for non-verbal cues, assessing emotional states? A covered face doesn't merely check my otherwise unbridled and potentially uncontrollable lust for another man's wife (which, of course, is all her fault for being attractive); it deprives me of the opportunity to treat a woman as a human being for even the most innocuous social encounter.

    So despite an instinct for cultural tolerance, I'm tipping toward supporting the burqa ban in this one instance.

    Plus when you're faced with a group of women wearing niqabs, it's awfully hard to know which one's doing the talking.

  9. I do understand that we can't expect the woman to change, especially when she is under the rule of the males in her family, but the British government could step in and ban burkas (they are debating this at the moment) They should also ban marriages with more than one wife. I've seen several Saudi men striding out in front of three burka clad women, all pushing strollers! This simply isn't the English way.

  10. As long as we are all obsessed with being politically correct no one will speak up. Canadians are notorious for this. I have been made to feel uncomfortable in a local grocery store to the point I no longer shop there. I am the minority in my own city. I am not supposed to say Merry Christmas or Happy Easter in the shops any more...I do anyway. It is just ridiculous. When my grand parents came to Canada my Grandmother said, "We must speak English we are Canadians now." They spoke Welsh. In an effort not to "offend" the new immigrants I am being offended. That doesn't seem to count. Something is very wrong.

  11. I agree with all you wrote. And Susan has hit it on the head. I am from the US but I am tired of the 'pc' attitude that is compromising our security and makes us accomodate "visitors" (immigrants). They need to adapt to our culture if they want to live with us--my grandparents from eastern Europe did a century ago and didn't expect to do otherwise.