Veil of Tears

Fashion and its victims.
April 23 1998 3:30 AM

Veil of Tears

Why Islamic women's head scarves are less anodyne than you think.

(Continued from Page 1)

Every time I saw an Istanbul girl with a silk scarf pinching her head and reducing her face, I would think, heavens, take it off, let me show you how to wear it becomingly with your nice suit--and then I would remember that, above the shoulders, unattractiveness is the whole point. It was startling to me how unnoticeable the attractions below the neck became without a personality to avow them. A tightly wrapped head, with encapsulated eyes, nose, and mouth, doubtless suited the publicly shrouded female of antiquity, whose intelligence flowered wholly unseen. It seems suitable in Saudi Arabia, for example, where women can't vote, since it squashes public expression along with hair. But in modern Istanbul, the scarf completely depersonalizes the shapely legs and curving torso displayed in contemporary clothes below it. The woman looks brainless, an antique statue of Venus with no head.

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It is really too bad that such inhibiting headgear, a complex Islamic tradition, has lately acquired the status of a strict religious law, which it never was. The modest Muslim veil is in fact betraying its ancient and honorable reluctance to take on the aggressive flavor of fanaticism. Orthodox Judaism, likewise devoted to the suppression of women's hair, has long since solved the problem another way, with fashionable wigs. Islam has refrained from such an expedient. Meanwhile the ancient chaste Islamic veil and dress persist in countries where they have never been challenged, and they cohabit, more or less, with modern fashion if the two don't try to blend.

In any case, I was interested to notice that no Hermès-like silk scarves casually grazed secular female clavicles in Istanbul. The sexy girls with terrific hair would dashingly toss a couple of yards of plain wool around their necks; no sign of bright printed silk. Shiny stacks of beautiful scarves are sold in the Grand Bazaar, for Muslim girls to wrench into veils and for tourists to flaunt in New York.

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