London, Britain’s capital city, has become the human entrepôt of the world. Walk its streets, travel on its buses or Underground trains or sit in a hospital casualty department and you will hear dozens of languages being spoken, testimony to the waves of immigration that have transformed the face of London and much of the southeast of England as people from around the world have arrived in search of work. But you will also notice something else. The urban landscape is punctuated by women wearing not just the hijab[i], the Islamic headscarf, but burkas [ii]and niqabs[iii], garments that cover their entire bodies from head to toe – with the exception, in the case of the niquab, of a slit for the eyes – in conformity with strict Islamic codes of female modesty. In general, religious dress, even of an outlandish kind, makes a welcome contribution to the variety of the nation. But in theis case, one wonders whether such attire really is a religious requirement demanding respect, or a political statement of antagonism towards the British state. The effect is to create a niggling sense of insecurity and unease, as the open natire of London’s society is vitiated by such public acts of deliberate concealment, with faces and expressions – not to mention the rest of the body – hidden from sight. In the wake of the London bombings in July 2005, such concealment appears to be a security issue too.
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[i] A headscarf worn by Muslim women; conceals the hair and neck and usually has a face veil that covers the face
[ii] A loose garment (usually with veiled holes for the eyes) worn by Muslim women especially in India and Pakistan
[iii] A face veil covering the lower part of the face (up to the eyes) worn by observant Muslim women