Who’s afraid of (Muslim) women?
by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli
A picture tells a story. None more than Velasquez’s didactic Temptation of St Thomas Aquinas, recently on show at the National Gallery. A diverting episode in the saint’s youth. Hell-bent on distracting him from his vocation, Thomas’ parents arranged to smuggle a luscious bit of fluff into his cell. Compared with the thrills of orgasm, wouldn’t any boy feel the religious life insipid? Nope. Thomas leapt up, snatched a dying ember from the fire and drew a cross on the wall. Whereupon the dismayed temptress fled. (An alternative account has the saint keeping the girl at bay with a flaming torch. Too tricky to paint even for a Counter Reformation artist, I guess).
Velasquez’ painting is naturalistic. It shows a distinctly potato-faced female running away in the background. But the ordeal has caused young Thomas to swoon (no eunuch he), so two ministering angels are now caring for him. Ahem…the heavenly beings look human, all too human. And hermaphroditically handsome. One almost kisses the saint’s beardless face. Huh! Good job St Thomas was straight. A bit tongue in cheek, Velasquez, eh?
There are biblical precedents for the idea of woman as a temptress. The 39^th chapter of Genesis has Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph. But Holy Scripture offsets that with innumerable holy women playing crucial roles in God’s history of salvation. From Sarah, Rebecca and Leah to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even Rahab, a holy prostitute, makes it. Tellingly, as poet & priest John Donne once preached, nowhere in the gospels we see a woman showed as an enemy of Christ. And not all pious churchmen have been chary of womanly charms. Indeed, it almost cost St Dominic his sainthood that the man of God had once said he preferred the company of young women to that of old ones. The fiery founder of the prestigious Dominican Order clearly wasn’t afraid of the fair sex – refreshing.
Alas, some men are. Misogyny does occasionally rear its ugly head. Wrong to assume the perpetrators are the godly, however. Sometimes the latter are the victims. Like in the case of pious Muslim females. Chap called David Sexton opined in the London /Evening Standard/ that “we’ve all been too deferential…about the veil, the hijab, the niqab.” This luminary finds “such garb, in the context of a London street, first ridiculous, then directly offensive.” And he does not leave it at that. All his rhetorical guns blazing, this authority inveighs that a Muslim woman’s religious dress is “abusive, a walking rejection of all our freedoms”, no less.
‘All our freedoms’. Really? The UN Human Rights Charter lists a few. Freedom of thought, conscience, movement, residence, peaceful assembly. Freedom from torture or cruel and inhumane treatment. Freedoms implied in rights such a liberty, life and so on. How does Islamic dress threaten any of those precious freedoms, one wonders? Does a diligent, hijab-wearing student at London University import a downright negation of British freedom of residence? I think we should be told. Maybe the sight of a veiled girl shopping on Kensington High St. is offensive to our scribe - even ‘tortures’ him mentally, who knows? But that would be a matter for his shrink, surely, hardly an affair of public concern. Or does he regard any Harvey Nichols-shopping Fatima as threatening to life and limb as the 9/11 bombers? That syndrome has got a name: paranoia. As to freedom of thought, that is perhaps the most essential and most relevant of all. It presumes, however, that a man knows how to think. Does Mr Sexton? His comments might cast some doubt on it…
Intolerance is the name of the game, that’s plain. Of a blatantly one-sided and irrational kind. Against one of those very freedoms the scribe claims to have at heart. Religious freedom, that is. Once again, anything having visibly to do with faith arouses prejudice, even hatred. A disturbing sign of the times. So easy to get away with. But imagine, just imagine – if that is at all conceivable - a religionist blowing his top publicly about contemporary styles of ‘undress’. A Christian apologist, say a Billy Graham suicidal enough today to have a go at scantily-clad females in the streets. ‘Immodest, provocative, improper nudity’, he preaches. An incitement to lewd behaviour. Offensive to children and old folks. Now picture the fury, the furore, the scandal, the big clanking fist of the law. ‘This invite attacks on women, rape, murder…’ feminists would roar. ‘A repressed Victorian nincompoop, a medieval fanatic, a suitable case for treatment…’ the gleeful media would ridicule and pillory. At last the police would have to take the martyr into custody – for his own protection. Just a whiff of double standards, eh?
A fantasy? In après le deluge 1950’s Italy a Christian Democrat MP walked up to a lady dining in a restaurant. She was wearing a rather risqué décolletage. ‘You are disgusting. Should be ashamed of yourself!’ the MP told her. And he slapped her face, too. Yep. Ancient history but true. How have things changed. Some Italian MPs today are more likely to shout at a nun, if she wears too traditional a habit.
What worries the priest is that no doubt there are cusses who dream of doing something similar to Muslim women today. Bullies never pick on people their own size - a maxim that applies here. We are dealing with a small minority. Muslims amount to roughly 2% of the British population. That means their women constitute about 1%. Of those, some will be secular or not bothered about their faith’s dress code. It is not very brave to single out for opprobrium such a small proportion of devout females who freely choose to wear Islamic style of clothing. Actually, it is very dangerous. Although London strikes me as a most tolerant city, on the face of it, intolerance is never part of human nature. (I know original sin is not part of Muslim theology but… it should. Don’t mind being a bit bellicose here. Because it is true. And to me as plain as a pikestaff.) There are plenty of yobs around who look for easy targets. God forbid anyone should encourage them.
FATHER FRANK’S RANTS
Rant Number 264
19 June 2007