The other night I watched a programme about the bicycle in Edwardian times. It featured a nice bloke who restores old Edwardian bicycles and riding these were some women who were trying out Edwardian cycling dress. Designing suitable clothes for cycling was part of the “rational dress” movement which replaced cumbersome clothes that weighed you down with, for example, “the divided skirt“ (culottes). Bicycles were liberating for women – what we’d call “empowering” these days – and they began to invade male spaces like pubs, where sometimes the male clientele with ideas of the women’s sphere would throw them out. This programme was fun social history, entertaining for those of us who put on lycra and waterproofs and pedal off into the country stopping off for drinks and snacks at pretty inns.
The Edwardian age also saw the rise of the Suffragettes. At some of their meetings, they would be physically attacked by males who in their hatred of female immodesty would take the opportunity to sexually assault them. The Suffragettes in fact were as high-buttoned and hatted as any respectable woman of the period. But they had stepped out of the proper female role and so were easy game for a kind of male contempt, which most women have been the target of at one time or another.
I was reminded of this by a comment by “FK” to yet another article on the great burqa debate:-
I am also a muslim woman from Pakistan who lives in the ultra muslim orthodox area of Bow and Mile End in London. I have lived in London for around ten years and this is my first experience of living in a majority muslim area as I lived in Clapham before. The problem I personally find with these radical talibanised muslims is that they don’t seem to approve of me going around on my cycle and not adhering to their code by covering myself up. I get all sorts of harrassment by the “orthodox” muslim men even though I am not dressed like a prostitute but I might as well be one in their eyes as I am not covered up from head to toe. But for some reason I just have this feeling that even if I was dressed the way they think is right, they would still find a problem with me because I am a woman. The thing that makes me so angry is their confidence, this being England and not a muslim country, thank God!
The muslim men in Mile End have the cheek to spit at me when I am cycling past them on my way back from work if I by mistake just glance at them because either they think I’m making a pass at them, or they feel so degraded because a woman has just glanced at them. But the thing is they are all the same. They are the same in Pakistan and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and even in England!!! So even though it is a bit of a touchy subject, I feel I need to say something as I left that country to escape this kind of constant sexual persecuation which is worse than racism as that really hits the roots of your identity.
I have no idea of course if that’s a genuine comment, but it sounds real enough and what I would expect. If you‘re a cyclist, some pedestrians and drivers let you know they dislike you intensely, if you are a woman cyclist, you will get lewd comments and sexist abuse thrown at you (though to be fair you will sometimes get gallantry from bus-drivers and taxi-drivers) and if you offend a touchy theocrat‘s ideas of female modesty he will react with self-righteous nastiness.
FK’s experiences in the Mile End are in small form the same kind of thing that I heard an Afghan woman describing . She was out shopping in her draped cage and in order to see the colour of some garment she was buying, she walked outside of the shop, lifted her veil and a passing Talibaner punched her on the nose.
So if anyone talks about the “empowering” nature of a burqa, could they please put one on, get on a bicycle and try pedalling through central London., and then see how empowered they feel.