My family's few days in London were fascinating. The city is truly international. When my daughter's British soccer coach jokingly asked me how I "liked the English blokes" I had to pause. Other than a few taxi drivers and the Beefeater who gave the tour at the Tower of London, I didn't meet any. Like us, everyone we met seemed to be from somewhere else.
This was especially apparent at our hotel, the Mariott Marble Arch, located just off Edgware Road. The stretch of Edgware Road north of Marble Arch is the Arabic capital of London. The street is lined with colorful middle eastern cafes and shops, patrons smoking hookah pipes on the sidewalk, movies in Arabic playing at the Odeon. In addition to being the center of the large immigrant population, the area is a hub for visiting Muslim tourists. Many of the women at our hotel and on the street wore the hijab - headscarf and modest attire - which I have to admit, was a bit disconcerting. My head felt conspicuously bare.
As we settled into the neighborhood, it didn't take me long to realize that the practice of hijab is open to wide interpretation. Some women wore a simple headscarf over regular street clothes or jeans. Others wore the scarf with a full length tailored coat. Teenage girls pushed light gauzy scarves back on their heads to reveal glittery headbands. Other women wore full black robes, edged in gold trim. Many of the more covered women sported designer sunglasses and expensive bags. Their eyebrows were fabulous.
But a few women were completely covered by a burqa, and frankly, it made me uncomfortable. No, wait. It made me mad.
With their covered faces and shapeless limbs, the burqa-clad women seemed worlds apart from the rest of the London population, which I guess is the point, but it seems so cruel. The women had trouble walking down the street or opening their handbags - ultimately dependent on their companions for help to do the most basic things. And despite their helplessness, with no facial expressions to mitigate the severity of their heavy black veils, they looked sinister. I've since read that covered women suffer vitamin D deficiencies from not being exposed to sunlight. Could a woman possibly choose this attire for herself?
French President Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't think so. Recently, he announced that the burqa is not welcome in France. He claims the burqa, as well as the niquab which leaves the eyes uncovered, is "a sign of subservience and debasement" often forced upon Muslim women by their husbands and fathers. But it's not that simple.
Although hard to understand by Western standards, some Muslim women wear the burqa by choice, as a sign of religious devotion and commitment to their faith. These women claim that their robes, which do separate them from public society, bring them closer to God. Legislation against the burqa would violate these women's rights, no?
I don't know the answer, but I'll tell you this. It's a gorgeous summer day and I'm about to hit the beach. I'm going to display my hair, neck, arms, legs and even my flabby stomach for all the world to see. And while it may not bring me closer to God, it will certainly give me a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature, as well as dose of well-deserved vitamin D.