….and another thing.
Last Saturday was, at last, warm and sunny and Bournemouth Beach was a joy. I live there and have a beach hut. And sitting there with food and drink and proper chairs that can be stored on leaving, makes life a pleasure. Also I can watch all human life go by often in the most gloriously inappropriate clothing – or lack of it.
But last Saturday there was a sight that just saddened me. A Muslim family of three walked down the beach to the water’s edge. Mum was dressed head to foot in a black burka and hijab. The young child – maybe 4 or 5 – was dressed in normal Western clothes. The father wore a shirt slashed to the waist and trousers rolled up to the knees and barefoot was playing in the small waves with his son. Mum stood on the beach watching.
Dad skimmed stones and son tried valiantly to do the same. Dad splashed about in the water. The son did the same. Mum still stood on the beach. I am sure she would be smiling as she watched her son having fun. But no one would know.
Eventually she pulled out her mobile phone and checked some things. Then she called to the boy and he stood in the shallows while she put the camera up to the eye slit and took his photo. She then checked the picture and bent to show it to the boy. He looked then rushed back to join Dad having fun in the sea.
A bit later Dad came out of the water and gave his mobile to his wife still standing on the beach. He posed by the breakwater and she took a photo of him. They both stood together and checked the results. He was pleased. I could see him laughing. I can only assume that she was laughing too. He then went back to the sea to play with his son. She waited on the sand looking at her mobile.
What should have been a vision of a family having fun on the beach was now for me tinged with a sadness. I knew and she knew that she was the only person in that family not to be snapped on the beach on this glorious and sunny Bournemouth afternoon. The only family members with photographs of themselves enjoying the day were father and son – the boys.
I found myself wondering what their family holiday album back at home must look like. So many pictures of everyone but not her. What would be the point of capturing forever someone covered head to foot in a burka? For the mother there would be no sharing of holiday snaps with family and friends with the classic cry of “Here’s one of me on the beach!” “Here’s one of me up the Eiffel Tower.” In a burka who would know? To take photographs of her would be pointless.
So many places the family will visit and yet there’ll be no photographic memories for the wife. On holiday mum does not exist. I watched this family then join their friends on a bench on the promenade. There too the man was in Western clothes – shirt open to get the sun and trousers rolled to the knees. And a second woman. She was head to foot in a black burka with spectacles over the eye slit.
I cannot speak for these women on the beach, They may be perfectly happy with the arrangements. I don’t know. I can’t know. I shall never know. But I just cannot reconcile myself with idea that the men could enjoy all the freedoms of their religion, all the freedoms of the West, all the freedoms of the sunshine and all the freedoms of exercise when the women cannot.
And this is serious stuff. Studies by the Saudis have shown that despite Saudi Arabia being one of the sunniest places on the planet, women in burkas get no real sunlight at all and so suffer chronic Vitamin D deficiency which leads to osteoporosis and other degenerative bone conditions. Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to a whole host of devastating disorders including cardiovascular diseases, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. The burka also denies women the opportunity of many forms of exercise and so obesity rates are high. Women, may well choose to wear the burka for religious reasons, be obedient to their culture and so continue the tradition but there is clearly a serious medical downside.
But for me on that Bournemouth beach last Saturday it was the ordinary day to day stuff of family life that saddened me. Both the men were enjoying their photos in the sun. They were still checking themselves on the mobiles as they stretched out on towels to eat their picnic. The women sat upright and handed out burgers. The men and the son tucked in heartily while the women negotiated the burger round up and under the veil towards the mouth.
They’d be used to this sort of eating of course, I know. But I couldn’t help thinking, what happens when they want a Mr Whippy. That’s tricky to eat. Could be quite embarrassing. But then again if you were a messy eater in Burka, who would know? And no one’s going to take a photo to prove it are they?