A sweltering hot summer day. The sound of water splashing mingles with laughter and joyous shrieks of children. Amongst the happy water-players, a couple of small children are cavorting with their father, most likely as fat as a seal and as hairy as a bear. By the water’s edge, sitting close enough to the sweet father-and-kids group and looking anxious enough to make it clear she is the mum, is a woman. Despite the soaring temperatures, she is in fully veiled, her hair and her body all completely covered with clothing, generally of dark hues. She shows no inclination to tear off the clothes and join her bathing family and splash around in the cool water. She can’t.
This tableau irritated me as child, when I came across it in England (yes, there are some days and some beaches when you can bathe outdoors in England, and my beach-lover parents hunted them out). It drove me mad in the cat-country, where as likely as not, I would be the veiled woman sitting by while the men-folk and children splashed around freely. It annoyed me in Antalya, since once we made enough money we took our summer holidays in Turkey, like millions of other Iranian holiday-makers. And now that I am seeing it on the beaches and by the swimming pools of Nova Scotia, it still makes me as crazy and as uncomfortable as it used to when I was six.
Oh yes, theoretically, there is nothing to prevent the woman living in Canada to join the rest of her family in water-fun. Except the prisons of the mind, as they say, are far more powerful than any external barriers. And that is why this scene makes me particularly uncomfortable in Canada, whereas back in Iran, it simply made me furious. The implicit element of judgement, of moral superiority, the assumption of modesty, the pose of virtue which frames this scene. Look, we are a good Iflamic family. And look at you, in your decadent swimsuit, flaunting your body naked for all eyes to see (not that anyone is particularly interested in ogling me). You who have betrayed the values of your ancestors, your country, your culture. You who are aping the Westerners. Oh the whole swimming-pool, no, the Atlantic Ocean itself isn’t wide enough to contain my figurative vomit.
Trivial stuff, yes? Mind your own business, you may say. If she wants to cover herself in tinfoil, the better to bake in the heat, let her do so. Respect, politeness. That is all we owe each other, in Canada at least.
But I should make it clear that it is not the woman in herself which annoys me. She may be, indeed most likely is, a friendly, nice, intelligent woman like everybody else. She is my aunt, my mother. But it is the actual scene itself, and the whole system of unfairness, inequality, supression, force and bullying which frame it, that gets me. The man, by virtue of having an extra piece of meat dangling between his legs, may enjoy the water. The woman, lacking that most precious organ, should cover herself up.
Very logical indeed. Absolutely crammed with fairness, I must say.