I happened to be living in California when the twin towers were destroyed and, although a long way from New York, I observed the range of American responses to that attack at close hand. In a novel I wrote a couple of years later, I contrived a somewhat farcical scene in which a woman of European heritage called Astrid, attempting to gain some insight into Islamic culture, dresses in the burqa she has bought online. Meanwhile, David, a visitor to the house, comes across the gasmask that has been acquired by Astrid's more fearful housemate and, out of curiosity, tries it on. Stumbling into each other in the sitting room, both Astrid and David experience a moment of panic, each confronted, as it seems, by a faceless and alien intruder.
I wish I were an inventive enough writer to have imagined last week's scene on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, when a woman in a burkini was ordered by four armed policemen to expose more of her body in order to conform to secular Western standards of undress. Way beyond farce, this would have been theatre of the absurd, if there had not been an actual victim. The law these gendarmes were enforcing loads a simple article of clothing with such significance that it comes to symbolise, paradoxically, both female subjugation and homicidal intent.
The Western imagination has not always found the burqa so offensive or so threatening. In Muriel Spark's novel, The Mandelbaum Gate, which was published in 1965 and set four years earlier, Barbara, a British woman who is half-Jewish by birth and a convert to Catholicism, is in Israel visiting ancient sites, while her cousin is working on the legal team prosecuting Adolf Eichmann as a Nazi war criminal. Wishing to continue her pilgrimage into East Jerusalem, still then under Jordanian control, Barbara is persuaded by her Palestinian tour guide to disguise herself, for her own safety, as the guide's servant. The servant's old-fashioned, rustic garment allows Barbara to travel anonymously and unnoticed.
There are farcical elements here, too, though the sense of hazard, both physical and moral, is rarely absent. Setting her novel at this meeting point of three great religions, and at the gateway between East and West that gives the book its title, Spark explores aspects of cultural similarity and difference. Barbara herself is culturally conflicted. The Jewish Catholic invisible under the burqa is marginalised from every direction. The burqa itself, however, remains an exotic prop.
In her futuristic fable, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood draws on a thoroughly Western history of female subjugation in veiling her female characters. A Christian coup has turned America into a theocracy. The governing ideology divides women strictly according to their roles in relation to men. Furthermore, as a result of environmental pollution, only a minority of women remain fertile. These 'handmaids' are a prized and exploited commodity. Through the tale of one such handmaid, we experience what it is to be both nurtured and imprisoned.