Vestimentary horseplay at Istanbul Atatürk Airport

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 23.37.44In Constantinople, writes Dalrymple, many of the women are in Mahometan dress,

including in the horrible, shapeless gabardine sack which seems recently to have been devised to preserve their modesty.

At Istanbul Atatürk Airport, still named after Mustafa Kemal (for now, he notes), he watches this scene unfold at the immigration desk:

A Saudi couple approached it, he in canary-yellow Lacoste T-shirt (to which his physique was unsuited), jeans and Adidas trainers in which he never had, and never would, run; she in full crow-black niqab, with a slit for her eyes. When she reached the immigration officer, he asked her to lift her veil. She was reluctant to do so, and he signalled to her again. She lifted it so fleetingly, with an upward flick, that he could see little, certainly not whether her face corresponded to that in her passport. He made it clear that she had to lift her veil for longer. She refused and he, exasperated, pointed to a desk at which there was a female immigration officer. The same scene was re-enacted there, but eventually, realising that unless she complied she would not be allowed through, she lifted the veil long enough for the officer to be satisfied.

Darymple’s gorge rises and he asks:

  • What imaginary threat was obviated by this vestimentary rigmarole?
  • What were the woman’s feelings during this episode? Fear was on her face when I saw it, but fear of what? The wrath of God or of her husband? That anyone catching a glimpse of her would assault her sexually? Or was it the fear of a creature of the night when exposed to daylight?
  • If it were so necessary to preserve her from the impure or polluting gaze of strangers, why travel?
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