The first time I went to England I went by myself. A friend from work and I had planned to take the trip together but she decided at the very last moment not to go because of fear of terrorism, since Lord Mountbatten and 18 British soldiers had been murdered by IRA bombs a few days before our flight.

I’m certainly not the bravest woman in the neighborhood, but I pondered the likelihood of my being a target of the IRA vs. the hundreds of dollars I stood to lose if I didn’t take the trip (dollars that I would have been paying over a couple of months), so I went. I packed my stuff in a clunky old Samsonite suitcase that my mom had given me years earlier, which had temperamental locks that sometimes didn’t open or close when needed. I’m sure that suitcase will survive the Apocalypse, but I gave it to the Goodwill shortly after that trip, preferring less temperamental duffle bags.

The flight was uneventful and after taking the train to Victoria Station, the Samsonite and I shared a cab to the B&B on Eaton Place with another lady from the plane (who was truly distressed as she had lost her very expensive camera) who was going to an address nearby. I dropped the Samsonite at the B&B – which nowadays has most likely been converted into five outrageously expensive flats – and went out by myself to check out the city.

Of course, the first thing I wanted to see in London was Harrods. Forget Big Ben; I wanted to see the store, and headed there right away.

I remember the moment exactly because it made a very deep impression.

I got to Harrods’s main entrance at the exact moment that the chauffer of a black Rolls Royce was opening the door for his passengers. Out came a man in a business suit, and after him, a woman completely covered with a black veil. The man in the suit helped her get out of the car.

I had never seen such a sight. The veil she wore to cover the lower half of her face was attached to a leather-like mask around her eyes, but the rest of her was completely covered with a black tent-like garment. Other than the black veils, all you could see of her were her expensive-looking shoes, her hands with polished red fingernails, and her black eyeliner-rimmed eyes. The reason I remember the nail polish color is because I was wearing a similar color that day. Aside from her hands, you couldn’t even tell if that person was a man or a woman.

I walked into the store at the same time as that couple. The man walked exactly by her side, and seemed to be on the alert.

After stopping for a snack downstairs, I took the elevator to the top floor, and shortly after, I came across the veiled woman and her escort. They were looking at a large matching set of Louis Vuitton luggage that included a large trunk with drawers and hangers, several suitcases, on down to a small cosmetic case. The woman, who spoke fluent English, told the man that she had decided to purchase the whole set, and the man in turn told the exact same words to the delighted salesman (who probably made two months’ worth of commissions out of the huge transaction).

As young, naive and immature as was back then, at that very moment I felt exceedingly grateful that I could go anywhere in the world I wanted to go to by myself with my temperamental Samsonite, whenever I wanted, unveiled, unescorted, and unencumbered (except for budgetary considerations). I actually felt relief that I wasn’t that woman.

I have thought about that woman often. I remembered her one time years ago when Dianne Sawyer was in Iran interviewing Ayatollah Komeni and a man on the street told Sawyer to cover her hair “because the sight of a woman’s hair is like knives in the Prophet’s heart, and it drives men crazy”.

That was nearly thirty years ago.

I still feel, as I instinctively felt then – even when back then I couldn’t articulate the thought – that the actual wearing of the veils in their many forms underlines the belief that men are incapable of self-control, even when men’s self-restraint is a cornerstone of civilized society; and that women are simply a cipher, to be held as a nonentity, hidden under a mass of black cloth, unseen, never to be trusted, allowed to talk to no one other than a man that will speak for them.

Now we have Yvonee Ridley asking

“What is more liberating: being judged on the length of your skirt and the size of your surgically enhanced breasts, or being judged on your character and intelligence?”

What, Yvonne, you ask? Being appreciated for the length and shape of my legs (I’m not about to splurge on surgically enhanced breasts, thank you), while being judged and respected for my character and intelligence.

And even more liberating yet, being free to have the option

Also posted at Fausta’s blog

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