BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 13 April 2007, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Power of the headscarf
By Lisa Jardine

Faye Turney
Turney's headscarf put her motherhood to the fore
The headscarf Faye Turney was made to wear in Iran made us look at her as a woman, not as a seaman, says historian Lisa Jardine as she returns to A Point of View.

When I was a child - I think it began when I was about 10 - I had a recurrent dream, from which I would awake in a state of panic.

In it I was concentrating hard on some piece of school work (I was always a bit of a blue-stocking), when I was grabbed hold of by three or four grey and faceless people.

They put me into an over-sized greatcoat, and enveloped my head in a headscarf, then pulled firmly down over my forehead and knotted under my chin.

I would wake in terror as I realized that I was no longer an A-stream English schoolgirl with a bright future. The scarf had turned me into a cipher, a nobody.

Lisa Jardine
My childhood was full of post-war images of seemingly interminable snaking lines of dispossessed people
Lisa Jardine

It's easy now to see what the contemporary events were that fuelled the anxiety in my dream in the early 1950s.

My childhood was full of post-war images of seemingly interminable snaking lines of dispossessed people, people who had lost everything, the women bundled in ill-fitting garments with their hair shrouded, patiently waiting for bread, patiently waiting for visas.

I don't recall that we were ever shown the queues of Jews waiting to be herded on to trains on their way to the gas-chambers - that was an awful secret our parents preferred not to reveal to us. But I do remember that as the child of Jewish immigrants, every time I saw a girl just like myself, in a hand-me-down coat and a headscarf, I knew with absolute certainty that that could easily have been me.

The past is the place where we can focus without blinking on the feelings and attitudes of former times

That dream of mine and the situation that produced it - the movements of peoples forced into homelessness by circumstances beyond their control - are now part of history. They belong to Europe's shared, defining memories of its 20th Century past.

For me, as an historian, the past is the place where we can focus without blinking on the feelings and attitudes of former times, as they connect with, and enable us to come to terms with, ideas less easily grasped in the present.

History lets me see the "here and now" more clearly, to begin to understand and make better sense of the present. And so it turned out to be with my dream.

In the autumn of 1992, a pale young woman, her face barely visible behind a patterned scarf, and bundled in a men's duffel-coat, was ushered into my Head of Department's office in the University of London. She was from Sarajevo, and was working down the road from the college, cleaning offices.


Could she perhaps sit in on some of our lectures and classes? Before the collapse of Old Yugoslavia she had been doing a degree in English Literature at the University of Sarajevo.

Now, a refugee, worried sick about her family - the siege of Sarajevo was still going on, and she could get no word of them - she needed something that would connect her with her old life, something to give her new one meaning.

She handed me her documents. These, it turned out, contained not just her passport details, but also all her results from the three years of her degree course. She was a good student with consistently high grades; she would have graduated in the coming year.

Woman in Bosnia
Scarfs raise questions about identity

As I leafed through her papers, a wave of shock hit me. On page one of the booklet of official documents was her passport photo.

It showed a bold, smiling young woman with shiny, bobbed black hair and pearl earrings. She wore a smart dark jacket over a scoop-necked jumper, and her mouth was a bright red cupid's bow. She was, in other words, exactly like any ambitious, able, confident young woman her age.

The huddled figure in my office armchair was barely recognizable as the same person. Wearing that incongruous headscarf - a garment she would not have dreamed of donning in happier times - she had become a nobody, a lost soul. It was as if my dream had returned to haunt me, and was sitting in front of me.

Fortunately, we were able to do more for Sandra than simply let her sit in on classes. Her documented university record allowed us to admit her as a transfer student to the University of London. The following year she graduated with a good degree.

Over the next four years, we helped other young women from former Yugoslavia, who like her had walked out of a war zone under gunfire, and hitched rides across Europe to safety, to begin to build new lives for themselves. Several of them are now leading figures in their chosen fields.

Last week, my dream surfaced again. It came back to me in a flash as I watched the pictures on the television news of leading seaman Faye Turney, an experienced sea-survival specialist, and coxwain of the boat whose crew were seized by Iranian Republican Guards, wearing a scarf.

One minute, there Faye Turney had been, in naval uniform steering a small boat, on patrol in the waters that divide Iran from Iraq. The next thing we knew, she was dressed in shapeless garments and a headscarf, and appearing on television as a nobody, a vulnerable, defenceless little woman.

Just as I had feared as a child, her competence and training became invisible, she could no longer be seen for what she still was, even in captivity - a qualified person, doing a difficult job.

Sexual equality

For days, even after the detainees' release, the British press were mesmerised by the charade of Faye Turney's television appearances.

Last Thursday, I woke to hear Colonel Bob Stewart, the first British UN commander in Bosnia in the early 1990s, being asked on the Today programme by Carolyn Quinn whether the detention of British marines and seamen by Iran had raised questions about whether women soldiers and sailors ought to be allowed to serve on the front line.

Colonel Stewart believed it did. "People like myself are a little unsettled," he responded. "If that wasn't the case she wouldn't have been on the front page of all the newspapers for 12 days.

"So there is disquiet," he said, "among a lot of people in this country that a woman has been put into this position."

A piece of propaganda had proved shockingly effective with the British public

But what was making Colonel Stewart and the rest of us uneasy, surely, was feelings created out of the same stuff as my childhood nightmare.

A piece of propaganda had proved shockingly effective with the British public. Simply by the way they had dressed her, a régime which insists that, for modesty's sake, women must cover their hair and their bodies at all times, had succeeded in making us begin to talk as though there was something intrinsically shameful about allowing women the freedoms granted to their male counterparts.

Like so many of the rights won by women over the past 50 years, those of women in the army, navy and airforce have been hard won. Women now make up almost one in 10 of Britain's military personnel - over three-quarters of all jobs in the forces are now open to women.

Like my Sarajevan students before calamity struck, Faye Turney believed that in her chosen career she was on an equal footing with the men serving alongside her.

Tawdry episode

Interviewed by the BBC shortly before her detention about life on the edge of a war zone, she told us how she had wanted to join the armed forces since she was a child, and how proud she was to do so. Like my displaced students she had found herself a helpless ghost through circumstances beyond her control.

The most charitable interpretation we might want to put on her controversial appearance on ITV with Trevor Macdonald would be that she felt the need to set her image straight as well as to tell her side of the story.

The seizure of British naval personnel has turned out to be a tawdry episode for Britain and Iran. Hijacked by propagandists on both sides, no-one, I believe, has come out of it looking good.

But it has certainly reminded me how little it can still take, even in a country like our own, in which equality between men and women is a secure reality, to revive the ghosts of the past.

It still, it seems, only takes a headscarf - just as I feared, all those years ago, each time I woke in distress from my familiar bad dream.

Below is a selection of your comments.

No, we saw her as a mother because that is the image that the BBC and all other media outlets shoved in our faces day after day throughout the captivity. I for one do not remember even one mention of whether any of the male captives were fathers. It is nothing to do with what she wore.
Martinq, London

It's not about the headscarf - it's about choices. Faye Turney wasn't being given a choice but was made to wear a scarf and that's what I think has got to people. Certainly, my Lancashire mother, grandmother, and aunts all wore scarves from choice, it was a Lancashire thing to do and they were no less of a person for doing it. The Queen wears a scarf on many occasions, as did the Queen mother. Lisa Jardine is making too much of the act of wearing a scarf.

Ms. Jardine thinks that a scarf is what defines inequality but she insults women who can think for themselves and are beyond the clothes that they wear. Equality does not come from clothes. It comes from the ability to think for yourself and that cannot be changed with a headscarf. If clothing promotes inequality, then women and men should dress the same: men in skirts and women in ties. What we seem not to have understood is that women and men are equal but not the same. Thank you for your thoughts Ms. Jardine.
Mariam, Washington, DC USA

I agree totally with the point of view here. I would add that Colonel Stewart's questioning how Faye Turney was 'put into' a position is ridiculous: she freely chose to follow her career in the army, and rightly so. What are people really saying, that it is fine for fathers to be soldiers but not mothers? I am unsurprised that someone high up in the army holds these views: it is one of the most old-fashioned, and sexist of institutions. For real equality we need to wait a few generations, by which time hopefully people who grew up with ingrained bigoted views will no longer be around to give their opinions. And don't get me started on headscarves...
Becky, Shropshire

Lisa Jardine's views are so heavily influenced by the childhood nightmare she recounts that it is hard to take her comments seriously. Leaving aside the fuel she is adding to the existing unwarrented prejudice against the islamic headscarf in this country, she seems to either forget or ignore that fact that the ordinary headscarf has been a simple and practical headcovering, a protection angainst wind, cold and rain for very many years. It is still worn by women from all walks of life from the Queen across to the stereotypical 'charlady'. The scarf casually slung round Faye Turney's head and neck certainly did not convey the image of a 'helpless little woman' but appeared as merely a token sop to overly strict Iranian religious requirements.
Akilah, Chelmsford England

I don't believe it is down to the headscarf - all the examples in this article point to the demeanor of the women concerned being the main issue. If a woman is confident it doesn't matter what she is wearing. If she is a refugee or a prisoner, she is hardly going to look happy, is she? It is the attitude behind the headscarf that produces the change. If a woman wears it out of choice, I fail to see a problem with it. In some climates they are very convenient - I wore one myself last summer, in a country where they are not usually worn, because I was in the middle of a desert and it protected me.
CG, Edinburgh, UK

It is the culture of even some of the most liberal arab countries that women wear headscarves, that is why when female journalists report from Iran, they also wear headscarves, yet nobody seems suggest that they are a nobody or vulnerable and defenceless. Rather than blaming Iran for using Faye as propaganda our reaction should make us ask the question that if equality between men and women is really a secure reality in this country would the press and armed forces reaction to the pictures be so extreme. Maybe that equality is more fragile than we like to admit.
Willow, UK

I am deeply moved by reading Jardine's article. The persistant and subtle misunderstanding of women's equality in today's [European] society have always surfaced, be that through rates of rape convictions to Faye Turney's ordeal. By forcing her to wear a headscarf, and all the talk in the early days of the seige about releasing the "woman sailor", what it means to be a woman in Iran was reflected on British society. It is very important to resist such notions of being a female, being at the frontiers. Let's not turn back the clock!
Dana , Newcastle

You didn't mention Faye Turney was the first to confess. You didn't mention she declined to share her publicty fees with her fellow hostages or donate the money to a charity that would benefit serving sailors and their families. You can't hold woman to a differnt standard, especially in a war zone. These men may have had to depend on her with their life. Her actions were nothing to be proud of as a sailor and, if you want to excuse them because she is a woman, I don't blame any man who does not wish to serve with female sailors. The military in war time is not an appropriate place for social experiments or double standards. People die.
Maureen, Florida,USA

Far from making me think of Faye Turney as a mother my reaction was that she had capitulated totally to the Iranians and was willing to go along with anything they asked of her
David, Basingstoke

That was a wonderful and haunting article.
john, hereford

I am so annoyed that still people assume that a woman in a headscarf must be repressed and have no rights. The girls that had come to Lisa had just come from a war zone, their country in tatters, so I feel its unfair to say these women felt like a 'nobody' purely becasue their hair was covered. There are so many succesful, powerful, intelligent influential women all over the world who wear head scarves, who are not repressed and do have a voice. And with the matter of Faye Turney, the fact that she was a woman was why she was paraded in public, by both sides, to anger the public. The scarf shouldn't be making people feel uneasy about the situation, the blatent properganda on both sides is the concern here. By the way, I don't wear a head scarf so there is no bias here, just common sense.
Izzy, London, England



Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific