In the chilled marble halls of shopping centers in the apparently liberal landscape of Dubai, dark figures lace the pathways between everything from lingerie to skate gear.
These are the women of the Persian Gulf and they are dressed in their black cloths for everyone to see. Not all local women dress this way, but many do.
For foreigners especially, though also for many locals, the continual sight of these women and girls -- always in nothing but black from head to toe, save for the few crystal or thread embellishments some of them use on their wrists and hems -- is shocking.
Most of the women dressed in this attire are wearing an abaya, but some of them wear a niqab and others are completely faceless in burqas. When you turn corners in the mall, or suddenly look up for a moment, they stun you with an abyss where a face should be.
To these women, the different elements -- the black body abaya, the headscarf, the nose- lips- and chin-covering niqab, and the completely face-covering burqa -- signify various levels of liberalness. When the Belgian Parliament or the French government express concern about the niqab or the burqa, some of these women of the Gulf may actually be in agreement: the burqa is too much, they may think.
But for those of us who are not accustomed to these stark images of womanhood obscured -- and it is hard to escape the sensation that this complete absence of color engulfing most or all elements of the female form is morbid and lifeless, and sad -- all of these cloaks are troubling.
Yet, what is fascinating about the European debates on public veiling is that the governments addressing this concern are not asking for a total ban on veiling, they are simply saying that all things have limits and extremism must be addressed. The complete covering of the body and face, they rightly say, is extremist.
For these governments, it is about placing a legal element of moderation on public dress. Worldwide today, total nudity is usually illegal, these governments are simply saying that the other extreme is also not acceptable, especially when it clearly applies to only one segment of the population.
Because both sides of this debate will agree: it is females and females alone who are the topic of this conversation.
This is an issue of female rights.
It is an issue of hiding and avoiding the entirety of a female body and face.
And, strangely perhaps, it always reminds me of that little children's chant about seeing England and seeing France, and seeing someone's underpants: it's such a sad contrast to go from concerns about a women's underwear being seen in public to concerns about seeing a woman's face in public. One always hopes for public debates that move ahead on progressing social values, rather than being compelled to address concerns that current advances are being eroded.
For those who defend this attire, and take offense at France or Belgium's legal motions toward controlling it, there are many explanations, concerns, and defenses.
But none of these reasons can escape the fact that it is women who are being segregated by this attire. And quite visibly so.
Whatever the genuine motivations of the Belgian and French politicians may be, the fact is that extremism in any form is a social instability that needs to be addressed in time, before it is no longer possible to alleviate it.
Now is the time for the burqa extremists to face the contemporary reality in their new homes: a reality where total nudity and total coverage are both considered extremist by enough members of their constituencies that parliamentarians are at ease in addressing these issues with law.
What remains to be seen is whether the divisions that this attire implicitly created within societies such as Belgium and France will be alleviated or further emphasized by these public debates. What is certain is that the debates must continue.