Veiling the issues: a distractive debate

About the author
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

A Muslim woman wearing a face-veil (niq­ab) and sitting in the surgery of her male member of parliament is a complex and interesting phenomenon. Some might argue that she represents the best of pluralist democracy. She is a participating citizen who is in direct contact with her MP on matters that concern her, and she is a Muslim who has the confidence to dress as she wants to, even at the risk of public disapproval. But that is not how Jack Straw, the British government minister and MP for the northern English town of Blackburn, sees it.

Straw intentionally provoked a public debate when he wrote on 5 October 2006 in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph that the full veil was a hindrance to community relationships, and admitted that he asked "ladies" if they would consider showing their faces when they came to his surgery. He said that he felt "uncomfortable" when he could not see the face of the person he was talking to.

Tony Blair entered the fray on 17 October when he supported a school's decision to suspend Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant who refused to remove her veil when teaching children. Blair described the veil as "a mark of separation". The debate continues to make the news and there are widely divergent opinions among both Muslim and non-Muslim contributors as to the value of raising this issue.

Straw is an astute politician with a large number of Muslims in his Blackburn constituency, and he claims to have thought carefully before speaking out. Yet there are a number of puzzling questions about his decision to go public in this way. Although Straw's main concern seems to be the issue of social segregation, there is also the implication - made explicit by some commentators since - that the veil is a symbol of oppression and male domination. But if that were the case, then a veiled woman is highly unlikely to visit her male MP even with her husband, let alone by herself.

There is the question of probability too. Given that only a small percentage of Britain's Muslim women wear face-veils, and given that a significant number of such women might regard it as taboo to be alone with a man who was not part of their family grouping, one wonders just how many people we are talking about. Is this an issue that Straw confronts regularly, or is it more likely that the very few women he encounters in this situation are articulate, educated women for whom the veil is a matter of identity politics?

His article seems to suggest that this might be the case, and if so, it raises a number of questions about the ways in which the assertion of Muslim identity has become a political as much as a religious issue. But in this situation, Straw's request that a woman removes her veil seems provocative, for it invites a confrontation on the basis of power - is her right to assert herself greater or lesser than his right to feel comfortable in her presence?

Tina Beattie is reader in Christian studies, Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002) and New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005)

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and jihad: beyond words" (18 September 2006)

Layers of meaning

The veil has become a multi-faceted symbol which resists generalisation. One has to know a great deal about the context in which it is worn, in order to decipher its possible meanings. In situations where it is a sign of oppression, it is more a symptom than a cause of that oppression, and it can distract us from asking what really oppresses women. When George W Bush wanted to bomb Afghanistan, he suddenly became an ardent campaigner for the rights of Afghan women, and those burqa-clad figures have long preoccupied western feminists who may show little concern for the actual living conditions of Muslim women worldwide.

Since the publication of Edward Said's groundbreaking book, Orientalism (1978), scholars at least have become aware of the extent to which the veiled woman is part of the "otherness" which the so-called western man of reason projects onto his eastern counterparts, by depicting the Arab-Islamic world as feminised and irrational. This oriental figure, the subject of many works of literature and art, represents seduction and threat, mystery and challenge, so that it is very difficult to see her humanity clearly through the west's own cultural veils.

In this respect, it is interesting that the BBC recently called its excellent short series on Iran Uncovering Iran, with publicity frequently referring to the country as "she", a deeply mysterious feminised "other", simultaneously (perhaps) inviting and resisting conquest.

Them and us

Scholarly interpretations vary as to what, if any, veiling is required by the Qur'an. There are many Muslim women scholars working on such issues and seeking to change their tradition from within. It is through education and awareness-raising that lasting change will come about, but that process also requires respect for the religious values of the Muslim community, and such respect is lacking in British society today.

Muslims are tolerated providing they demonstrate that they are "moderate", but the communication of values is all one way: there is a suggestion that "we" have nothing to learn from "them", but "they" still have much to learn about "our" British values. But Britain is a multicultural society, and notwithstanding citizenship tests and much rhetoric about the meaning of Britishness, the multiple identities of those who inhabit this small island renders the term "British values" almost meaningless, unless in itself it signifies a capacity for diversity and non-uniformity.

In any case, the failure to recognise that religious traditions, including Islam, are custodians of values from which secular society might learn, is a product of a post-Enlightenment world view, in which a progressive concept of history leads to the belief that the rationalised, secularised west is more advanced than its religious and non-western counterparts. It is for "them" to catch up, rather than slowing "us" down with their different values and priorities.

This persistent theme implicitly informs much public debate about Islam, even if it has been debunked by postmodernists, whose conversation tends to fall on deaf ears outside their own esoteric intellectual and cultural milieus. However, we should listen to what they are telling us, because they caution us against the progressive and triumphalist view of history that has gripped western consciousness for the last two centuries at least, and which is closely associated with western imperialism and global conquest.

There are Muslim scholars who argue that Islam stands in need of a reformation, and some insist that such a reformation is indeed quietly under way, even as Islamist extremism tends to occupy the headlines. But it is also true that many young men in particular are ripe for recruitment to the cause of radical Islam and, as with the veil, we need to understand some of the reasons for this.

In the world today, Muslims are victims of some of the most intractable and violent conflicts, be they Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan or Chechen, even if in Afghanistan and Iraq it is now Muslims who are the perpetrators as well as the victims of that violence. On our nightly news broadcasts, images of the ongoing slaughter in Iraq sit side by side with debates about the veil, and it is ingenuous of politicians to try to separate them.

Until Tony Blair's government is willing to acknowledge the extent of its failure in Iraq, and until it makes finding a solution to the Palestinian situation a top priority, debate about the veil is likely to be seen as a distraction which in itself veils much more important questions about justice and the survival of Muslim people and Islamic values in the modern world.

A new relationship

I work in a university with a high proportion of Muslim students. They are a rich and diverse part of campus life, and they make an important contribution to our university's intellectual and cultural environment. Teaching as I do in the area of theology and religious studies, the Muslims I encounter have chosen to enter an academic environment in which all beliefs are subjected to rigorous scrutiny and analysis, and it is often their desire to understand their own religious identities and their place in politics and society that has made them choose this area of study.

They share the problems of all young people, and there are situations in which their religious values undeniably create painful struggles when they come to university. Young women students are sometimes allowed little freedom relative to their non-Muslim counterparts, and relationships can come under intense pressure if they are not in keeping with their families' sometimes rigorous rules of conduct. But there is also a profound integrity about the way many young Muslims reconcile the demands of their religion and their cultural milieu, even if this can be a costly and challenging process.

For example, in a culture in which binge-drinking has become a major social problem, it is easy to overlook the extent to which Muslims must daily overcome their own distaste with regard to alcohol, in order to be integrated into society. We have had debates among our students as to whether or not we should serve wine at student parties, and it is our Muslim students who have insisted that we should, and who have then attended the parties despite the fact that for some, even being in a room where alcohol is being served is problematic.

Instead of always seeing Islam as the problem, perhaps we should also be asking what we might learn from our Muslim neighbours about decency, integrity and self-respect.

Are veiled Muslim women really a more potent sign of oppression than the drunken teenage girls lurching at night around our city-streets and even our campuses, half-naked and vulnerable? It is not only Muslims who see western attitudes towards sexuality and the female body as degenerate and degrading. Many feminists would argue that the commodification of the female body and the sexual exploitation of women is a growing problem in our society. It is not hard to understand why, for some Muslims, the veil is a solution to that problem.

Moreover, Islam is hardly unique among the world's religions in its suspicion of female sexuality. Christianity has a long history of insisting that women should be silenced, subordinated and covered up because they are a sexual threat and, if we in the west have been liberated from such taboos, we have yet to discover what it would truly mean to be female bodies not conditioned in one form or another to clothe ourselves according to the expectations, demands and desires of men.

The relationship between Islam and secular democracy need not be one of conflict and confrontation, and Muslims cannot simply be divided between moderates and extremists. The woman with a veiled face represents something too complex to be deciphered simply on appearances alone.

We have to understand who she is, what she believes and values, how she positions herself in the world; and simply removing her veil will not tell us any of those things. Indeed, her bare face may mask interesting and significant differences which, paradoxically, her veil reveals.

We need to listen and learn, to struggle to understand one another in the recognition that threats to our common humanity are growing. The most obvious are war, violence and environmental catastrophe. A less visible but equally corrosive one is the closure of minds and hearts to the experience, thinking and values of those regarded - even for the way they choose to dress - as alien.