The debate unleashed by Jack Straw on 5 October 2006 shows little sign of quietening down. Britain's former foreign secretary, who revealed to a newspaper that he asks religious women attending his constituency surgeries to remove their face veils, has released a social valve while projecting himself back into the political limelight.
The passion evident in the voices of interviewees on news bulletins and callers on radio programmes, however, shows us that this is something the great British public has had on its mind for a while. It seems Straw's comments were just the excuse we needed for a bit of collective venting.The discussion seems to have crystallised around the issue of whether the veil is an instrument of male control or a "liberating" choice made by enlightened women.
David Shariatmadari is a freelance writer. Born in London of mixed Iranian/English parentage, he studied linguistics at Cambridge University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His website is here.
Also by David Shariatmadari on openDemocracy:
"Through a looking-glass"
(20 December 2005)
"The sultan and the glamour model"
(25 May 2006)
Some say veiling has long been used to channel simple, old-fashioned male chauvinism, and this is all it represents. The Qur'an doesn't offer a precise list of the kind of clothes that a woman can wear and the result is that men have made the decision for them, in most cases letting their paranoia get the better of them. How better to control a woman than by covering her up, weighing her down with heavy robes, a visible reminder of her lack of self-determination? The veil is, after all, more common in rural, less developed societies where women haven't yet undergone the process of emancipation that took a couple of centuries in Britain. Like other remnants of the times when women were chattels without voice or vote, it will one day have to be abandoned.
At the same time, there are people for whom the veil really is a positive choice: a choice that allows them to reclaim their sense of self in the midst of a society that so often fails to go beyond mere appearance. There's the freedom to go unveiled, sure, but what about the freedom not to have to think about hair and makeup, freedom from the judging eyes of a world obsessed by beauty? As a symbol of Islam, the veil can also be an expression of religious devotion, serving much the same function as a nun's habit or a monk's cowl. No one would ever dream of asking a Catholic nun to disrobe - so why ask Muslim women to do so. Isn't it just flagrant hypocrisy?
Of the two viewpoints sketched out here, the first is popular among the largely white, liberal, middle-class establishment, the second among vocal second-generation Muslims. Well - they can't both be right. Which one of the two groups is kidding itself?
In fact, they are both right, but they're talking about separate phenomena. In Britain today, essentially two types of veiling exist. First, there undoubtedly are women who'd like nothing better than to throw off their jilbab but would only do so if their husbands, brothers or fathers weren't around to stop them. They could be recent immigrants, completely reliant on their extended family, with poor English and no prospect of going it alone, or children of immigrants from particularly strict families. These women should, of course, be free to do what they want. We can only hope that as time goes on, the number of people who feel trapped like this diminishes.
Second, there are others who have lived in Britain their whole lives, but have only recently decided to cover themselves. Often they have sisters or even mothers who do not veil. They are the articulate, young, switched-on women who are ready to come down on you like a ton of bricks if you so much as suggest they're the victims of oppression.
They're not lying when they say they've chosen to dress that way. It's a choice that's become more common recently as a reaction against what is perceived by people from Muslim backgrounds as a groundswell of hatred and blame-laying against their community. Call it the 9/11 effect, the Iraq effect, whatever you like. It's essentially a reaction, and in this context veiling takes on a completely different cultural meaning. Whereas in their parents' countries it might be a symbol of backwardness or poverty - in Cairo, Istanbul or even Tehran, heavy veiling is an indication of low social class - here it's a testament of non-conformity and of pride, of political resistance.
Applying the same arguments to these very different groups of women, one vulnerable, one politically tuned-in, is an error we should try to avoid if we wish to have any kind of meaningful discussion.
Jack Straw's complaint was not that the veil was oppressive, but that it brought to the fore what separates sections of the community from one another. That may be so, but what's also true is that the policies of his government during the "war on terror" have succeeded in making a large number of people feel alienated and, as a result, defensive about their cultural heritage. A few people react to demonisation by becoming invisible. The natural impulse of many is instead to do the opposite, to become fully paid-up members of the tribe which is being denigrated, in order to show their defiance.
For men it might be growing long beards, wearing the kind of get up their grandparents once walked around in. For women it might be the veil. Either way, the political class to which Jack Straw belongs must understand the psychological reasons for this turn of events and, in doing so, accept a good portion of the blame.
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