Monday, October 09, 2006

On veiling

Ex-foreign minister Jack Straw's comments on veiling last week continue to kick up dust in the UK. To those who have missed the tea-cup storm, he said that he would prefer veiled women to uncover their face when they meet him. The first thing to be said is that his comments will almost certainly do more harm than good. Al Qaeda-types will love the idea of a Westerner attacking veiling. Still more will they love the fact that it came from a Jew. It would have been better if he'd kept his opinions to himself. This doesn't mean that he isn't entitled to his own policy regarding uncovering the veil in meetings; it just means he shouldnt really have gone to the trouble of writing an article in a local newspaper and then repeating his comments on radio and tv in recent days.

That said, the issue of veiling (especially the wearing of the face-covering niqab) is troubling from a Western perspective. Liberal progressive sentiments, fuelled by a hundred years of energetic feminism, entail that whether one calls oneself a feminist or not (I do), one instinctively responds negatively to any manifestation of patriarchy. Whether a minority of muslim women have actively chosen to wear the niqab (rather than being coerced by their menfolk) is therefore besides the point. The niqab covers the face and removes the woman further from the public realm. It therefore offends liberal sentiments and acts in collusion with patriarchy. Ally this argument to the idea that one should respect local customs (witness Western journalists on assignment in the muslim world wearing a hijab), and that therefore muslim women should adapt to a liberal anti-patriarchal humanistic society rooted in the idea of the political and cultural freedoms of the individual, and one starts to see the beginnings of an argument against veiling (specifically against the niqab) in the West. A further strand of an argument in this direction is the increasingly vehement desire to resist Islamic fundamentalism with a trenchant defence of Western values and freedoms. A key strategic component within this desire would be the promotion of a moderate, non-literal, tolerant and pluralistic version of Islam. That's to say, to promote an Islam where the niqab is frowned upon.

Finally, those embroiled in the debate in the UK should look up and realise this is an age old argument repeated in many places at many times - a few years ago France banned headscarf wearing at all state schools, creating a cause celebre in Lyons. More volatile still is the long-running battle between secularists and fundamentalists in Turkey, so powerfully depicted in the novels of Orhan Pamuk. Since the time of the heroic moderniser Ataturk, explicit codes of muslim expression (such as dress) have been banned, only for religionists to counter-attack sporadically.

The real issue in all this for those who believe and will defend eternally Western humanism and the deep value of human rights is to engage with the causes of fundamentalism, not its effects (such as the growing adoption of the niqab). Jack Straw's intervention threatens to destabilise and de-centre the debate away from core issues. Western progressive humanists need to continue to find ways to support moderate muslims, rather than push Islam further away.

The problem is most acutely focused on the post-industrial towns of the North-West (Blackburn, Accrington, Bradford etc), where disaffected working class youth have been waiting for any opportunity to express their marginalised rage at the world. The roots of the problem lead back to Thatcher, and her destruction of the manufacturing bases in the North. White flight and the creation of minority ghettos, which once seemed the preserve of a peculiarly American system of apartheid, now seem to have consolidated themselves in the UK. Instead of superficial remarks, Jack Straw would do well to roll up his sleeves and start thinking through strategies for integration in his own backyard.


Kieran 9:03 pm  

Sadly Jack Brown isn't really the sharpest tool in the box.

As a born and bred Bradfordian I feel the pedantic need to point out that we are not in the north west, but accross the pennines in West Yorkshire. That's a local sore point I suppose (:
Your assessment is pretty much spot on, although the problem has severely mutated since the Thatcherite Britain. Multiculturalism as a project failed in Bradford because well meaning but misguided councillors ended up promoting a system of segregation in the education system, which fed into wider divisions in society. Meanwhile, the political and economic dislocation of the immigrant generations has meant they've been unable to exercise similar control over their younger generations as they did back in Pakistan. This is not uniformly the case, but in many instances the younger generations, who in one sense are more 'integrated' and speak both English and urdu, etc., are also less dependent on their communities, less bound by them, and at the same time more 'reactionary' against percieved inequalities. Faced with a more insecure identity, with one foot in either country, many youngsters become much more fiercely patriotic than their parents. Many find the powerlessness of the matriarchs and community leaders shameful, others benefit from it through crime, which sadly has become a major problem in Bradford, particularly in the drugs trade. It's important to remember this latter point, since the most recent riots in Bradford had little to do with race issues and everything to do with hooliganism. That the hooliganism is interlinked with poverty is the crucial point, but it can be just as unconstructive to bestow local trouble makers within the asian community with poltical credibility as it can be to discredit geniuine grievances as motive.

The problems in the white working class council estates are very similar, except the really frustrating thing is that there exists in most of the asian communities an older generation which holds the kind of 'values' which Jack Straw seeks, but through their economic and political disenfranchisment they have been disempowered and silenced. The war on "terror" has always been about 'hearts and minds' within our own backyard - that is where the strategic ground lies, and its solution requires something altogether more surgical and complex than b52s or a ban on veils.

Nomad 11:17 am  

The debate is part of an ongoing and important conversation which on the surface seems to be about 'what being British really means'. There are layers and layers of this going on and most of what has been in the public domain doesn't represent the real and very important discussion simmering, below the surface. The idea of Political Correctness has benefited society to a large extent but has driven underground issues which the majority of 'native Britons' feel very strongly about. The question is, does it help to discount this? Jack Straw brought to the fore, sentiments expressed daily across the country. The truth is that without going into the reasons why, Islam has been getting a lot of bad press. People feel intimidated by its symbols. The dilemma is further worsened by not talking about it. It would have been easier, I might be wrong here, if the Muslim community here is viewed as simply 'British Muslim'. But along with it, never separate, is the idea that there are over one billion Muslims in the world and everything important to the rest, all over the world are intrinsically linked to the community here (which should be okay in terms of lobbying etc but raises questions of allegiance/loyalty). On Q&A last week, someone made a comment concluding that it seems that a lot of crisis in parts of the world are about Islam versus the rest e.g. Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria etc a small microcosm, but people are concerned. The 'answer' to the question of dressing to accommodate the country you're in blows over the heads of commentators/talking heads etc. No one has given an answer to the woman, who, when questioned, replies that she is not in a foreign land but is a citizen and this is her country as well. So when she dresses in her veil she is not doing something strange. She claims ownership. This leads to issues of Citizenship. What are its limits? There are no easy answers. The 'demonisation' of an entire group has it's roots in stereotyping but reconciling the foundations of a harmonious society which include the acceptance of differences and celebrating our uniqueness of which some sameness is necessary is quite a nightmare when fear, real (justifiable 7/7?) or imagined prevails. I apologize for the long comment.

Anonymous,  1:59 pm  

Interesting stuff.

I think the muslim community will get more respect and be more understood when the moderate muslims (do they really exist) come out and protest against the suicide bombings. Just as many catholics came out and bravely campaigned against the IRA.

As is it they just keep quiet....

As for the veil - Jack has started the debate - surely a good thing. Why should it be taboo to discuss it? One shouldnt forget the fuss made over hoodies - surely there is no difference from a security point of view?

As a biker it really pisses me off that seikhs don't have to wear a helmet because of their turban - surely if their turban and religion are so important then they should decide not to ride a bike...

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