In the 1970s there was Paki-bashing; it has a new variant today!
The last time the Veil issue was in the headlines was after Jack Straw’s article in the Lancashire Telegraph in October 2006 demanding Muslim women visiting his MP surgery to remove their niqab or face veil. In the aftermath, a support teacher in Dewsbury, Aisha Azmi was suspended for wearing the veil during lessons.
One of the sanest comments on the matter was by the columnist India Knight, writing in The Times on 10 January 2010
I find this whole subject uncomfortable because I don’t really know what I think; I change my mind constantly. I start off, as most people would, from the point of view that everyone should be allowed to wear what they like, regardless of how peculiar it might strike others as being, without being dictated to.
The fact that I dislike being unable to see someone’s face is neither here nor there, really: it’s their face, to expose or conceal (or pierce, or tattoo, or smear in chocolate) as they wish. But the ‘without being dictated to’ part cuts both ways: there is always the suspicion that women in burqas or niqabs may not be wearing them out of personal choice. And how do you tell? It’s hardly as if their appearance invites you to saunter up and say, ‘Excuse me, did you put that on of your own free will?’
Then I am made uncomfortable by the incredibly patronising assumptions that white western women make about brown women who are fully veiled, which is basically that they are all tragically mute victims of an especially monstrous patriarchy and are probably beaten or set fire to if they don’t cook supper nicely.
That may be true, and it may be true for vast numbers of women, but it simply isn’t true of every single one; besides, as we know, vast numbers of women are brutalised and abused by people known to them in all cultures and regardless of their clothing. So that whole ‘we must rescue the veiled women; they must be more like us; they must be free to weigh 20 stone and wear a miniskirt and get smashed on Alcopops and then post about it on Facebook’ thing makes me uneasy. Spin ‘they must be more like us’ round by only a few degrees and you have totalitarian regimes founded on intolerance.
The Guidelines from the Judicial Studies Board (April 2007) are also worth remembering:
“A person’s religion or belief can influence the way they dress and present themselves in public. In most instances, such clothing will present few, if any issues for judges. In practice, there are very few real clashes between the court process and different cultural practices in the UK. There is room for diversity, and there should be willingness to accommodate different practices and approaches to religion and cultural observance….In essence, it is for the judge, in any set of circumstances, to consider what differences, if any, would be made to those interests by the niqab being worn. It may well be, that after consideration, there is no necessity to take any steps at all….It is important to acknowledge from the outset that for Muslim women who do choose to wear the niqab, it is an important element of their religion and cultural identity. To force a choice between identity (or cultural acceptability) and the woman’s involvement in the criminal justice system (as a witness, party, member of court staff or legal office holder) may well have a significant impact on that women’s sense of dignity and would likely serve to exclude and marginalise further women with limited visibility in courts and tribunals…”
For a full coverage of the Jack Straw debate click here