Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Is the veil the most important public issue in Britain today?

Of course, not. It is of minuscule, but perhaps totemic, importance. And yet we have had a procession of Government ministers pontificating on the subject...Straw...Kelly...Hain...and now Brown. (It is very difficult not to conclude that there is a mixture of the dog-whistle and the Labour leadership contests behind all this.)

Gordon Brown's comments about the veil yesterday were measured and dignified:

Then asked if he thought it would be "better for Britain" if fewer people wore veils, Mr Brown replied: "Well that's what Jack Straw has said and I support."

He said he is not proposing new laws (phew!).

Brown's is a reasonable and moderate position.

However, there seem to be two possibilities:

1. Muslim women wear the veil for religious reasons (according to many who have been interviewed). In this case, Britain has long been a place of religious freedoms, so we should not interfere as a society in the wish of women to do things for the sake of their religion.

2. Muslim women wear the veil because they are told to do so by their menfolk. I don't believe this and have seen or heard no evidence to support this proposition. But if we accept it, for the sake of discussion, then I would ask if the lives of these women are going to be made any more bearable by, on the one hand being told by their husband to wear the veil, and on the other, being told by the Prime Minister-in-waiting not to. Surely this will put them in a far more difficult predicament? The tangible pain of this predicament was made plain last week when one women walking along a British street had her veil stripped off her by a passer-by.

I readily accept that society applies norms on dress in silent ways. If I wanted to go to work dressed as a Viking (my dearest wish), I would probably get some strange looks and be sent home on unpaid leave by my boss. But Government ministers saying that women should not wear the veil is new territory. Has it happened before? (I can't remember any British government telling people how to dress outside of the indecent exposure laws.) It is, metaphorically, megaphonic and conscious dictation of a dress code by the government and I therefore reject it.

It is fundamentally illiberal for governments to tell women not to wear the veil, just as it is fundamentally illiberal for governments, such as the old Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to tell women to wear the veil.


  1. "Is the veil the most important public issue in Britain today?"

    In short Paul, no. But I don't think it's a minor issue. There are those who wear the veil because of their cultural /ethnic background (not simply because they are Muslims) and those who wear it out of personal choice. I thought the best description of the latter was in a post on Pickled Politics:

    susan_mayer — on 5th October, 2006 at 10:34 pm
    Sahil, I completely agree with you with some Muslims girls trying to out do each other in the pious-ity stakes! At uni there was a bunch of girls who went from wearing hijabs to being fully vieled one by one. I could never tell who was who when they walked past me and didn’t feel relaxed in striking up a conversation with them. It was like they were in an exclusive club, one i could never belong to. I’m sure they were nice girls, but they just seemed less approachable than if they were just wearing hijabs and wearing the usual modest dress that goes along with it.

    My friends who wear hijabs just don’t prompt the same reaction. For them their hijabs are an expression of faith rather than any kind of statement about the intensity of their beliefs. At uni atleast veils seems to denote a sense of separateness while hijabs don’t. They seem to shout ‘don’t speak to me!’ and im a girl!

    I wouldn’t go so far in saying that veils create community tensions because they aren’t intrinsically harmful, I guess its just that women who are fully veiled just aren’t perceived by society as having a voice and this can only be a bad thing. Stereotypes need to be broken and this can only be with open discussion. I would never propose that all women who choose to wear a veiled be ‘unveiled’ because obviously this is a matter of personal choice, BUT i guess i just wish that people didn’t do all in their power to make themselves separate.

    Also about the whole Muslim women and oppression business: I have met a hell of a lot of Muslim women who cover up as a matter of personal choice and have seen at first hand how they deflect the unwanted attentions of loud-mouthed uncouth men (who are sometimes Muslim themselves…shock horror!)

    BUT the problem that then arises is that I,being a non-hijabi asian girl am seen as a legitimate target for lewd comments by idiotic men…hmmm…

    On the other hand, I have also come across parents who force their young girls, some 9/10 years old to wear veils and have also heard of some girls being beaten within an inch of their lives when their parents find out that they have gone to school and college and shed their scarves…

    SO their are two-sides (sometimes three) to every story.

    I think this is an issue to cause a lot of soul-searching for people who consider themselves tolerant and liberal. Supporting the right to wear the veil is a liberal, tolerant position but the veil - and particularly the burqa - is a symbol and/or symptom of some very intolerant, misogynistic societies.

    AS for your example of going to work in full Viking gear (which incidentally would have had very strong emotional and political resonance 1000 years ago!) and being sent home by your boss, I'd say yes, an employer should have the right to set a reasonable dress code and send someone home,

    Would you apply that to someone wearing the veil? (but not to a headscarf). Covering your face can be an unsettling, intimidating, alienating and literally anti-social thing to do..

  2. "Would you apply that to someone wearing the veil? (but not to a headscarf). "

    My company is worldwide and has a first class set of standards of business conduct. They dictate that any conduct which relates to a person's religion is unacceptable. I therefore, conclude, bearing in mind veils aren't specifically mentioned in the company's dress code, that if someone wears a veil or headscarf on account of their religion it is "unacceptable" to treat them in any other way to any other person. Therefore they can wear the veil or headscarf at work. As I am a good employee, I always follow my company's policies and procedures which are, of course, reasonably compliant with the law.

    "Covering your face can be an unsettling, intimidating, alienating and literally anti-social thing to do.. "

    I agree Chris, but that's no reason to ban the veil - there are many forms of clothing which can intimidating etc - the hoodie being a prime example.

  3. Hello, Paul, it's John O Hart again. And no, I'm not Joe Otten (who he?).

    You state, Paul, that there are only two reasons why a woman might wear a veil; for religious reasons, or because she is forced to by her menfolk. Surely there is a third reason, as a political statement to emphasise her rejection of and separation from the values of western society, and demonstrate her wish to take no part in it.

    I'm getting slightly confused about this business of women "wearing the veil for religious reasons". Since very few Muslim women in this country wear the full veil, it is hard to see how it is a religious requirement. If it is not a religious requirement, then it is a political statement. If it is a religious requirement, i.e. dictated (by whom?), then it is no longer the woman's free personal choice, but something she is told to do by her religious authority.

    However, in western philosophy, it is still a personal choice, inasmuch as she has chosen her religion, and therefore has committed herself to following its requirements. In other philosophies, however, specifically the Islamic world, she has no choice about being a Muslim (it's an accident of birth), so she can reasonably say that she has no choice over what she wears (nor whom she marries, her religion, etc., etc.). In ther latter case, allowing her to wear the veil is not supporting her personal choice (because it's not that), but supporting the authoritarian religion she is subject to.

    The question now is, what should our liberal society's response to all this be? If we believe in a woman's right to choose (which surely we do. That's the point of your pieces) we must reject the woman being forced to wear what the Islamic authorites dictate. It therefore seems that banning her wearing the veil is doing exactly the same as the Islamic authorities are doing. In neither way is the woman free.

    Surely, therefore, what we should be doing is persuading the Islamic authorities to accept that they have no right to prescribe what a woman wears, but you can imagine the protests that would raise. So many liberal, non-Muslim commentators, like yourself, Paul, seem to think that they have no right to tell other religions how to think or behave. But surely we are entitled to ask all members of our society to go along with our principles of freedom of what people wear, just as they must agree with our principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

  4. A most enjoyable convoluted argument but I simply don't believe that the government should tell people how to dress or not to dress, outside of the indecent exposure laws.