Friday, October 06, 2006

straw on veils

I’ve spent a lot of today thinking about Jack Straw’s comments on the wearing of veils and the fact that he has, for the last year or so, requested that they be removed when he is visited by Muslim women in his constituency surgery. He has gone to considerable lengths to make clear that he asks rather than demands, and is certainly not in favour of any prescriptive legislation, yet believes that the niqab makes "better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult", being as it is "such a visible statement of separation and of difference".

Generally speaking, I think that Straw’s article is well-argued and I don't doubt his sincerity - it was perhaps the best and most measured contribution to this debate from an anti-niqab perspective I've seen, and I’m pleased that he has done it fairly sensitively. He describes a conversation he had recently with a Muslim lady once she was unveiled.

"We … had a really interesting debate about veil wearing. This itself contained some surprises. It became absolutely clear to me that the husband had played no part in her decision. She explained she had read some books and thought about the issue. She felt more comfortable wearing her veil when out. People bothered her less."

Straw ended the interview promising that he would think about what she said, but asked her to do the same and bear in mind his argument, that he wanted British Muslims to think about the impact that their style of dress had upon the community and upon interaction with their fellow Britons. I think that making this point was very fair and he seems to have done so in a sensitive manner.

However, as much as I want to believe that Straw – a good constituency MP – is publicising this approach now because he feels that – those dread words – a full and frank public debate is neccesary, I remain concerned that he's made the statement now for political reasons, trying to echo the appalling John Reid and ramp up the 'harsh on terror' stuff. And I wonder if despite his good intentions he may have misread the 'relief' with which women remove their headscarves during his consultations and not understood that in making the request from a position of considerable power (the women are there to ask for his help, after all) he may be making a request that his visitors feel unable to refuse.

More pertinently, of course, what the fuck business is it of his what his constituents are wearing. He says, "Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone “face-to-face” who I could not see". Well, again, I sympathise and suspect that I would feel rather the same. Then again, this would be my problem. I’m guessing that in many cases the lady he is speaking to would be uncomfortable removing the veil. Where do we go from here? As an experienced servent of a constituency with a high Muslim population (one who, until Iraq, and perhaps still, held him in pretty high regard) I would expect Straw to find his own solution to this discomfort he feels. Nevertheless, he is within his rights to ask and I appreciate his candour in describing the awkwardness he feels.

There is, though, one more aspect to this which makes me wish, for all his good intentions, that he hadn’t written the article which he has. It does not take long to note that as soon as Straw’s measured comments are published, two conflicting but equally extreme reactions subsume and bury the subtleties of his argument and the debate is reduced to little but a fiery to-and-fro. It certainly did not take long for the Muslim Council of Britain to denounce Straw’s words as ‘blatant Muslim-bashing’, nor for George Galloway to call for his resignation. Nor did it take long for the Daily Telegraph to pen a leader praising Straw for singling out

"another example of the damage done by multiculturalism to the cause of real integration. Mr Straw is to be commended for brushing aside the politically correct nostrums that have inhibited such discussion among senior politicians."

Straw ends his article by saying that there is a need for a debate. Certainly a debate is desirable. But can such a debate be started by a member of a government with such a bloody record in the Middle East? And if the debate is so swiftly taken over by people who distort the debate, what should we do?


Anonymous said...

Maybe it is a bad thing that Straw has asked muslim women to remove thier veils. Veils are sacred and go back in the community years, so byasking them to remove them can cause offence. But he is only asking them to remove them so he can see who he is talking too. Do the women who ear them do it by choice or are they are forced into wearing them like women in Iran are?

Andrew Brown said...

Jonathan, what you seem to be arguing is that Straw has raised a reasonable point, in a moderate manner, but that he shouldn't have done so because people who are less reasonable and moderate will use it to their own ends.

How and when do we start debates on difficult issues? If we worry (overly) about how our concerns will be interpreted doesn't that create as many problems as it solves?

Ali said...

If the women in question were Catholic there would have been a fraction of the outcry Jack Straw's comments have caused. Everyone's just so quick to have an opinion on Islam...myself included;

People are quite rightly free to wear what they want and Jack Straw is a nob who's out of his depth. BUT, that doesn't stop the theology behind veil wearing being deeply flawed.

The sooner humanity grows out of organised religion the better.

Just my opinion.