Why Tony Blair is Right About the Veil

Muslim women can't integrate with British society from behind a mask.

I dislike the veil. But last year, when I spent a month working all over Afghanistan, I wore one the entire time — because Afghan society cannot yet tolerate unveiled women, and I wanted to connect with people and do my job effectively. I could have gone bare-headed, but it would have sent the hostile message that I didn't care about integrating with the society around me. Did I enjoy having to reconsider my anti-veil stance? Of course not. I detested how wobbly it made my beliefs feel, and I trashed it on my flight out of Kabul. But I was the one who had gone to Afghanistan; Afghanistan had not come to me. That made it my responsibility to deal with how my presence affected those around me.

I've thought about this constantly since the debate erupted in Britain over whether Muslim women should wear full-face veils. Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed calls by his party's parliamentary leader, Jack Straw, that Muslim women in Britain should refrain from covering their full faces, particularly when dealing with the wider society. The indignation of British Muslims — their refusal, really, to even have a conversation about the issue — strikes me as particularly delusional, given the realities of post-9/11 Europe. It would be like me traipsing as an American into hostile, post-Taliban Afghanistan, imagining I could bare my hair without alienating those around me. To expect this would involve an unhealthy relationship with reality.

The fact that the issue in Britain does not seem to be the veil per se, but the more extreme full-face covering known as the niqab, the comments of Blair and Straw seem perfectly reasonable to me. Neither of them asked Muslim women to abandon their belief in hijab, or the custom of veiling, altogether. Both zeroed in on the niqab, a minority practice considered extreme by even mainstream Muslim standards. I come from a Muslim family and have spent years living in various Muslim communities around the Middle East. Ever single Muslim girlfriend I've had, from pious to secular, veiled to vixen, has been unable to befriend, or even hold a proper conversation with a niqab-wearer. The young son of a close friend, raised in a large Muslim family in a large Muslim country, calls them "ninja ladies." Covering the face, whether in Yorkshire or Beirut, seems to send a universal message of separateness. If the full-face veil is considered creepy by many Muslim women in the Middle East, why wouldn't it cause a twinge of unease among ordinary British people with no tradition of veiling at all?

The idea that women in niqab can assimilate properly into a community or be effective as teachers distresses me, because it is at heart disingenuous. Clearly, meaningful social exchange requires a face. And arguments about non-verbal communication being inessential only address half the problem. The obscured woman, who can see her interlocutor clearly through her slits, is enjoying contact with a face; it's the other party, conversing with a tiny black tent, that bears the burden of the discomfort. It would be more sincere for niqab-wearers to say they accept the cost of holding inflexibly to their tradition: the unease of their non-Muslim fellow citizens, and slower assimilation.

It's no coincidence the British debate surrounds a teaching assistant who refused to take off her full-face veil around male colleagues. Niqabs in school are an even more delicate issue than niqabs at the supermarket or the park, for teachers serve as role models to children, and the niqab sends a controversial message that may or may not be appropriate in the classroom. Even more so than the headscarf, the niqab is premised on the traditional Muslim belief that uncovered women are sexually stimulating to men, who are presumed to be incapable of controlling themselves. In a Muslim society where many men hold such an ugly view of their own gender, perhaps a heavily-veiled woman connotes no insult. But to a Western man living in a culture with very different norms of gender relations, the idea that a woman is covering her face and body because she considers him a potential sexual predator can seem deeply disrespectful.

Non-Muslim adult men may find this unpleasant, but in a diverse society, they are probably expected to just deal with it. Schoolchildren are a different matter altogether. They may not be briefed on the roots of such Islamic mores, but they'll still wonder why they can't see their teacher's face. I wouldn't want a niqab-wearer as a role model for my child, and I wouldn't want to explain that his teacher considers her bare face somehow immoral. It is ironic that living in an Islamic theocracy, this is something I would never have to do (the niqab is not worn in Iran), while non-Muslim British parents are being asked to do so on grounds of cultural tolerance.

None of this is to say that I consider the wearing of the more commonplace form of hijab, a headscarf, objectionable. If people, British or otherwise, feel uncomfortable because a woman has a scarf on her head, that's not a concern to be taken seriously. Men who wear unattractive baseball caps make me uncomfortable, but I've gotten used to the world not being aesthetically designed to my taste. No, the issue is very specifically the niqab, and the obstacle it poses to human interaction and smooth integration. What does seem obvious is that the assimilation of British Muslims is a troubled process, and that intrusive squares of cloth should remain an open, but peripheral debate.

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Maggie said...

If I may share another perspective as to why someone like Jack Straw might feel called upon to address the subject of the veiling of females in British society: there is another reason why this is a problem. It has nothing to do with Islam or Muslims. It has nothing to do with conforming, fashion, or racism. It has nothing to do with freedom of expression. It has nothing to do with the individual wishing to live separately from the prevailing customs in observation of their religious beliefs - for example, the Amish in America are deeply respected, though they deliberately reject dress norms, electricity, telephones, conveniences. Here's what the problem REALLY is:

It is deeply offensive to the most fundamental feeling of people in free societies to see other people openly oppressed. We know it happens in various ways to many people in many places, including our own, but when it happens it upsets us. To see degradation of another human being worn publicly and held up as a virtue of some sort is simply sickening to us.

It may be a cultural norm elsewhere to mutilate the genitals of little girls, and considered a virtue; that is not the case here. The custom must be observed elsewhere, not in this society. It may be a cultural virtue to sell off daughters in marriage to strangers, but that is not the case here, and it becomes something that people must do in private -not on the street. It may be a cultural norm for men to have four wives - but polygamy is unlawful here, and disgusting to the majority of citizens. People may freely engage in this sort of arrangement elsewhere. It may be perfectly acceptable to beat one's wife (wives) or kill one's daughters ("Honor" killing, I believe the term is) but here these things are crimes - assault and murder. They may not be practised, accepted and excused here.

Imagine if you will some reversal of experience regarding the veiling of females: what if people, for religious reasons, wore men’s clothing designed to expose the testicles, that women's clothing bare the breasts? Would we not all find this appalling? If you were forced to see it on the streets or in public transportation or to know your children were exposed to it in schoolrooms from their teachers, would you not, finally, no matter how much you wish to be sympathetic and tolerant, say something?

The dehumanization of women is an obscenity to us. To deliberately throw it in the faces of one's neighbors does more than separate - it's offensive. If you are in our countries, you are free to act as you wish in your homes - something that is not the case, I believe, in many of the countries that promote the subjugation of women as a virtue. If people are going to emigrate to free societies, they must understand that they are guests and conduct themselves accordingly, at least in shared public life. Or, live elsewhere. I cannot help but wonder what it is that attracts immigrants to places for which they have such contempt. Please, be happy, perhaps somewhere else.

Jack Straw finally said something. It's worth listening to. If it is unacceptable, perhaps it would be better, and people would be happier, occupying some country whose customs towards females are more in keeping with their comfort zone.

Ed en Vadrouille said...

These are quite well rounded point of views, and interesting for a french like me.

As you may know my government passed a law in 2004 forbiding any "large" symbol of religious faith at school. This include the Jewish Kippa, the Islamic Hidjab, large Christian crosses... but allow for more discret symbols of faith (fatima's hand, crosses worn under clothes...).

We came to this point of view since we found we didnt want to have an impossible bargain on what is a founding element of our society: Laicity, and the separation of religion from public life.

So far this have had a positive influence since the controversy has disapeared, and girls now come to school bare-faced.

Maybe it is time for Britain to assert its core values to those that decided to come there for a better life. I have not noticed such a controversy in countries were the exigence for assimilation is stronger (namely France and the US).

So as a french living in UK, i'll be more than happy to respect other drivers (...), queue when i have to, say sorry a bazillion times a day, and enjoy a beer down at the pub.

As a foreigner that lived in Taiwan, i was happy to be quiet and respectful, to respect the elders and be smileful, not to assert my point of view too strongly, and to remember that my person was coming after the group (but boy that was hard!).

As a foreigner in India, I was happy to carefully respect anybody's religious practice, to give to the poor around me (something that families do on weekends), to always reply to a smile...

That's part of the deal you make when you immigrate, they welcome you, but you adapt.