Last week, Tony Blair condemned the veil as “a mark of separation”. This, it appears, requires no further explanation: to desire distance from the rest of society is wrong. He was supported by Azadeh Moave, who is trying to carve out a career as an inside commentator on Islam, in an article for Time (“Why Tony Blair is right about the veil”):
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?
I don’t buy this “mark of separation” theory. In my early 20s I was on the fringes of the original punk movement. I was really just a student rather than a hard-core punk, but I had quite a few punk friends and like them I would dress up when we went to see bands. The whole point of punk regalia—as of the uniform of any youth movement—was to assert a space between the wearer and mainstream society, and I used to cherish the disapproving looks I received. Outside of society? Hell yeah! In fact punks, hippies, and other counter-culture figures assert their rejection of society much more aggressively than wearers of the veil.
Freedom of expression must include the choice to be different or “separate”, whether you are an indigenous punk or an immigrant from a minority ethnic and religious group. If we don’t have the freedom to look “creepy” (in the words of Azadeh Moave) we are not free at all.
Blair thinks he can get away with his specious arguments because he knows that people in Britain don’t like the veil. Liberals believe it represents female subjugation, conservatives are unhappy with an immigrant group asserting its identity so forcefully. The veil has few supporters, apart from Muslims themselves, and probably a minority of them. I’m not crazy about it, but to disallow the veil because it is “a mark of separation” is illogical. What next? No saris for Indians? Straight hair for West Indians?
In the end if Blair and Co think their arguments against the veil are better than those of its proponents they need to argue the case. If the veil is such a lousy idea, it will fall.
Blair’s comments were prompted by two recent “veil events” in the UK : (i) the comment by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, that he does not want women to wear the veil when they visit his constituency office, and (ii) the sacking of a teaching assistant for wearing the veil in school.
As for the first of these, I really don't know where Straw gets the idea he can tell people what to wear to his office. He seems to forget he is THEIR servant, not the other way around—it is not for him to dictate what his constituents wear.
On the other hand, I agree with not allowing veils in school, because I think it must inevitably lead to making schools completely secular. That would be great: no veil, no cross, no boring prayers. I have no problem with parents who want to give their kids religious instruction, but there is plenty of time after school for that. In a diverse and broadly secular country like Britain, religion in the classroom is an inappropriate hangover from earlier days when Christianity was an essential part of national identity. It obviously isn’t now.