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October 21, 2006



Why should men tell women what to wear? And that goes not just for Jack Straw but for Muslim men. I've heard many Muslim women defend their choice as an expression of religious choice. Really? To wrap one's entire body and face in black cloth that constrains movement, vision and breathing is a free choice? And what happens if they stop wearing it in the presence of their menfolk?

I'm all for cultural diversity but you can't convince me that it's necessary to encase oneself in black cloth to assert one's cultural identity. The niqab and the hijab actually mask one's personal identity. They're meant to reduce women to anonymous entities who can barely move, dance in public or go swimming. And I'm not saying it's unique to Muslims, either. Look at Catholic nuns' habits (improved since Vatican II, I admit). In principle, though, it's the same: veils, corsets, foot-binding. It's men trying to control women's mobility and freedom.

The "veil" worn by Muslim women in Southeast Asia is different. In Mindanao, they're mostly colorful, sheer cloth they wear almost as a fashion accessory and as a symbol of their Muslim-ness. It's the same for most of Indonesia, although I've observed a creeping adoption of Arab veil styles in Malaysia over the last decade.

Over time, I hope, Muslim women will reject the niqab and cast if off. I hope they find public support when they do.

As for Blair, I suggest that he go to Iraq wearing a niqab and see that it has become the norm under the occupation. The ascendancy of extremists who want to keep women separate and vulnerable is a direct outcome of his intervention in Iraq. He doesn't want the veil in Britain but he doesn't care about the situation of Iraqi women. Hypocrite.


Carla -- Thanks for that good comment. I think all of your points are valid, especially relating veil wearing to the nun's habit, foot binding, etc. I wouldn't disagree with any of what you say, but the rights and wrongs of the veil weren't really my point. What is your opinion on the extent to which a government should prescribe the way citizens dress?


My pov on this matter depends on whether the situation is "public" or "private", meaning is the location or setting determined by tax payers money or contributions from a membership/association. If the British constitution allows for freedom of expression, individual rights (tempered against the safety of the general public), then it is difficult for the government to impose restrictions on a veil/shroud/dress in a public setting without coming up against a whole list of things that can't be worn (including jewelry, national costume, tattoos). The governments can't make such a determination without being branded racist or anti-Muslim, and in this never ending Christian vs Islam tug of war, the veil is just another gauntlet thrown down between the two. I'd prefer it if the governments would just state their stance against Islam rather than pussyfooting around it. And this is not just the UK or France (re: wearing of the veil/headdress), or the US, but even the Philippines, and Thailand and China. All this diplomatic rhetoric to confuse the real issue!!!


torn, I know your point wasn't about the rights and wrongs of the veil, I just thought that no one brings that up. The issue is always analyzed from the perspective of state vs freedom of dress/creed, when it is much more complex. It's not the same as dressing up as a punk. To stretch the analogy: Muslim men can dress up as punks, Muslim women can't (without incurring the ire of Muslim men). With that you can immediately see that this is not simply an issue of people wearing what they would like to wear.

So what's my view on government policy re citizens' manner of dress? I agree with you about schools and public institutions: no niqabs there. I agree with Jack Straw purely from a practical viewpoint: I'd like to see someone's eyes (at least) when communicating, esp. in a professional setting. I feel equally frustrated talking to someone wearing shades. It would also be better not to have something obstructing the speaker's mouth: what if a student/other employees had a hearing disability and had to lip-read, for example?

Other headress, I'm not sure. What about Sikhs and their turbans? What about crucifixes? What harm does it do to wear those symbols? Or conversely, what good does it do to ban them, like in France? I admire the spirit in which French public schools are forcibly made secular, but does it work or does it foster more resentment from minorities? I mean, banning facial hair? Come on!

The difficulty with debating and legislating on veils, I think, is this: it's chauvinism that compels women to wear it, but it's also chauvinism that pushes white middle-class men like Blair to pronounce judgments on it. Not much room for maneuvering there. I'm disappointed that no women British politicians have taken this up as a feminist issue! Not that men can't comment, but the debate would be a lot more credible and productive if women led it. But no, it's Blair and those old farts in Muslim councils who want to decide this matter. Typical.


Mila — no disagreement with any of that.

Carla — I agree that the veil is a feminist issue, and, although I didn’t like Hirsi Ali’s book, I did think that the parts on the veil were very good.

I also agree that the overall context of religious dress is more complex than a fashion statement. It is for that very reason that I think it has to be broken down into manageable parts, otherwise the debate just becomes magulo with all of us arguing from different positions. It is just not possible to decide on anything if the topic is “the veil” because it is such an emotionally charged symbol, especially, and understandably, for women.

On the narrow point that I was making, as you point out, once you start banning one form of religious (or secular) identification, you are going to have difficulty justifying why you are not extending the prohibition to other forms of identification After all, there have been Sikh terrorists too. So from a purely practical point of view (quite apart from the perspective of civil liberties) it just ridiculous for the government to have a position on what people wear. In that, limited, sense there is no difference between a religious article of clothing and a safety pin through your nose.

Of course, if it can be demonstrated that women are being coerced to wear clothing they don’t want to wear (or to marry men they don’t want to marry, etc) that is a completely different matter. I am sure that is the case with some women who wear the veil in the UK and it is the unenviable job of the social services and criminal justice system to identify those cases of duress and to take action if necessary.

If only because I hate him so much, I can’t let you get away with defending the Home Secretary. I used to have a seminar with a woman who wore the veil and while it was disconcerting to begin with, we all got used to it. Straw’s “practical” reasons are just a mask for his own insecurity and prejudice.

As for French schools, I also admire the stance of the French government. Schools surely *must* be secular in multi-faceted countries like the UK and France. If you accept that proposition (perhaps you don’t) then regulations have to be drafted. Like all regulations there are bound to be examples (like facial hair) that are just a little to one side of the line and therefore seem absurd. Nevertheless, I think these are lines worth drawing.


Thanks for the tag. Although my rant is nowhere near as insighful or articulate. I do agree about freedom means freedom, and yes, just becuase others are not so tolerant does not mean we should follow suit! I only get worried that free liberties might lead to anarchy. My point was that the veil makes the majority of westerners feel uncomfortable, and should therefore be allowed to feel this way at least. This is not to say that they should therefore enforce unveiling, but Muslims must understand that the UK is not a Muslim country, despite its religious tolerance.

Perhaps my main angst was that the female body, and the covering of it, has always been, and still is a feminist issue, regardless of religious justification. It's the Eva (Eve) vs Ave issue.

Oh, and to end, I do think this debate has been consumed into a bigger one, that is Islam. People just need to remember to remain rational at all times whatever the discord!


Okay, so Jack Straw is probably not the best person to get all huffy about the veil. :-) I only agree about the practical issues he points out, regardless of the prejudice behind them. There really *are* issues about effective communication when certain parts of the face are obscured. So no, I don't agree that it's the same as a safety pin through the nose, or turbans, or body piercing (safety pins would be totally uncool these days, torn). I think it is possible to draw the line at the niqab and the burqa, partly for practical reasons and partly as affirmative action towards women who are "coerced" into wearing it.

Now "coercion" is tricky. It doesn't necessarily mean that fathers/husbands are holding a gun to women's heads--matters for the police to investigate, yes. The constant admonition to cover up one's body because it leads men to sin; ridicule and contempt when one refuses to conform: there IS systematic coercion and that is the main reason why women wear the veil.

I think the benefit of regulating against the niqab and the burqa in schools at least, is that it will give women the legal excuse not to wear them.

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