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Friday, October 06, 2006 

Take the veil.

Jack Straw's comments about Muslim women and headscarves have inevitably opened up a huge can of worms - there have been 5 posts alone on the matter over on Comment is Free - and it looks as if the debate could go on for weeks.

It's worth examining what Straw actually said in the first place. In an article for the Lancashire Telegraph, he wrote mainly from the perspective of a constituency MP with a large Muslim population, in that he found it much easier to talk to Muslim women wearing the full niqab veil if they removed it. It's only at the finish that he voices his fears that the full veil, covering all of the face except for the eyes, can make relations between two communities more difficult, and can be seen as a visible statement of separation and of difference.

Firstly, there shouldn't be any problem with Straw requesting full veiled women to remove when they go to his constituency surgery, as it is entirely of their own volition whether they do so or not. That is uncontroversial. What's been at the heart of much of the discussion though has been the headscarf itself.

Much of this stems directly from the ignorance of the main population of the varying types of Muslim dress. It's only in recent years that we've grown more accustomed to talk of shalwar kameez, burqas, hijab, jilbab and niqabs. It's doubtful that many know the difference between them or why they are worn in the first place, and various Muslim scholars disagree on which headscarf is appropriate, some even believing that wearing one is unnecessary.

Straw's main ire was directed against niqabs, but he has since stated that he would rather that veils were not worn at all. Again, nothing particularly controversial. He is entirely entitled to his opinion, and it's one that I share, but with caveats that Straw doesn't seem to have. The main reason for the wearing of the headscarf is modesty, which in our modern day society seems an almost regressive, repressive, choice of dressing. I'm reminded of a Private Eye cartoon in which a man dressed in a suit is looking at two women dressed up in attire that would make Jodie Marsh blush, covered in tattoos, bellowing at him "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE LOOKING AT?" Our culture has become so desensitised both to men and women being dressed either scantily or outlandishly that to see Muslim women wearing the niqab has become shocking; it jolts our thinking, and makes us wonder what possible reason a woman living in Britain in the 21st century has for being so, well, insulated and protected against the outside world.

This is mainly down to the wrongly held belief, which has been increased by the reporting of honour killings and the contempt with which some writers feel men from the Middle East treat their wives and daughters, that the wearing of the veil is down to it being demanded by men. As Straw writes in his article, that is almost always wrong. Almost all Muslim women make the decision about what veil they wear, if any, completely independently. Indeed, some Muslim teenage women, rather than abandoning the veil, have taken to it almost as part of a counter-cultural reaction. Whether this is down to what they see as persecution against Muslims, a statement of difference or simply individual fashion concerns or not, we should respect their decision. This doesn't mean not questioning it, or wanting to understand the reasons behind it, as Straw himself explains. What we should not be doing is demanding that women disrobe.

This is where Straw's arguments come into slight difficulty. As mentioned above, some communities will undoubtedly feel threatened, or concerned about women walking around covered from head to toe, just as a large majority of people feel anxious about groups of teenagers wearing hooded tops. Where I take issue with Straw is that the veil is a visible statement of separation and difference - that may be so, but why should that be a problem? The problem many seem to have with multiculturalism is just that, that these communities are different to "ours". What makes it difficult for me to understand such arguments is the simple fact that difference is what makes us what we are; life would be deeply boring if we were all one homogeneous lump, having few differing opinions. The crushing of "difference" and individuality is associated, rightly, with totalitarian regimes. Any dissent is viewed as a threat to everyone, rather than just as a matter of personal choice.

Rather than wondering whether the veil is a barrier to good community relations, Straw should be reassuring people that the fear or disgust shown towards veil wearers is irrational. What he is right on though is that veil wearers can bring trouble on themselves. Last year on Newsnight, one of the reporters was talking to a jilbab wearing Muslim woman in Luton in the aftermath of 7/7 when a young white youth approached them, and apparently unaware of the camera, proceeded to rant angrily about "bombers", making various racist remarks for good measure. While such experiences should by no means encourage women to abandon their veils out of fear, they should perhaps revisit their own philosophy on why exactly it is they wear one. The matter though should be on the choice of the woman, and the woman alone. The very last thing we should import is the strict French ban on religious symbols in state buildings, which was an attack on personal freedom.

More troubling is the way in which all these issues and debates about Muslims seem to have suddenly piled up on one another. Last night BBC News led with Straw's comments, then the police officer excused guarding the Israeli embassy, while later in the programme there was a report from Frank Gardner on extremists recruiting on university campuses, as well as a short story on the incidents which have been occuring in Windsor involving a Muslim-owned dairy. The editor should have perhaps seen that so many items were complete overkill, and the fear, rightly or wrongly, is that the public is getting the completely wrong view that Muslims appear to be demanding to have different standards applied to them, or that extremists are far more prevalent in their communities than they actually are. This is playing completely into the hands of the extremists on both sides. These debates are both necessary and welcome, but they cannot be conducted when there is a constant climate of hysteria.

An example of the current double standards seems to be the complete silence in the national press and media on a raid on Colne, Burnley in which two men, one an ex-BNP member who stood for election for the local Pendle council in May, have been arrested and charged with possessing what is being described as a "record haul" of chemical components. One of the men is reported as having a rocket launcher. You can only imagine how high up on the news this would have been had the men been Muslims rather than white northerners.

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