Sunday, October 08, 2006

Straw Man Seeks Brain

When I stay with my mother she never fails to come and ask me ‘does this look alright?’ before she leaves the house. She might as well ask me ‘will there be weather today?’ As a question it is irrelevant. She is not colour-blind, has a good figure and a gift for accessorising. She always looks alright. That she relentlessly persists with this question despite my obvious disengagement from the concept has always been a source of great mystery to me.

I don’t care what other people are wearing, as long as they are wearing something – please note fat-bellied palefaces, a sunny day in central London is not a signal to remove your shirt and plonk yourself in front of my house with The Sun newspaper. I don’t much care what I wear either – it’s a time of life thing. I’m always a bit shocked if someone looks at me like I shouldn’t be wearing that. Why waste time thinking about how a stranger is attired, or your next of kin for that matter?

All the more interesting then, that Jack ‘Straw Man’ Straw, senior politician, seems to have spent an entire year thinking of virtually nothing else. It all began while he was conducting a constituency surgery with a Muslim couple. The woman was wearing the niqab, a veil that covered her face except for her eyes. Straw Man had a light bulb moment, culminating in his sharing what should surely have remained private thoughts with the entire world via a regular column in the Lancashire Telegraph this week,

‘All this was about a year ago. It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking.’, pondered the Straw Man.

'In part, this was because of the apparent incongruity between the signals which indicate common bonds – the entirely English accent, the couples’ education (wholly in the UK) – and the fact of the veil.

Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone “face-to-face” who I could not see.’

Straw Man, whose Blackburn constituency has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in Europe described how he has taken to asking veiled women to remove their naqib, after carefully explaining to them that they live in a free country. In a classic ‘Straw Man’ argument, he then continues,

‘I go on to say that I think, however, that the conversation would be of greater value if the lady took the covering from her face.

Indeed, the value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or ‘phone call, is so that you can – almost literally – see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say.’

If Straw Man can actually work out what another person means by looking at their face, then he can give me lessons because I’ve never been able to do that. No wonder poor old David Blunkett has been so down lately. He can’t ever have had a ‘valuable’ meeting in his life, poor love.

Don’t get me wrong. Few sights depress me more than the rising number of women you see shuffling about in mobile prisons. It’s not a downer because it’s ‘such a visible statement of separation and of difference’, people can chalk as much as they like as long as they leave me some cheese. It’s a downer because it’s a daily reminder of how overt a part religion is playing in all our lives. It’s a downer because ‘what women are wearing’, never, ever goes away as an issue. But mostly it’s a downer because politicians always have to pick on the people with the least power and influence. Straw Man should spend some of this thinking time reflecting on the song sung by his Straw Man predecessor in The Wizard of Oz.

I could while away the hours
Conferrin' with the flowers
Consultin' with the rain
And my head, I'd be scratchin'
While my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.

And now, thanks to Straw Man, we have to have the same pointless conversation over and over again where women are ‘discussed’ as sexual rather than intellectual beings, as either chaste and modest or lewd and trashy. Debate doesn’t get more debased than this. I’m going to take a little nap now. Someone please wake me when it’s time for some good old-fashioned consciousness-raising. My candle-wax stained purple velvet hat is ready to party.

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