Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Veiled Threat

I’m sad today. Why? Because being a woman suddenly seems trivial in a way it hasn’t been since about 1966. I’ve joked about our nation’s obsession with ‘the veil’ for a week. I’ve had a go at Jack ‘Straw Man’ Straw for saying that Muslim women should remove their veils when they come to see him. I pilloried him for missing the point. I lampooned him because he really thought the correct action was to make a unilateral and personal entreaty to individual women because he was suddenly inconvenienced by a practice that has been part of our multicultural landscape for decades. He may have opened the can of worms at the wrong end but it now has to be dealt with.

In this country we value the right to free expression above all other rights, as long as it does not come into conflict with laws that are there to protect individuals and society as a whole. Of course it pains me to see women concealing themselves in the street. Other women died so that they could have the right to walk the streets looking as they please without fear of being stoned to death. We do have laws about public lewdness which protect us from the offence of people disrobing in front of us. I have been to the Middle East. I know that men leer at woman there but in this country it just doesn’t happen like that. It seems pointless to me to protect against it, like chastising someone who has no intention of insulting you.

But dictating to Muslim women that they shouldn’t be concealing themselves in Britain is going to be about as successful as me haranguing my 1950s mother in the 70s about being enslaved by her new Westinghouse fridge freezer and Elizabeth Arden lipstick. That was my perception. Hers was very different and it was informed by her experience. There is no doubt that my mother allows herself to enjoy greater freedom of expression today and not because she was an active participant in feminism, because she was a flexible recipient. There was a time when she wouldn’t answer the phone without her makeup on. Now she wears shorts to the shops.

Tony Blair held a press conference today and ‘the veil’ question was right up there in significance with Iraq and the NHS. Seriously, what five per cent of Muslim women choose to wear in public is currently perceived to be the greatest barrier to racial harmony. He called for ‘honest debate’ (again!). Ok. When? Where? With whom? If the Government is serious about unpacking the conflict between private religious observance and the practice of equalities in public life, it might try talking to the men who are enforcing this display of modesty rather than picking on the women who have to comply with it.

It’s easy to hide behind the excuse that choosing to wear full body concealment is, in itself, an expression of personal freedom. Does anyone really believe that a woman wearing the niqab can be guaranteed to give her unguarded personal views to the media about why she is doing so? I would no more presume to judge that a woman wearing a niqab is not exercising free choice than I would to assume that a woman who stays with a violent partner is not exercising free choice.

The fact remains that some women are beaten and sometimes killed by male family members for not complying with strict cultural traditions in the Muslim community. This must be considered a deterrent to acting independently. That means, in this country, they have fewer equal rights than the rest of us and that entitles them to the protection of the law. Of course I understand that some young women take the veil as a rebellion against a liberal upbringing or as an emblem of political activism. It is complex but surely not unfathomable.

I agree that there are some fundamental issues to be sorted out about where the lines are to be drawn legally and personally before everyone is going to be happy but there have been two employment-related cases involving women and dress dominating the news in the last week. The suspension of British Airways employee Nadia Eweida for wearing a visible cross the size of a five pence piece is ludicrous and indefensible and should never have happened. A discreet item of jewellery whether a religious symbol or not is unlikely to offend anyone or be a threat to health and safety or the delivery of an efficient service.

The other case in point, that of Dewsbury teaching assistant Ashab Azmi who was suspended for wearing a niqab in the classroom because a male teacher was present, is serious. The fight against the forced stereotyping of images of both men and women in education took a generation to win. Children are impressionable and should not, in a secular environment like school, be subject to a message that women should conceal themselves to protect their modesty or indeed that a higher degree of modesty is expected of them. Equally, male teachers should not be subject to the insinuation that they are predatory in any and all situations. With the nation’s paedophilia monitor already on permanent high alert, the last thing the education system needs is to provide another disincentive for men to enter teaching.

There are a lot of other things I don’t like about this. Ashab Azmi looks suspiciously like a pawn to me. The head teacher says she wasn’t wearing a niqab when interviewed for the job. Azmi says no one talked to her about whether or not it would be appropriate – she was just suspended. Really, I’m not surprised it hadn’t come up in conversation. I don’t suppose a head teacher of any secular school would expect to be confronted with a veiled teaching assistant. It’s more likely they’d have to rule on facial piercings. The big difference in the two cases is the question of whose interests are ultimately most important and best served. In the case of Eweida, her wearing of a small crucifix would be neither here nor there to anyone but herself. In a school, the children’s interests override every individual consideration.

No one can free someone else from oppression. What we can do is provide a safe environment for any woman who wants to challenge it. We provide shelter and support for women victims of domestic violence. We need to be there if a woman needs help in reconciling her own desire for freedom of expression with family or community expectations. The Government should provide this support under its equalities commitment. The Government should not be allowing its senior MPs to make haphazard, decontextualised, personal pronouncements about what would make them as individuals feel more comfortable and putting pressure on women to influence a situation over which they have little or no control. Now will someone please pin the ‘bigger picture’ up on the wall and we can start having our ‘honest debate’. Thank you.

My apologies to regular readers who were expecting my usual buffoonery. Please accept this as a small compensation. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Thanks to my uncle Wayne Crawford of the Hobart Mercury for the link.

Cartoon from

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