Bunnyman mused about the insensitivity of Jack Straw's remarks shortly after this began, Blue at The Gimp Parade has written two excellent posts, focussing on the way in which discussions around disability has been referred to throughout this debate and James Medhurst has written some of his thoughts about liberty and its parameters. I didn't intend to write anything, but this is going on and on and I had to get this out of my system.
About three weeks ago, a debate opened in the UK about a piece of cloth. This is the niqab, a veil which is worn by a minority of British Muslim women such their bodies are completely covered save their eyes and hands. The debate opened when MP Jack Straw said that he felt that women who wore this item made community relations more difficult. The debate took a turn when teaching assistant Aishah Azmi was suspended from her job as it was felt that her veil was a hindrance to doing her job.
First off, costume and ornamentation relating to religion cannot have a sacred position under law. We have many religions, within which there are many divergent views and practices. We also have a great number of people who have strongly-held beliefs and positions of identity which are not part of an organised religion. It would be impossible to privilege one religious or cultural practice over another, unless we could perform some sort of sincerity test on individuals, or simply decide which religion is the one true religion and regard everyone else as a heathen.
Been there, done that, killed the first-born, bought the t-shirt. Some have argued that the UK is a Christian country and therefore Christianity should enjoy this privilege. However, which particular shade of Christianity? If Anglicanism, which particular shade of Anglicanism, especially as most of us do not attend Church?
Difference of strongly held opinion is an inevitable consequence of human beings living together and religious conflict has been responsible for all variety of civil unrest, war and genocide throughout history. This is not a fault with religion in general; religion, like music or sport, is something that crops up in all human societies and can embody some of man's very best qualities; creativity, ingenuity, rationality, co-operation and altruism. Or it can be quite the opposite. The real killer is the idea that consensus on the issues of life, death and the universe is either a desirable or viable objective.
There is no Final Solution, no point that we will get to after which we will all be in agreement. The aim therefore is not to agree on all points, but to agree on enough points that we can coexist.
For this reason, we have to allow people as much freedom to practice their religions as they can possibly be afforded. Religious diversity has long been a part of our culture* and religious intolerance is a direct threat to it. The only laws about costume are to do with safety and immodesty; you’re not allowed to walk down the road naked, much to the relief of your neighbours. All this ‘When in Rome…’ stuff is nonsense because there is simply no archetype of British costume.
This debate has whipped up some deeply patronising stereotypes about women who wear the veil being oppressed and forced to do so by the men in their lives. I won't suggest that coercion and community pressure never applies, but my own prejudices are similarly aroused when I see women waiting outside night-clubs in the dead of winter, wearing less cloth than I have in my scarf. It is difficult for me to imagine making that choice, but it is entirely wrong for me to assume that because it is not my choice, it is not theirs.
However, if we accept that it is a free choice taken by individuals, then we accept that it is a free choice. And as such, it is their choice to do otherwise in the handful of circumstances where they might be asked to do so.
What exactly those circumstances are is another debate entirely. The issue of teaching assistant Aishah Azmi should have been a very simple question of whether or not the lady could do the particular job she was employed to do. It seems surprising to me that so many people have such strong opinions about this specific matter when very few of us are educational experts or know the precise circumstances of the lady’s employment. However, see Blue's posts I linked to above for the more interesting aspects of that debate.
As for integration, so far the problems of integration between Muslims and non-Muslims have most dramatically manifested themselves in men rioting, other men preaching racial hatred, and yet more men blowing themselves up. And all this caused by what women wear? When I wore gold Doc Martin boots under my mother's wedding dress I was described as a fashion disaster, but I never realised so much was at stake...
What people wear is part of communication, but it is a really rather superficial part. It can be very important to the individual; it is very important that I choose my own clothes and I would hate to be dressed by anyone else. This is why individuals who wear the niqab feel so strongly about it. And yet it really ought not to have that much power over other people.
At Goth Weekend, you get some couples where one leads the other about town with a chain attached to a metal or leather collar. What does that communicate? The fact that these people are almost always white (ghostly white), both partners are outlandishly dressed, both partners are cheerful and chatty and one sees as many women leading as men means that nobody worries about it. That and the fact that there are far stranger sights to behold.
In another small rural town, people would find the Goths an intimidating crowd because of stuff like this, but the answer would not be to ask Goths to remove their make-up and wear pastel shades. The answer is for everyone to interact, to demonstrate to one another that there is nothing to be anxious about.
And that is what we all need to do.
Then, we need to work out what sort of problem we have in our society which results in so much fuss being made about a mere garment worn by a minority of women, within a religious minority, within a racial minority. What on Earth are we afraid of?
* That statement might need a lot of qualification. We have had some major disasters, but we have also averted many more, I'm sure of it.