Sunday, October 22, 2006

I tried and tried to know a veil

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.

Another piece of cloth once subject to a banAbout 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.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad it's being debated. It's a very complex issue and is not as simple as some seem to want to make out. For instance, many shops won't serve someone in a full face motorbike helmet, if it were a teacher being told they could not teach in a balaclava, then there would be a pretty much unanimous agreement. Surely the thing about freedom is that it applies, or should apply, across the board, if you can do anything and everything in a veil, then you can do anything and everything in a balaclava. Why should they be disadvantaged for feeling they needed the warmth of a balaclava? See, if I was a motorcyclist, I'd now be saying, "No, I'm not removing my helmet, if they don't remove their veil" because to me that is equality, yet no one minds that bikers are asked to remove their helmets, we're used to the fact and they just do it, so if for instance the logic behind that is that it's not fair to have the face covered in a bank/store for security, then it would be fair enough in my view to stretch that to veils too. We can't have one rule for one and another for others. I don't know if I'm demonstrating my point very well. Like in a school, if a child had a scarf on and it was not uniform, so they were asked to remove it, would that be fair if another child had a hajib on and were not? Surely the issue is not religious freedom, but social freedom.

What galls me is that some people say it should not be debated. The nature of this country is that things are open to debate, and I think thats fair enough. If things were not open to debate, this country would be a very different place, and we'd all have just emerged from our Roman Catholic mass, read in Latin and be about to return to our Feudal homes. This is how our society works, We have a history of debating things including religion, Muslims have to accept that and if they can't, they should not try to live in a country where that happens. For better or for worse, this country has always done that, else the KJV, Darwin, and numerous other books would never have been published. We do this, if they can't accept it they should leave, go to a country where they can practice Sharia law and be happy. That's not about freedom, thats about common sense.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, I'm not suggesting that there are not a huge number of muslims who are quite happy living in this society, most all of the ones I know are perfectly fine with that. But for those who aren't, then perhaps it was a bad choice of society to live in.

Katie said...

There was an excellent article by Peter White in the Guardian on Friday, pointing out that if Jack Straw feels seeing someone's face / eye contact is so crucial in constituency surgeries, one wonders:

a) how David Blunkett has managed to hold surgeries all these years, and;

b) how Jack Straw has managed to communicate effectively with David Blunkett at all...

Anonymous said...

There is an excellent article on the "When in Rome" here
In summary, the fuller quote is "...I do as the Romans do", which has quite a different emphasis.

As a daughter of two teachers, I think I can say it is really very difficult to teach with anything obscuring your face. Likewise, as happened to a friend, I think it isn't appopriate for a plumber to turn up to work in your house wearing a T-Shirt saying "Fancy it?"

Really, the media need to stop conflating several stories making it seem like there's a vendetta against any particular group. I just hope Muslims (and any other group that the media gets a bee in it's bonnet about that) can hold on the fact that it is largely just that.

The Goldfish said...

We can't have one rule for one and another for others.

That is true. And I haven't heard anything about people wearing the veil and refusing to remove it in circumstances where security demands their face should be shown, but if they did, then that would be a problem.

As for uniforms, I think that has to be considered on a case by case basis. For example, I know some disabled women who, for example, can't reach down to put on tights or shave their legs, so wearing a knee-length skirt is not impossible, but not at all comfortable. Where a knee-length skirt is uniform, this is rarely a difficulty because a knee-length skirt isn't usually worn for any practical reason and having one female member of staff with trousers (so long as they matched and so on) is not a big deal at all. Similarly, I think with the hijab or turban, if the cloth is a suitable subtle colour, that person is unlikely to stand out at all.

However, where a religious costume means forgoing the uniform altogether or else doing something that means a job can't be done or safety measures can't be observed, than that is a problem.

But when the issue is looked at case-by-case, people can use their own discretion, they can have a conversation about it and work out the best way to proceed.

When someone says, "This is bad for community relations" then all the people who wear niqab (still a very small minority of Muslims) are inclined to feel picked on. And I imagine, are inclined to dig their heals in.

Mary said...

Katie, that is just facetious. David Blunkett has been blind for some considerable time. He no longer relies on facial cues because they are never available to him. Mr Straw on the other hand is used to facial cues and lip-reading clues, hence he feels uncomfortable talking to a pair of eyes and nothing else.

Also, I doubt David Blunkett made a conscious and adult decision to be blind. These women make a conscious and adult decision to wear the veil.

I think there is a difference between normal women, includind Muslims who wear the veil, and this teaching assistant.

Normal women don't "forget" their veil on the day of an interview. How did she get to/from the interview with no veil on? Would she have got the job if she had been veiled and muffled?

Normal women, upon finding out that something they choose to wear (veil, dangly earrings, micro-mini-skirt and fishnet boob tube) is not compatible to their job, either find a job they are more suited to or change what they wear, rather than soaking up thousands of pounds in suspension pay and legal aid.

I also don't feel totally comfortable with completely unrecognisable people wandering around a primary school. I wouldn't do it in my bike gear...

Mary said...

Goldfish, you say: I haven't heard anything about people wearing the veil and refusing to remove it in circumstances where security demands their face should be shown, but if they did, then that would be a problem.

So meeting with a high-level cabinet minister isn't a situation that requires some security?

These veiled women are generally **not asked** to remove their veils because staff in airports and banks and so on don't want the Muslim Council of Britain on their backs next for "religious discrimination". In fact a couple of days after the Jack Straw thing, a male tabloid reporter dressed up in a niqab and wandered through an airport completely unchallenged.

Katie said...

Yeah, Mary. See what you're saying and don't necessarily disagree. My remark was filtered from Peter White's article, which was meant to be tongue in cheek. It's not the content of the debate, but its tone which worries me.

I do think it is dangerous for people to go round saying things like, "Well, you can't teach if you can't make eye contact with the students..." (Which I have heard said on some TV and radio programmes.) Such blanket statements worry me.

I'd be mortified if someone tried saying, "You can't teach unless you can stand in front of a class for the whole lesson to demonstrate your authority..."

It's true that most teachers and teaching assistants might work in that way, it doesn't mean all of them have to. This woman is presumably as used to wearing her nijab as Blunkett is to being blind, and presumably works in a way to accommodate that.

The fact that she doesn't do her job in the same way as the majority doesn't mean she doesn't do it well.

I am very sensitive to this because there are certain aspects of my job that I do in a completely different way from my colleagues, but with the same result in the end. I have been discriminated against because I don't do it in the traditional way. If I *couldn't* do my job, or didn't acheive the same standard or result as my contemporaries, that would be very different.

So there might be a question about the standards this woman is acheiving in her employment, but I really dislke it being boiled down to "You can't be a teaching assistant if you can't X".

This is an individual case between one woman and her employer about which none of us know the detail, and it's the blanket statements I am objecting to, nothing else.

On the Jack Straw, he is entitled to ask a woman to uncover her face, and the woman is entitled to refuse. I don't actually see the problem - it's not like he's refusing to talk to constituents in nijabs, and it's not like he's tearing them off them. But if he finds it difficult to talk to women wearing them, then that's his problem, not theirs, I think.

Katie said...

Sorry, I of course meant niqab. Slip of the brain...

The Goldfish said...

Mary - I agree that if it's true that Ms Azmi did not wear her veil to the interview, then that does stink rather.

But to be honest, I felt that case was largely between her employers and herself. It was more the explicit suggestion that women who wear the niqab are damaging community relations that bothered me.

I agree that in some respects there is a climate of over-sensitivity about Islam and its practices. And this is just as damaging, ultimately, as downright callousness; over-sensitivity fosters recentment and builds up the walls between us just as well. However, is there something inherently objectionable about the niqab? Or is there just a problem with some of the women who wear it - just as there is a problem with some of the women who wear fishnet boobtubes?

Anonymous said...

I think we have to stick with the "one rule for some and another for others" which is really what gets up people's noses, whenever and however it occurs.

(a) it's NO FAIR!! as we used to say in the playground; (b) it encourages others, probably not so harmless as clothes-wearing fanatics, to come out and demand special treatment for themselves.

You see it every day now. For a long time it's been open season on the Christian church, not just the god-botherers who ring your doorbell in the middle of Sunday lunch, but any Christian beliefs. Now the Christians are fighting back demanding "respect" and judging by some of the atrocities this sect has been responsible for since JC popped his clogs, we all need to worry.

Some of them are just as capable of imposing Armageddon on the rest of us in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the most fanatical jihad-proposer.

Mary said...

Goldfish - I agree that there is a problem when that card of it damaging social cohesion is brought in. I mean, okay, it can cause some issues, for instance if Fred the shopkeeper says "hello, how are you today?" to a bundle of cloth, then (1) he'll find it very hard to know for sure if it's his regular customer or a complete stranger, and (2) he doesn't know if he's breaking a rule by speaking to this woman who has put up a barrier between herself and all men who are not her husband. So Fred may very well treat women in veils differently to all his other customers. However, this is not a nascent religious war. They wear a veil to keep themselves separate and cover themselves up from the eyes of others. It seems to me that this is a clear statement that they want to be treated differently.

You say "is there something inherently objectionable about the niqab? Or is there just a problem with some of the women who wear it - just as there is a problem with some of the women who wear fishnet boobtubes?"

The difference about the niquab is that it is a mask. Our society does not react well to people in masks. Hoodies off in shopping centre, motorbike helmets off whenever you enter a building or stand at a petrol pump. Watch footage of a demonstration, the scary one is the person wearing a bandanna over most of his face. Historically, highwaymen and executioners are what comes to mind when you think of masks. Clowns scare a lot of people, primarily because of the makeup - which obscures their real facial expression. As a society we do not like masks. Option 1, we learn to deal with it, Option 2, we demand masks are removed.

As for the fishnet boob tubes... if someone wants to wander about like that on their own time, fine. If someone turned up to work (and not in a strip club) wearing it, it would be inappropriate. Same goes for your Goths in leather collars. In their own time, fine, but I don't know many employers who would put up with it in the workplace.

Katie - you're confusing imposed disability with choice. I take it you cannot, actually cannot, stand at the front of a class. You *have* to sit. You may have a higher chair or other aids and techniques to help, but you have to sit. These women *choose* to wear the veil. They keep saying "I'm not forced, I choose to wear it of my own free will." In which case, they choose everything that goes with it too.

Katie said...

Hi Mary -

Looks like we're never going to agree. :-)

On the choice front, if I choose to wear a short skirt, I may get cat-called, and I know that when I make the choice, but it doesn't mean the insults are acceptable.

I think it should be possible to respect individual differences (chosen and unchosen) as long as it doesn't interfere with the rights of others.

Children have a right to be educated. If a teaching assistant can do that job and fulfill that role while wearing a niqab, she should be able to. If she can't, she shouldn't. In this case, the teaching assistant and the school disagreed, she was suspended, the Tribunal upheld the school's decision to suspend her, so in this individual case it was decided - by a neutral body - that she couldn't. And I'm not arguing with any of that.

I'm just upset that people are making blanket statements about what is and isn't possible while wearing a veil and about self-imposed segregation from mainstream society. (Not you, but various opinions across the media recently.) Working with children in your local school is an example of getting involved with the community. It's the opposite of separatist. Going to see your MP to discuss a local issue is a prime example of participating in the democratic process and the local community... The women in the news recently are not - as some have suggested - cutting themselves off from the rest of the world.

Possibly we shouldn't clog up Goldfish's blog with an ongoing disagreement of this nature, and should respect each other's differences of opinion on the matter.

All the best,