Of veils, multi-culturalism, and politics
The past few weeks has seen a lot of political activity with regard to Muslim women in a western society, who obey their religious dress code by wearing the ‘full veil’. Jack Straw sparked it off by commenting that he asked such women, when meeting in private, to remove the veil so he could better communicate with them. From such an innocuous comment has a two week furore arisen. Why?
The simple point that was being made had nothing to do with religion. It was about communicating effectively with another person, in a private environment. Eye’s and a voice alone are not as effective tools for communication as voice and un-hidden face - it’s simple truth. Jack Straw was doing nothing more than trying to enable himself to better understand the person with whom he was talking. That is something admirable. So why has it turned into a huge debate?
I would like to believe that the majority of people are sensible, and the majority of people in that situation with Mr Straw would be unlikely to become offended. And that is the key - ‘become offended’. What slight had Mr Straw made? Some Muslim people, and busy-body-types, claim that Mr Straw showed a ‘disrespect for another way of life’. Only, it’s not disrespect at all. He asked a question, and expressed a perfectly valid opinion. He did not demand the veil be removed. He did not rip it from her face. He did not burn the veil in front of her. He did not condemn the woman nor the culture, nor the religion. He did not discontinue talking to her. Didn’t spit in her face, insult, or demean her.
He simply asked someone to remove some cloth from their face, despite what that cloth might mean to whoever hides behind it. This is not disrespectful. ‘Respect’ does not mean tip-toeing around issues. It means understanding the issue, or more accurately how the issue effects both yourself and other involved parties, whilst not undermining the choices or beliefs of the person you are ‘respecting’. It doesn’t mean you will automatically agree, or that you will defer to the other person. Or that you will refrain from asking a question in the hope the other person will ‘be ok with the question’. Anyone not ok with being asked a question, of any type, is in a weird mental position.
Later on, Tony Blair said ‘the veil is a mark of separation’. He’s right, and he’s wrong. It is a mark of a persons religion, definitely. An indication of a persons beliefs and how strongly they hold them (who but someone strong in conviction would wear something that they know the rest of society are uncomfortable about?) The veil, unfortunately, has a negative effect in terms of trying to understand the person behind the veil - which is why a large percentage of the population find it uncomfortable (which is not to say they disrespect it). The veil is not a mark of separation in itself, however it is widely perceived as one.
If I respect a Muslim’s choice (or, in fact, anyone else’s) to wear whatever they want, why then am I in support of Jack Straw and in condemnation of the religious uproar that resulted?
Because I see no need for that reaction. I perceive no insult and am of the opinion that anyone who does is simply looking for an argument. The veil, in this case, is in the same category and for the same reasons, as why people don’t wear motorbike helmets when conversing with other people. Hiding the face when in public is uncomfortable and un-natural to our western society. It’s not Muslims alone who hit the butt end of that simple fact either - you only need look at the general distrust ‘those damn kids in hoodies’ receive to know that hiding your face in public is the problem, and not the religion of the person doing the hiding.
‘Integration into society’ and ‘multi-culturalism’ is a two way street. Respect must be mutual, or else it is (or quickly becomes) a lie, and a divisive festering lie at that. This doesn’t mean I think Muslim women shouldn’t wear the veil in public, or that kids should be banned from wearing hoodies - but it does mean that I expect Muslims (and one would hope ‘those damn kids’) to understand that western society in general finds face-hiding uncomfortable, and respect that. Maybe then there would be a nice middle ground to exploit. As opposed to seeing non-existent insults, borne either from ignorance or malicious intent.