My promises of television reviews was meant to include some comments on a TV discussion of The Great Veiling Issue that I saw on Question Time while I was away. However, given that this is an issue that seems to just run and run I think I want to do a little more than make comments in the context of one television debate.

For those of my readers who have been on another planet for the last couple of weeks* Jack Straw (Lord Privy Seal) made some remarks about Muslim women who veil. By this I mean, and he meant, wearing both a head covering and a face covering, so that only the eyes are visible. (Some women I have seen also wear dark glasses so that not even the eyes are visible.)

[*Well, I must have some readers somewhere in the universe, right?!]

Here is what Mr Straw said (copied in full from the East Lancashire blog of the Lancashire Gazette, which originally published the remarks, Mr Straw being an MP in that area):

I want to unveil my views on an important issue

Posted by Jack Straw on 7:00pm Thu 5 Oct 06

IT’S really nice to meet you face-to-face, Mr Straw,’ said this pleasant lady, in a broad Lancashire accent. She had come to my constituency advice bureau with a problem. I smiled back. ‘The chance would be a fine thing,’ I thought to myself but did not say out loud. The lady was wearing the full veil. Her eyes were uncovered but the rest of her face was in cloth.

Her husband, a professional man whom I vaguely knew, was with her. She did most of the talking. I got down the detail of the problem, told the lady and her husband that I thought I could sort it out, and we parted amicably.

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. 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.

So I decided that I wouldn’t just sit there the next time a lady turned up to see me in a full veil, and I haven’t.

Now, I always ensure that a female member of my staff is with me. I explain that this is a country built on freedoms. I defend absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf. As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws.

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.

I thought it may be hard going when I made my request for face-to-face interviews in these circumstances. However, I can’t recall a single occasion when a lady has refused to lift her veil; most seem relieved I have asked.

Last Friday was a case in point. The veil came off almost as soon as I opened my mouth. I dealt with the problems the lady had brought to me. We then had an interesting debate about veil wearing. This contained some surprises. It became absolutely clear to me that the husband had played no part in her decision. She had read books and thought about the issue. She felt more comfortable wearing the veil when out. People bothered her less.

OK, I said, but did she think that veil wearing was required by the Koran? I was no expert, but many Muslim scholars said that the full veil was not obligatory at all. And women as well as men went head uncovered the whole time when in their Hajj – pilgrimage – in Mecca. The husband chipped in to say that this matter was ‘more cultural than religious’.

I said I would reflect on what the lady had said to me. Would she, however, think hard about what I said – in particular about my concern that wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult. It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference.

I thought a lot before raising this matter a year ago, and still more before writing this. But if not me, who? My concerns could be misplaced. But I think there is an issue here.

This was a dangerous topic to broach, as subsequent events have shown. It was intended to open a respectful dialogue but has prompted an outpouring from all sides of commentary that has been neither respectful nor particularly worthy of the name “dialogue”. It is also remarkable to notice how often we have heard the voices of the west, the voices of men, of unveiled women – and how rarely we hear the voices of veiled women. (Actually, this was a point forcefully made by Hazel Blears (minister without portfolio) in Question Time.)

There are those who are opposed to veil-wearing because they feel somehow excluded and intimidated by a veiled woman. There are those who protest that anyone should be allowed to wear whatever they want, so everyone should just shut up about it, There are those who explain learnedly that wearing the veil is a political act intended to distance the wearer from Western civilisation, either because the wearer does not want to integrate or because she wants actively to disintegrate, she wants to bring Jihad to the streets of Britain. There are still more who insist that the veil is a symbol of oppression, that women wearing the veil have been forced into it by their husbands, fathers, and brothers, necessarily against their will. There are some who insist that their culture and their religion demand that the veil be worn, and woe betide anyone who comes between a Muslim woman and her god-given duty to veil.

These are just a few of the points of view I have come across, and I would like to pause for a moment by each one with a thought or two of my own.

The veil as exclusionary and intimidating:

Firstly, I want to note how funny it is that most people having this point of view – including, to some extent, Mr Straw – are white, male, middle-class commenters who do not in ordinary life suffer much from exclusion or intimidation.

Secondly, although I agree that a woman wholly covered is not easily approachable in a culture where we are used to getting a look at people before we speak to them, I don’t agree that therefore veiling is wrong, exclusionary and intimidating. It means that in face-to-face situations such as those Mr Straw was talking about it may be easier to get along if the woman is prepared to unveil for the meeting.

But when a woman is walking down the street, if she chooses to cover herself in order, for example, to ward off unwanted attention and assure herself of some private space, who are we to complain at that? She should not have to do this; she should be able to walk down the street naked without being given any trouble – but in the real world, she is entitled to whatever protection she wants. And if we intimidate her so much that she wants to retreat behind coverings, it is somewhat hypocritical to complain that her coverings intimidate us. I’m not saying this is why all or even most women veil, but I’m using this example to show that this “intimidation” is not one-way traffic and to suggest that Muslim women might well have more reason to be afraid walking down the street than white-British men.

Let them wear what they want!
or, “stop telling us we can’t have freedom of expression!”

There is great force in that. In this country we are entitled to freedom of expression, and if we choose to do that through our clothes then that it our own affair.

However, there are some counter-points which are worth thinking about. Freedom of expression is not a free pass. We do not condone pornography (well, I don’t) or misleading advertising or hate speech, just because it is expressing something, not even if you put it on a T-shirt. And we should not assume that because it is expression it is therefore a right. The right needs to be balanced against potential harm. If women in veils, or the practice of veiling, do cause harm, then it can be criticised notwithstanding the fact that it is in principle everyone’s right to choose what they wear.

That is what the debate is about: whether veiling is harmful. Personally, I don’t think it is, but I have to respect that other people will have a different point of view and that their point of view may not be entirely motivated by racism or misogyny. So I have listened. I have yet to hear a good argument against veiling as a harmful activity.

Veiling as a visible statement of separation and/or difference

In other words (although I suspect that this is not what Mr Straw meant), veiling is a cultural act expressing unwillingness to integrate and/or a political act expressing a distate for British culture and values and a desire to impose Islamic values on the world.

Mixing these two completely separate complaints together is daft. It mixes in women who are not integrating with British society, whether through choice or through British society’s own failures, with those who actively reject Bristish society. Moreover it elides those who have a dodgy political agenda with those who merely turn away from British society and values because of the racism and intolerance they face when trying to integrate, the unwillingness of British people to accept a culture different from their own as genuinely worth engaging with. It is not necessarily the Muslim women who reject our values and culture who are to blame here, and talking about veiling is attacking just one symptom of the problem – and the problem may not be with these women but with the way that we treat them.

Who wouldn’t eventually turn away from a culture that eyes you with suspicion, ignorant confusion and downright hostility merely because of your religion, skin colour or “foreignness”? There is no justification for lumping such women into a “Jihadi” stereotype, for this is both very likely to be wrong and frankly deeply unhelpful. It would be better to ask why these people turn away, and not to castigate them for doing it or hold them up as objects of suspicion.

The veil as oppression

Well – it certainly is in some cases. (Ask Latifa.)

And if it is, then it is – and this should be stopped in the best way that we can manage. But the reasoning “Many men oppress women by telling them what to wear, therefore we shoud liberate them by banning them from wearing those clothes” seems pretty faulty to me. Women should be allowed to freely don the veil if they freely choose to do so. Banning the veil will only make things worse, I suspect, for women who already live under oppression. If you are going to ban something, then ban the oppression! In any case, to respond to a problem by banning its most visible symptom is often daft. You cannot get rid of prostituion by banning public solicitation. You canot get rid of drug addiction by banning the public sale of drugs. It just doesn’t work.

Moreover, a discussion of the veil that sees it as primarily a symbol of oppression seems to me to be problematic in another way. It denigrates veiled women as a whole, by encouraging the world at large to view veiled women as oppressed, subjugated (and therefore not really proper people, not much freer than a slave) rather than as fully realised human beings. Given that, in Britain at least, the veil is often a symbol of piety or cultural fidelity that has been freely chosen by the wearer, it would seem wrong to narrow our conception of veiled women by casting them mainly or only in the role of submissive and oppressed wife or daughter.

The veil as a cultural or religious necessity

This strikes me as the most absurd of the arguments I hear in this debate. I have not yet heard it from a veiled woman: only from Muslim men and non-Muslims.

Firstly, the Koran does not command that a woman cover her face. It commands modesty (for both sexes), and talks about covering the breasts and not striking wanton poses, but does not call for complete covering. Mohammed’s wives were completely covered, but there is no requirement for any woman not married to a prophet to follow suit. It appears that this covering ideal all stems from the view that since men cannot control their sexual desires, women should be hidden from their view, in order that general purity and chastity be preserved. (See above – the reasoning “Men sometimes abuse women, therefore women should hide away from men to prevent this from happening” is equally daft.)

Some women choose to don the full veil as an expression of piety – rather like a nun’s habit I suppose, albeit without the nunnery to go with it. But this is Islam “plus”, a symbol of spiritual devotion rather than the minimum requirement that it is painted by some extremists.

Secondly, I think I reject the suggestion that something can be a cultural necessity when you move away from the place where that culture prevailed.

An extreme example: in some cultures, FGM is a cultural necessity (ask Tashi) because one cannot get a husband or be at ease with one’s relatives or friends if one continues unmutilated. Yet this is not a reason to perpetuate FGM – at all, never mind once a girl or woman has moved away from that place and into a society where FGM is not the norm.

Similarly, although a woman may have good reasons to don the veil when living in a place where all women do so and someone who doesn’t follow the prevalent culture will suffer the consequences, that is no justification for there being a cultural necessity to continue doing so in a different place and time. Some women may choose to do so as an expression of loyalty to their birthplace or the place they see as their homeland – but as before this is not necessity, it is a freely chosen symbol of cultural devotion over and above what should be demanded.

In short – if a woman wishes to wear a veil for religious or cultural reasons, then that is her choice. But she should also have the choice not to do so, and the right to have a dialogue with anyone she pleases about what choice she will make. That choice should be free and informed, and should include information about how her veiling or not will be seen by others. Therefore, although dialogue should by no means stretch over into coercion or judgementalism, it is still important that everyone should have the right to say what they think about veiling. Provided, of course, that they first think about what they are saying.

I think that the recent debate has been interesting. I have certainly learned from it, and I have learned most from the voices of Muslim women, some veiled and some not, and from Islamic scholars who have been able to explain what the Koran and the religious doctrine actually says. The whole discussion has made me think in a much more interested way about the veiled women I see in my daily life around Gloucester, and I think that it is a positive thing for me.

I have learned also that we still have a lot of ignorance and xenophobia and sexism in this world (no, that isn’t really news, is it).

I have listened to people seriously explaining “Why They Wear Veils” who have probably never met a veiled woman in their life!

I have listened to people, even people like Shirley Williams, suggesting that in matters of Islamic cultural or religious practices we should show sensitivity by discussing the issue with Islamic community leaders. Who are they? Men!

Why not discuss it with the Islamic community’s WOMEN’S groups?

Groups like the Muslim Women’s League (MWL) which has a very worthwhile “position paper” on the subject of women’s dress (although it does not specificaly address face covering).

Frankly, however, in my searches through the Internet for websites of British Muslim women’s groups, giving British Muslim women a serious voice, giving some idea for the rest of us about what they really think – I came up with very little.

I would give Muslim Women Talk a miss for example. Despite the campaign represented by this website having been launched in 2005, the “Have Your Say” section of the website (surely the most important part of a campign aimed at giving women’s voices a forum) is still under construction! Despite being described as “organised by a coalition of British Muslim women’s groups and organisations”, the website lists no actual women’s groups in its information centre page. Seems that it is indeed, all Talk.

British Muslim women desperately need, it seems, a clearer, stronger, more powerful voice. I really wish they had a fantastic website that was easy to find, but they don’t. So how are we to listen to them? Where are they to speak? How can people like me learn their ideas, and views, their beliefs and attitudes? And if I can’t manage it, how will those bigots whose voices I have heard in the last couple of weeks ever know better?

Where do we go from here?