Friday, October 06, 2006

Take it off


Jack Straw is the former Labour Foreign Secretary, Lord Privy Seal of the House of Commons, friend of Condi (in fact he was the guest of Dr Rice and witnessed the Vol loss to the Tide last year).

Jack Straw lost his Foreign Secretary job in May. Some people speculated that he was too close to the Muslim community in his Blackburn constituency. Hence his strong statements that war with Iran would be ruled out.

Now he's in the news again - and it's not for being too close to his Muslim constituents. In fact, he's all over the news for asking his female constituents who wear the "full veil" - the niqab to remove it before discussing constituency business with him. (MPs in Britain hold regular "surgeries" where anyone can make an appointment and ask for help).

Apparently, many of the niqab wearing women complied with Mr Straw's request. He made this request in order to aid interpersonal communications between him and his constituent. He has also made clear that he believes that wearing the full veil is a barrier to better community relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. I would agree. He says that part of community relationships is interaction between strangers - the smile on the street, asking someone the time of day...little interactions that create society. This cannot happen with the niqab.

It's all very well for Western society to accommodate the cultural practices of immigrants. I think that this should be done as far as possible. But there comes a point when the cultural practices of immigrants and the cultural practices of the host society are stand in direct opposition. In Western society (but not just Western society) face to face communication is important. Not only that, but those who cover their faces are up to no good. They are concealing and they are probably engaged in some sort of criminal activity.

When I see a woman in the niqab, I think that she is saying to me "I am different. I am apart. I have no desire to meet you halfway. I don't even want any type of interaction with you." I also suspect that wearing the niqab has less to do with men wanting to cover up their women out of modesty and sexual jealousy and more to do with both men's and women's desires to make a radical, political Islamist statement. I can't remember seeing the niqab before 2001. Afterwards, it started to appear and I saw more and more women wearing. I really started seeing niqab in the run-up to the Iraq war as part of political protests. Now it is not unusual to see women wearing the full black abaya and facial covering on the high street in my neighbourhood.

I have strong libertarian tendencies, so I'm not for banning the niqab on the street. However, I do think that you should have the right to refuse service or interaction with someone who is concealing their face from you - because it is a significant barrier to communication which puts the niqab wearer at an advantage to you (she can see your facial expressions - you can't see hers).

Jack Straw also said that many Muslim women didn't understand the impact of the niqab on Westerners with whom they interact. So I applaud Jack Straw for raising the issue, which for too long has been avoided in the country. Muslim women must understand that this makes many people distinctly uneasy. If they, like safety-pin through the cheek punk rockers, are aware of the effect their dress has on others and persist with it - let them deal with the consequences.

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By the way - you like the niqab look as pictured above - you can buy more like it on eBay.

6 comments:

jen said...

hmmm.

i agree it's unnerving.

however i'm not sure the fact that it makes *us* uncomfortable means *they* should change. given that argument, people could say the same thing about gays displaying affection in public. not saying it's the same thing... just that the same logic could be applied, i.e. i don't think the onus is on them to make society more comfortable.

Vol Abroad said...

In some ways, I think this might be very much the same thing. I have to admit, I'm far more comfortable with homosexuality than radical Islam. But there are behaviours by some homosexuals (and heteros, too) which I find beyond the pale.

I think you have the right to refuse to engage with a couple who are groping each other in front of you (that's if they want anything to do with you). I think you have the right to throw a couple out of your restaurant if they've gone too far with the PDAs.

I don't think that gay men have the right to have sex in public places - e.g. cottaging on Clapham Common or central London garden squares - even though Peter Tatchell and others argue that it's part of gay culture to do so. I find that kind of behaviour inconsiderate to the rest of us who want to use that public space, anti-social and selfish. It's criminal and it should be.

Now if I go to a gay club, and people are groping each other - I have no real right to complain. But I think there are behaviours which aren't appropriate in public or in other social situations in our society. Sometimes radical gay people push the envelope a little bit and people who might seem disgusted by their "gayness" - might be just as much disgusted by their breaching of a common social understanding of what's appropriate public behaviour. And therefore, they shouldn't be too surprised when people get uncomfortable or upset.

jen said...

But I think there are behaviours which aren't appropriate in public or in other social situations in our society. Sometimes radical gay people push the envelope a little bit and people who might seem disgusted by their "gayness" - might be just as much disgusted by their breaching of a common social understanding of what's appropriate public behaviour. And therefore, they shouldn't be too surprised when people get uncomfortable or upset.


But don't you think that because society is always changing in response to challenges or envelope-pushing of whatever type, that this is just part of the natural evolution of what's "acceptable"? To give another example: 50 years ago, marrying a person of a different race was not only "unacceptable", but illegal in many places. Now, interracial relationships have not gone away, and are still very visible, however much of society's idea of "acceptable" has changed. To use a closer analogy, much of what's considered fashionable today could get you arrested for indecent exposure in previous years.

Maybe it is being done as a deliberate provocation, that's true. But I'm not convinced that's necessarily a bad thing. I definitely don't think it's going to go away, at any rate.

Vol-in-Law said...

Would it be acceptable for you to be required to wear niqab? Would that be a natural evolution of what's acceptable, or something else?

Vol-in-Law said...

This article by an observant Muslim woman explains why it's wrong for liberals to support the burka:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,6-2394934,00.html

Anonymous said...

I support the niqaabi's right to cover if it helps her feel closer to her god.