The Veil Question

Public debate has become heated this week, following comments made by Jack Straw in his local newspaper column that he is made uncomfortable by his female Muslim constituents wearing the niqab (veil covering the face), and asks them whether they would mind removing it when in meetings with him.

The issue is a delicate one \x96 in amongst all of the predictable sub-Daily Mail type guff about "if they want to come to England why can\x92t they be more like us?" there are some difficult and often contradictory issues to confront.

Jack Straw believes that the veil inhibits communication in face to face meetings, rendering them little more use than a phonecall or email. In his article he states that none of his female constituents have declined to take off their veil when asked, although Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian points out that, as their MP, "he was in a position of power in relation to them [\x85] in that context, the distinction between a request and a command is somewhat blurred".

Gordon Brown has publicly supported Jack Straw\x92s comments, and Salman Rushdie is quoted as saying that veils "suck". Many commentators have argued that the wearing of a veil is symptomatic of a withdrawal from society, or a refusal to fully participate. Saira Khan in The Times says the veil "sends out a clear message: "I do not want to be part of your society"". That\x92s a nonsense, says Madeline Bunting (The Guardian); individual \x91comfort\x92 is a dangerous measure for the rules of social interaction and, anyway, nobody complained about nuns during the IRA bombings because they wore religious dress and lived a life of pious seclusion.

A number of female commentators point out their concerns with the veil on feminist grounds. Diane Abbott, writing in the Evening Standard, admits to feeling uncomfortable about veils: "There is something about seeing a woman shrouded in black from head to foot and peering through a slit which shrieks female oppression to me. However many times Muslim women insist that they are veiled of their own free will, I cannot quite believe it". And Saira Khan agrees with her, asserting that "the veil restricts women, it stops them achieving their full potential in all areas of their life, and it stops them communicating [\x85] We must unite against the radical Muslim men who would love women to be hidden, unseen and unheard".

Catherine Bennett in The Guardian (again – they seem to be winning in the hand wringing stakes on this issue) is forceful in agreement, drawing parallels between this issue and repressive practices around the world: "what does freedom mean, if it doesn’t mean being free to oppress yourself? What does freedom mean if you can’t feel comfy in a niqab? Or happy to shave off your hair and wear a wig instead? Or comfortable – if you so choose – with footbinding? Or keen – if that’s what you want – to have a clitoridectomy?"

Despite this torrent of feminist condemnation, Rajnaara Akhtar in the Times Online rejects the idea that women wearing the veil are victims of oppression: "Most women who wear veils here are British-born and bred. More often than not their mothers, who perhaps like most older generations had less choice, did not wear one. A younger generation, however, has used its freedom to think and has adopted the veil". Still others – Tony Blair, John Prescott, Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt included – have come out in favour of ‘the woman’s right to choose’.

Timothy Garton Ash concludes on the issue: "Why shouldn’t they [wear a veil]? What skin is it off your nose? As our society becomes more diverse, we will have to become more tolerant of diversity. We need to make a triage between the fundamentals of a free society on which we cannot compromise, matters that are properly the subject of intercommunal negotiation, and third-order issues best left to time and the quiet tides of social adaptation. Free speech belongs in the first category; the veil in the last".