I can't say I always agree with Ken Livingstone, who I dislike enormously. However, this morning on the "Today" programme, he did a pretty good job of summing up my feelings regarding the whole Jack Straw / "the veil" debate. Something he said which was very true was (approx) that given that it has taken a millennium or more for the practice to have become this embedded, it's going to take careful education and empowerment campaigns, working with positive forward looking groups for Muslim women to reduce the importance of the veil (still further than it is now). Who in that community is going to be swayed in their opinions by a bunch of white, male politicians?
My friend Anno accused me the other day of being relativistic in my response to the debate, and I do disagree with that assessment, although I can often argue from the heart in a kneejerk way. This whole debate has made me feel very angry indeed, at the reductive and frankly, rather nasty undertones which have been left unsaid, but are definitely hanging in the air. Not that much of the "debate" after Jack Staw's relatively innocent *original* remarks has much to do with his initial point. I think the easiest way for me to go through my thinking on this is to hammer through the various angles I've been inwardly debating. that doesn't make this a great essay in the Orwellian tradition but then it is half last 11 and I should have been asleep an hour ago.
Jack Straw's initial comment.
His point was that he felt uncomfortable communicating to someone in a veil, and that the British culture is built upon face to face communication. Therefore he asks women who are wearing the veil to remove it if possible whilst in constituency interviews, and he will happily have a woman present. He enlarged upon this theme the following day, again on R4 and I felt very strongly that what he was talking about was in fact his difficulty with difference, which is a far less savoury but almost certainly unconscious response to something you are not familiar with.
Let me elaborate. Women who wear the veil are in a very small minority of Muslim women. Not only that but they do so for a number of reasons. Many of the women i see around my way who wear them are refugees, for example. so these women have come from an entirely different culture, probably don't speak very good English and cannot be expected to change something so fundamental to their identity in their preceding life. Then there are British women who under peer and familial pressure are forced to wear the veil. Now, I'm railing against kneejerk lefty no-information-but-I-have-an-opinion here, but how many women does this apply to? Certainly, there are some, and there could be many. It's there as an issue, certainly, but questions occur about whether this is a generational thing or... well. I don't want to diminish these women's misery so I won't go on about it. There is a third category as I understand it who are British Muslims, born and bred, who decide for their own reasons that they want to wear the veil. FTR, I think that these women are misguided, and they are partaking in an exercise built in to religion founded by men in order to perpetuate the subjugation of women, *however* that's not what I'm debating. The point is that these women are *British*. these women are British women, therefore to suggest that British culture somehow cannot accommodate women who wear the veil is obviously simply wrong. Jack Straw's version of Britishness cannot accommodate it, but can I point out perhaps that his version of Britishness is outdated?
The ensuing debate has given newspapers and the media generally a number of excuses to discuss to the point of tedium the difficult problem of the veil, and what it means in British culture, to an extent that seems to me to be totally out of proportion with its impact within the British Muslim community, and the wider community. It is an excuse to discuss women's bodies supposedly objectively, but from an overwhelmingly masculine perspective. And not even going near the potential for misogyny and racism - ayeesh. Yet where is the debate about the mutilation of young boys at birth in this country? Again, here I'm slightly wary of that old trick of avoiding the argument by bringing up something which is tangentially related, but whereas the veil is merely a question of how one visually perceives a woman who is wearing it, the circumcision of tiny babies, in a by definition non-consensual decision... hello? Isn't it a slight double standard to blithely ignore this, yet exacerbate the current "us and them" with the Muslim community over something which is basically trivial?
I also thought about our near neighbour, France, in terms of the fact that in state institutions eg: schools, hospitals etc, the veil would not be tolerated, because it has secularity built in to its constitution, whereas over here, our Head of State is also the head of the Church of England. The UK has a history of welcoming migrants to the UK with their cultures intact (when needed for economic reasons). This sometimes leads to stress, but more often does not. Our national dish is now Chicken Tikka Masala, etc. France meanwhile remains a non-welcoming environment. Frankly, it's more than a bit racist over there. In Paris, you're more likely to see a black person on the underground that driving a car (with the exception of cab drivers of course) and in my experience, the place you're most likely to see a black person in the workplace is serving you your lunch. By being religion and culture intolerant, the vicious circle of racism and lack of understanding remains in place. The British solution, obviously made more prevalent in the past by Empire leanings does not solve anything, particularly, and it does not suggest that the entire British population is somehow remarkably tolerant. It isn't. What the British model is though is significantly different. We have had no revolution, for a start. Levels of immigration in to the UK are massive compared to France. Why is this? Is it merely about the legal position of immigrants, or do people actively choose not to try to go and live there? At base level, our countries in the UK *are* more welcoming, and one of the reasons for this must be the tradition of religious tolerance (note: I'm in no way suggesting that the Brits have always been this way - the massacre of the Jewish population in the middle ages being a pretty good example of INtolerance).
I've run out of steam somewhat, plus am now desperately late to bed. Therefore I'll stop there but you can see where I was going, generally speaking. There is nothing wrong with a debate, as such but at a time when Muslims are being demonised, it could have been handled a tad more sensitively.
Goodnight! Please comment, oh 30 regular visitors ;)