Sunday, October 08, 2006

On Jack Straw and the Niqab

Jack Straw, Britain's former Foreign Secretary, has started a furious debate by questioning the wearing of the niqab, the full veil with a face-veil:

Britain has been plunged into a debate over Islamic integration after revelations that former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asks Muslim women visiting his office to remove their veils and a Muslim policeman was excused from guarding the Israeli Embassy.

The uproars have left many questioning whether Britain's multicultural ideals can withstand the strains of a cultural divide that is increasingly tormenting much of Europe.

Straw said in a newspaper column published Thursday that he believes the veils favored by some Muslim women inhibit communication and are a sign of division in society. At his constituency office, he said he asks that veiled women reveal their faces, adding that the women have always complied, and a female assistant is always present.

On Friday, British media quoted Straw as going further _ saying that he would prefer that Muslim women not wear veils at all.

"I just find it uncomfortable if I'm trying to have a conversation with someone whose face I can't see," Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Many Muslims in Straw's parliamentary district of Blackburn, in northwestern England, reacted with outrage.

"It is trivial to suggest that you need to see someone's face to speak to them freely. People can still communicate with a veil on," said Fauzia Ali, 23.

Ali, who chooses not to wear a veil, added: "I know some women would refuse to leave the house if they had to remove them."

I also read somewhere that Straw is partially deaf, and I can understand (was going to write "see") how that would make it hard to interpret a person whose face is covered. So to that extent I'm on Straw's side.

But what side should I be on as a feminist? That is a much harder question to answer than it first might seem, because the whole veil question is really about religious freedoms much more than gender equality. For one thing, men are not asked to wear a veil in Islam. That makes the clothing comparisons between men and women something different and really irrelevant for the current debate. For another thing, the religious rules about the veil were all made by men, to begin with. You may not notice it from the following quote, though, but the Muslim scholars who decided on these questions were men who never had to wear the veil themselves:

MUSLIM scholars are divided about the need for women to wear the niqab, the veil.

Those who choose to wear it cite the Koran: "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them when they go out or are among men."

However, there are differing interpretations - as much based on tradition and geography as religion - whether this means women should wear the full veil.

The most conservative observers believe that women should wear the full burqa - the garment made compulsory in Afghanistan under the Taleban, where not even the eyes are visible. In Saudi Arabia, women also wear gloves to cover their hands, while the jibab is a less restrictive garment which still hides the shape of the body.

The hijab, or headscarf, is the most common nod to modesty and is often worn by women who choose to wear western clothes. In Pakistan, there is social pressure on women to cover up, but in Turkey the headscarf has been banned at state-run universities. Tunisia has also outlawed the headscarf, saying it curtails women's rights.

This is true within Christianity, too. The roles women are allowed to have within Catholicism, for example, are based on the rulings made by men, and celibate men in this case. Note also this quote from a British Muslim leader:

Dr Daud Abdullah, from the Muslim Council of Britain, said it was up to individual Muslim women whether or not they wore the veil.

"This [the veil] does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims, one can understand this," he said.

"Even within the Muslim community the scholars have different views on this.

"There are those who believe it is obligatory for the Muslim woman to cover her face.

"Others say she is not obliged to cover up. It's up to the woman to make the choice.

"Our view is that if it is going to cause discomfort and that can be avoided then it can be done. The veil over the hair is obligatory."

"The veil over the hair is obligatory." And what is obligatory for Muslim men to cover? And do they cover it? The point of this questioning is obviously that religions in general are eager to make rules for women's behavior but not very interested in limiting the possible behaviors of men.

Why did I write the above paragraphs on religions? Because my reading of much of the debate in Britain is that the whole question has been transformed into a quasi-feminist one by bringing up the argument that women should be free to dress as they wish. Indeed. But such a choice-feminist-lite argument disguises the fact that we are talking about religious freedoms here, and religious freedoms in a context where the religions themselves have sizeable misogynistic chunks. And just like I want to write about what it means when a woman dresses in high heels and gets breast enhancement surgery or decides to weigh eighty pounds for the sake of fashions, I also want to write about what it means when a woman dresses in a way which makes her disappear altogether as an individual. Both of these have a shared root, the desire to manipulate what men see, and in an odd way they both make the woman disappear as an individual and just leave the femaleness behind. It's as if the woman doesn't have a name or a personality anymore.

Not that I believe women's clothing should be decided upon by Jack Straw or the male leaders of Britain's Muslims, either. It is up to the British Muslim women to decide what they wear. But their choices are no more independent of the society and religious sphere in which they live than the clothing choices of any other woman. As I stated earlier, this debate is not about feminism at all. It is about religious freedoms. Sadly, gender equality and religious rights often conflict.