Debate and discussion is one thing, prejudice and provocation are
another. What is happening in Britain today? It seems that the last two
weeks in the British media have been filled with critiques on Islamic
attire and penalizations for being Muslims. Is this a society
discussing the cohesion of a multicultural population or is this the
demonstration of the Islamic faith and a sample of Britain's xenophobia?
MP Jack Straw openly admitted that he feels uncomfortable when talking to Muslim women who are covered by the niqab. According to Jack Straw his aim was to open a frank debate on wearing the niqab within British society, as this is something he feels is causing divisions between communities. He feels that covering your face hinders communication and acts as a separation barrier. He feels uncomfortable talking to women wearing the niqab and hence asks them to remove them when they come to his office wearing one.
A teaching assistant was told to remove her niqab whilst teaching; her refusal lead to her suspension, based on her inability to communicate whilst wearing the veil and the fact that this hinders her ability to educate.
The Prime Minster chipped in agreeing that wearing the veil is a 'mark of separation' when questioned over whether the niqab jeopardizes your ability to contribute to society, and stressed the importance of integration.
In addition University Lecturers were asked to report on 'Asian looking' or Muslim students who appear to becoming extreme, as Universities are a 'breeding ground' for extremism.
From the outset Jack Straw's remarks, even though he is in contact with many Muslims and Muslim leaders from his constituency; appear to show a lack of understanding of the Islamic faith. While it may be argued that the niqab it is a wall of separation, privacy could be a more appropriate word, or has he considered that it is because women are deeply pious. If it is divides in society which he is trying to eliminate it is not particularly helpful to encourage the view that women wearing the niqab do so because they are adverse to the society that they are living in, which a barrier of separation implies. This only goes to insight resentment towards this section of society and annex them further.
Jack Straw is firmly placing blame as to why these alleged divisions exist. He mentioned that there are economic divisions in society. Why not to address these? Economic divides can be argued to be far greater than any cultural differences. This is something within his power to act upon. Women wearing veils, is not and never should be something which he can control.
Needless to say we saw the divisions becoming seismic as the tabloid paper, 'The Daily Star', published a headline proclaiming 'Get 'em off', as though we were at a strip show. Hardly the beginnings of a stable debate and more like a cat call for the masses of readers to feel this is appropriate view and language. Jack Straw is very aware of the current climate within Britain and aware of the tensions, so one would assume he would consider the consequence of such comments.
The fact that Jack Straw feels it appropriate to ask a woman to remove the niqab only strengthens the arguments that he does not have an understanding of why the niqab is worn. It would seem obvious that a woman who has decided to wear a veil would not feel comfortable removing it, particularly for a middle aged man.
The incident regarding the teaching assistant, coinciding with Jack Straw's comments, seems like a casebook study of how you really cannot contribute to the community whilst wearing the niqab, as Tony Blair was insinuating. In covering this piece one newspapers notes that the standard of English in this school is below average, as though it is directly related to the wearing of the niqab rather than the fact that for many English is a second or third language. Surely, though, in response to Jack Straws' comments it would actually make more sense to encourage the teaching assistant to stay in her job. While it is claimed that having your face covered is causing a hindrance in communication, some of the very positive aspects are that it certainly provides an interesting insight into other cultures and religions. The pupils at this school would have grown up very comfortable with veiled woman, rather than growing up with the belief there is something so negative about wearing the veil that constitutes loosing ones job.
Tony Blair has firmly aligned himself in this debate, supporting Jack Straw's opinions and assumptions regarding the Niqab. Calling them a 'mark of separation' and finding it 'difficult' to answer a question on whether a woman wearing the niqab can be contribute to the community, he too shows a lack of understanding of the veil drawing the conclusion that it can only be a tool of repression and is something that needs to be overcome.
It is not fair to say with such assuredness that the niqab is a sign of separation and it is a worrying thought that it should be perceived as so across Britain. Would it not be appropriate for British society to become more accepting and understanding? Why must it be the other way around? To ease divisions it would seem more appropriate for people to learn to understand other peoples cultural dress, rather than try and eliminate them!
Considering the diversity within Britain it seems very bizarre to suggest that there is a definition of how to dress which enables a person to fit in with British society; and is quite simply offensive. The concept that showing you face is a quintessential part of British society is equally problematic. Perhaps a bizarre observation, but this is actually quite an offensive suggestion for those with facial disfigurements who, according to Blair and Straw, will never quite be part of society. There seems to be a desperate fear of those that are different, proved by the 'British-ness test' which does not appear to serve any practical or useful purpose.
In raising the argument that wearing the niqab is not necessarily a mandatory part of Islam but a sign of extremism; Blair and Straw should tread very carefully. If this is the case, then their tactic of drawing people away from extremism by waging a media war against them and rallying the rest of the country into resenting niqab wearers is very unwise and unlikely to be successful. It will in fact fuel the feeling within Muslims that they are being victimized and encourage defensive behaviour.
It is very disturbing that Jack Straw and Tony Blair, who are promoting the concept that the niqab is a negative garment only worn for separation and isolation, are, or have been, leading a campaign to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. It suggests some deeply disturbing motives and perhaps a level of egomaniacal beliefs that they possess a superior knowledge on civil life, culture and what constitutes the fabric of society. While holding a position of governance within a country they must assert some confidence on the needs of society, on the other hand they need to impose a certain level of restraint on dictating their opinions to their own country and the rest of the world.
While Britain considers its self multicultural, and statistically we could say it is, the evidence suggests that it has not adapted, to include new ethnic groups. It appears that xenophobia and a colonial mindset are rife in the Houses of Parliament and across the country; perhaps this is not surprising considering the modern influx of immigrants were shipped in from the past colonial outposts for use as a cheap labour force. Instead of understanding this past and treating people with respect Britain seems to have maintained the age old attitude that they are doing everyone else a favour by introducing them to our superior way of life. Britain has the best way of life, dress and understanding of freedom; if you are lucky enough to be living on this hallowed soil then you should must emulate the British 'way of life' as far as possible.