This week, British politician Jack Straw let us know that most Muslim women are just itching to tear off their veils, if only someone would bother to ask. Straw, who is the leader of the House of Commons, has asked that Muslim women consider removing their veils when meeting with him. And he says his constituents are fine with that! "Most seem relieved I have asked," he wrote in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. This is an impressive display of cultural arrogance. Someone may have to tell Straw the disappointing truth that while women may wear the veil for many reasons, it's unlikely that those reasons include keeping up with a non-Muslim's expectations of them.
The veil is a complex, culturally loaded issue, prompting debate -- both within and outside Islam -- about the oppression, empowerment and protection of women. But Straw doesn't seem too interested in that. Instead, he asks women to consider his feelings. He says he made his comments "above all ... because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face-to-face' who I could not see," according to Reuters. And he imagines the rest of the U.K.'s non-Muslim population feels the same way; Straw suggested that "wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult." So, rather than pushing for discussion and tolerance, let's homogenize, homogenize, homogenize! (Try to say that three times fast.)
Straw's comments, which have unsurprisingly triggered a political storm, are an unusually candid expression of what I suspect is at the root of most arguments against women voluntarily wearing the veil: Unfamiliar customs make some people uncomfortable. Rather than examining his own discomfort, though, Straw's intolerant remarks place the burden of cross-cultural understanding solely on Muslim women.