Revisiting the veil

Britain's niqab debate heats up.

Published October 13, 2006 1:47PM (EDT)

Just how much mileage is to be had from the veil worn by many Muslim women? Around a mile per inch of fabric, if the current debate in Britain is any indication. The U.K. is still in a row over politician Jack Straw's request that Muslim women consider removing their full veils (or niqabs) when meeting with him. Since Broadsheet covered the issue last week, some of Britain's most influential figures, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, have voiced support for the leader of the House of Commons.

Salman Rushdie voiced his support of the besieged politician, and argued, "The battle against the veil has been a long and continuing battle against the limitation of women." A reasonable point, but the problem is that Muslim women's experience of the veil is arguably far more complex than that. (Rushdie also noted that veils "suck.") Likewise, Minister Harriet Harman said the veil is a rigid barrier to women's political advancement: "If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it. How can you stand as an MP [member of Parliament] when men's faces are on posters, and voters can't see yours? The veil is an obstacle to women's participation, on equal terms, in society."

Some interesting questions have also arisen about the appropriateness of the veil in assorted public settings; the practical arguments for baring one's face are plenty. As a Broadsheet reader reasonably wondered last week: Do veil-wearing women get to don a niqab when photographed for their driver's licenses? When does cultural tolerance go just too far? In an editorial in Time magazine, Yazmin Alibhai-Brown, a Muslim woman, goes as far as to argue that "state institutions as well as private companies should have the right to stipulate that a person whose face cannot be seen need not be served." This principle is not "anti-Muslim, but one in favor of communication," she said.

It's true that the veil is culturally loaded and has been effectively used to bridle women. On these grounds, of course it should be debated! But while Straw's supporters make interesting points, they also ignore what's actually troubling about Straw's original comments. What's unfortunate is Straw's patronizing expectation that voluntary veil wearers are waiting for permission from a non-Muslim to remove their veils -- as well as his hasty proposed solution of squashing the source of his discomfort without first engaging in actual debate. Ultimately, though, that's exactly what his comments have given rise to. Three cheers for irony!

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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