(This post has been updated and revamped.)
Personally, as I've made clear in the past, I don't weigh in on the 'what Muslim women must wear' issue, partly because I'm not female, but mostly because there are already enough men (Muslim or otherwise) telling Muslim women what and what not to wear, whether they're French or German or Iranian or Saudi. I am sure Muslim women are intelligent enough to come to a conclusion that fits with their conscience. Although it appears freedom of expression and conscience, trumpeted by Champions of Freedom and Liberty, goes out of the window when it comes to a Muslim, especially a Muslim woman, exercising it.
Is Jack Straw specifically targetting Muslims? Yes, and no. He wants a "debate" and that's fine. Muslims should not develop shrill voices should such concerns be raised. Instead, we should take the spirit of 'inviting them in the best ways' (something I also need to take on board) in responding. Straw could, however, begin by asking his friends who run Blackburn's mosques to let women into the 'public sphere' where Muslims debate issues. Instead, he's taken the easy route, with one eye on a potential deputy leadership position post-Blair (something he's obviously dismissed), and picked on a minority within a minority. What better way to show the country that he's going against the (perceived) grain, and showing off his political machismo, by telling a few Muslim women (since the percentage of Muslim women veiling is probably small) what they should wear. It's generally risk free, and gets him a few plus points for being 'tough in defending British values' from certain sections in the press. In this respect, he isn't specifically targetting Muslims, but merely continuing the long, dubious, tradition of picking on some kind of 'folk demon' of the day. Single mothers, immigrants, gypsies and teenagers have all been used in a similar manner by various politicians over the years.
If he wanted a fair(er) debate, he should also have pointed out the unfair and discriminatory attitudes that people have towards Muslim women, whether or not they wear the niqab, which checks their progress in wider society. In this he would have at least been seen to balance his concerns with the niqab; and there is nothing to say he can't have such concerns or, indeed, express them openly. What's more, he should clearly come out and say that in the interests of the debate, people who disagree with him be given the chance to express their views without being silenced under the threat of being labelled extremists, fanatics, etc. What's also worth noting is how far does a politician talking about religious practices violate the separation of church and state? Of course, we do not have a complete separation of the two.
And the BBC reports that a Muslim woman had her veil snatched from her while standing at a bus stop in Liverpool, by a man shouting racist abuse. Nothing to say its related to Straw's comments, but maybe the man was distressed by the veil and took pre-emptive action?
Let's hope and pray our friends from
al-Muhajiroun al-Ghuraaba The Saviour Sect Brothers Against Car Insurance do not turn up and do something completely stupid (heckling extremists like Comrade Reid is alright with me though).
Some bloggers comment on Jack Straw's views on the veil:
Mark Marqueese weighs in on the debate at Comment is free: "There are a large number of people in this country who find it extremely uncomfortable speaking to a young woman with a bare midriff and rings in her naval. There are others who find it hard to talk with Chasidic Jewish boys with shaved skulls and long pais (sidelocks). There are others who feel intimidated talking to a large white man with a union jack tattoo. All of these reactions may be understandable, but no cabinet member is administering public lectures to young women with bare midriffs and navel rings or to Chasidic Jews or to blokes with union jack tattoos, and if they presumed to do so they would be condemned without hesitation." Yes, Muslims, a Jew rises to our defence. Once again we must thank the Jews for being so eloquent in defence of religious practices (first time it was in defence of zabiha or halal meat). Let that be a lesson to you in principled stands, o brothers and sisters. Staying at Comment is free, Vikram Dodd, Sue Blackmore, Soumaya Ghannoushi and Rajnaara Akhtar provide different perspectives, for and against.
Yakoub Islam: "Jack went on to say concealing a face was "a visible statement of separation and of difference". The implication is that being different (from white people) is bad. Just to make his point, Jack told the Lancashire Evening Telegraph that he now asks women who have meetings with him to remove their veils so they can truly talk "face-to-face". In other words, if you want your local MP's help, you now have to conform to his norms, regardless of your religious views." The second post is in idiosyncratic humourous fashion.
Yusuf Smith: "The Evening Standard showed breathtaking ignorance in its choice of commentators: Jemima Khan (what an authority!), Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and the usual suspect, Patrick Sookhdeo. Sookhdevil, a media darling with a long record of hostility to Islam and of peddling distortions and outright untruths about Islam and Muslims, said that "in addressing the issue of the full veil, the nikkhon (sic), he has shown that pseudo-religious practice must not conflict with the rest of society". Where on earth is a veil called a "nikkhon"? Certainly not in any Muslim country that I know of - it sounds like a make of camera. The veil is called a niqab, something Sookhdeo, or whoever quoted him, could easily have found out. He continues, "and there is a further discussion of how much men can get away with abusing women and then covering it up", as if that is in any way relevant to this issue. If a woman wears the niqab of her own accord and has a happy marriage, who is abusing her?" Incidentally, there were several posts by Yusuf related to the veiling (niqab) issue (1, 2, 3).
Al-Muhajabah: "I've talked before (such as this lengthly discussion in comments) about wanting to restrict Muslim women from veiling. In my opinion, this is not better than those who want to force Muslim women to veil. In both cases, it takes away a woman's basic autonomy to choose how she wishes to dress. Additionally, in a free society, we accept that others may make choices that we don't understand or even that we find offensive and in return we expect that others will accept our own choices, even if they don't understand them or find them offensive. This is what freedom of expression and freedom of religion are all about."
Lenin: "Wikipedia reports a sharp rise in veil fetishism in recent years. Those recently horning in the veil, of course, include our former Foreign Secretary, Mr Straw. As he explains it "I, er, ahem, simply want to see you properly to, er, hehe, have better communication, um, because, er, ultimately, if you peel that garment off, we can, er, hehehe...". And with that fascinated Orientalist gaze, he gulps, mops his brow, and fidgets under his desk."
Ellis Sharp: "Yeah, right, these women who put veils on and isolate themselves from the wider community [...] Reminds me of a poem I once read. It was written by an impressionable young man who started hanging out with people who were very into their religion and who was thinking of joining them. The poem is written from the point of view of a woman who has not only embraced the religion but who has decided to cut herself off completely from society at large. It celebrates isolationism and, perhaps, the glory of the afterlife."