Friday, October 06, 2006

A Thickly Veiled Problem

Recently, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made a comment about Muslim Women in England and the wearing of the veil. From the article here they quote:

Jack Straw wrote in a newspaper that a veil was "a visible statement of separation and difference" and that he was more comfortable dealing with female visitors to his local political office with their faces uncovered. (...)

Straw, leader of the House of Commons and the former foreign secretary, said he was concerned that "wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult."

Asked on Friday if he would like veils to be discarded altogether, Straw said: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."

"You cannot force people where they live, that's a matter of choice and economics, but you can be concerned about the implications of separateness and I am," he told the BBC.

Straw originally wrote in the Lancashire Telegraph that he asked women to remove their veils in his constituency office. "I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face to face' who I could not see," he wrote. No one had refused his request, he said.

Straw pointed out that he defended Muslims' rights to wear head scarves and that wearing a full veil "breaks no laws."

It is clear from various sources that Straw was referring to veils that cover the full face, not the more common hijab veil that covers the hair and neck.

As I read Jack Straw's comments on the veil, I don't see any bigotry in his idea. He is simply saying that when he deals with people, he prefers to deal with their face. And, furthermore, Muslim women who chose to wear the veil (no matter what be their motive) seperate themselves from the rest of society. I am highly respectful of muslim rights to religious dress, but Straw's argument was not religious... it was practical.

According to most Muslim clerics, the veil exists to shelter, seperate and protect women from the outside world. Straw is presenting the other side of that argument: that seperation has an effect on society. You can't visually seperate yourself from the rest of the world and expect everybody to understand that.

I repeat again: Muslim women have every right to veil their heads and even their faces according to religious custom. I respect that choice deeply. But, they should be neither surprised nor offended when it is hard to integrate into a society.

Western society is built upon face-to-face relationships. And, a huge part of our interpersonal communication happens through body language or facial expressions. If you take those out of the occasion... a "face to face" conversation is no different than a phone call. In fact, in the case of veiled faces, it is a one-sided conversation. One can see what the other cannot.

The basis of Straw's comment was that when veiled Muslim women come to his constituency office to meet with him, he asks them to remove the veil (always making sure there is a female staff member present). And, according to his comments, he has not yet had a women refuse. For any effective interaction, both sides must be comfortable with the relationship. Communication must start on EQUAL grounds.

There is much political hoopla in England right now over this statement. But, I truly see nothing bigoted in what he said. It is true that Muslim women who choose to veil their faces have a more difficult time integrating into society. And, to be honest, maybe they do not want to fully integrate. But, they cannot assert that the barrier they create must only be understood on their terms.

We live in a world of relationships. And, while I respect DEEPLY women who choose to wear full veils, I also agree with Mr. Straw. The veil is a barrier that works both ways. Especially in private meetings where complete understanding is paramount: I want to see a face.

That is all.


1 comment:

Nectar said...


I'm a little surprised that there are some who wear a full veil and yet go out of the home not accompanied by a male family member.