Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lifting the veil?: Jack Straw’s comments articulate discomfort that we all need to address

I’ve only spoken to women wearing the veil on a small handful of occasions, but based on these meetings I have sympathy with Jack Straw’s comments last week. Over two-thirds of our communication is non-verbal and you quickly realise how much you rely on people’s facial gestures when you can’t see them. (Radio requires unique skills to do well and there is a reason why it’s not considered the ‘done thing’ to end a relationship over the ‘phone.) More than that though, because someone’s face is so much part of who they are as a person I find it deeply unsettling that people aren’t willing to share or display that individuality and sense of self. Instead they prefer to walk around incognito and stripping themselves of their individuality and personhood in terms of their relationship with the public world.

As someone with faith I respect and understand people’s desire to be completely committed to what they believe even when this is counter to the prevailing culture. However, to genuinely respect that decision rather than to merely tolerate it I need to understand and challenge women who wear the veil about why they do it and why it is an important part of their faith. This is especially important where there is a widespread belief amongst non-Muslims that wearing the veil is part of male oppression.

It’s not enough for women to say ‘I wear the veil because it’s part of my religion’ – not all Muslim women wear the veil. Why is it an integral part of the faith – how does it aid surrender and obedience to God? Is it an outward symbol of a deeper understanding or truth about who God has made us? How does wearing the veil fit within different tenets of Islam’s understanding of the roles and interaction between men and women? How does it enhance and contribute towards the quality of relationships within the Muslim Community? What exactly is the connection between the veil and relationships between men and women? Such questions are primarily for discussion within Islam, but non-Muslims should not shy away from asking searching questions in a spirit of understanding and engagement, especially on the basis of good one to one relationships.

Women have the right to wear the veil, but without hearing from Muslim women who make this choice directly I find it a puzzling decision when it hides and strips away such an important part of women’s individuality and personhood. Jack Straw’s comments are welcome and timely and articulate many people’s vague sense of discomfort (Listen to the radio phone-ins the day after). Straw’s actions can spark a more honest dialogue that can build bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Women who wear the veil have a responsibility to explain their decision rather than respond to these measured comments as if making them was a threat to them practicing their beliefs. The rest of us must seek a genuine respect of others beliefs and ask the right questions.


  1. I think that Muslim women do explain their decision. I also don't think that it matters. They have a choice, they choose to wear a veil, and we should let them.

    See my views on this matter at

  2. To me, the thing about the veil issue is that prescisely because it is counter culture it provokes a bit of a knee jerk reaction of suspicion and miscommunication. Jack Straw's comments may well be well intentioned but it does irritate me slightly that the onus seems to be on Muslim women to 'explain' their actions, rather than on the rest of us to examine our own culturally conditioned reactions to them.

    I agree with you completely Jon when you say that non-Muslims should be asking questions and trying to understand the phenomenon but I'm not sure that it necessarily follows that 'Women who wear the veil have a responsibility to explain their decision.' Surely people have the right to follow their faith privately if they wish, without needing to justify it to the rest of the world.

    Also, without wishing to segue too far into feminist ranting(!) I think it is really interesting that so much emphasis is being put on the fact that the veil hides the face. Although as you point out over 2/3 of communication is non-verbal at least some of this would still be accessible through gestures and body position. Feminist theory suggests that the female body has been fetishised through the male gaze. Perhaps the individual connections that Mr Straw feels he is missing out on would be better accomplished by focusing on what the Muslim women who visit him are actually saying, rather than on whether he is able to see their faces or not. No-one would dream of suggesting that men of any faith removed their facial hair to give better access to their facial expressions nor would we suggest that David Blunkett was unable to deal with people appropriately in his role as home secretary simply because he couldn't see them.

    What worries me about this whole controversy is that it is all too easy too create intellectual arguments to justify a fear which stems from a lack of knowledge and communication on both sides. A discussion about how we can understand each other better culturally can only be a good thing, but I'm not sure that focusing on one aspect of dress that a minority of Muslim women choose to adopt is necessarily the best way to go about it.

  3. Women have a right to wear a veil and given the febrile atmosphere they have the responsibility to explain their actions just as we have the responsibility to 'examine our own culturally conditioned reactions to them'.

    I agree with you Kate that focusing on one aspect of dress isn't ideal, but for many non-Muslims this is the most obvious and frequent expression/symbol of Islam that they come across on their high steet. Their faith has a public dimension and is not just about 'following their faith privately'.

    I have some sympathy with the male gaze fetish argument. Stating the obvious, men don't always look at women's faces (or other parts of their body!) purely for communication purposes. I can imagine that some women might want to wear the veil because they feel safer from lustful male gazes, although I do think they are cutting out a lot of beneficial interaction/communication as well.

    However, to answer your point Simone point I haven't heard a women use this, or any other explanation for why they wear the veil. Maybe this is my fault for not listening or the media's fault for not giving women the chance to express themselves in any depth.

  4. I heard someone say on the radio sometime over the last 24hrs that they (can't remember if we're talking 'as a group' or 'I') wore a veil in order to protect their modesty. Imagine being an attractive lass and always causing a stir when in public by mere dint of your appearance. This has two consequences that I can think of and I'm subject to both to some degree(and we won't go into whether these reactions are inate or caused by media conditioning). One is that the stir might not be simply mental, but also physical; for want of a better way of saying it. This could be seen as an encouragement - albeit (or rather we would consider it...) unintentional - to lust. The second is that the way people treat others can be affected by their appearance. Whether this has a positive or a negative affect is inconsequential, the fact is it happens. An obvious corrolary of this second point, however, is that while the veil is not prevalent in any society the effect is likely to be as marked with a veil as without.

    I can sympathise with both of these symptoms of the way people behave. I think only the first was expressed by the Muslim lady in question. This doesn't mean that I'm keen on the veil in general, as I'd probably say that the gain (in communication) is greater than the loss. Also, neither of the principles above need apply exclusively to women in public...