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Britain Unveils Its Prejudices Against Muslim Women

Business Day (Johannesburg)
October 14, 2006
Posted to the web October 16, 2006

By Jacob Dlamini

IT SHOULD have elicited nothing more than a childish "duh", but when The Observer, arguably Britain's best newspaper, said in an editorial last weekend that British citizenship does not come with a dress code, the statement sounded like the most profound thing anyone had said in a long time. Such has been the autumn madness in the British Isles that even basic expressions of common sense have come to sound like words of the most divine wisdom.

It all began about a week ago with Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons and a Labour MP for a northern England constituency with a large Muslim population. Straw said he always asked his female Muslim constituents who wear the niqab, the veil that covers everything except the eyes -- to take their headscarves off during consultations with him.

His reason? Well, he does not like having "face-to-face" meetings with people whose faces he can't see. Fair enough. However, what began as a simple expression of discomfort on Straw's part has somehow turned into a controversy about the "failure" of Muslims to integrate into British society and their rejection of liberal values. The coverage of Straw's comments, especially in the notorious UK tabloids, has been so hysterical you would have been forgiven, at least until last weekend's The Observer came along, for thinking that all Muslim women in the UK had failed some citizenship-dress code.

Sadly, it has become all too common and convenient to portray Muslims and any matter to do with them as if they are part of a big clash of civilisations. So the niqab and the more basic hijab come to symbolise, for those who believe in this clash of civilisations, the very tools with which this clash is carried out.

With the help of one of those forked-tongued expressions for which western enlightenment thought has come to be known through the ages, the Muslim veil is taken as both a sign of the Muslim woman's rejection of liberal values and, at the same time, a symbol of the oppression of women by Islam. Meanwhile, the Muslim woman is portrayed as some hapless victim with no sense of agency stuck somewhere between a liberalism keen on her freedom and an Islam bent on the destruction of her person.

This self-serving portrayal of Muslim women as victims ignores the simple fact that, in many cases where the niqab and hijab are worn, the decision to do so is entirely the woman's and is done for a number of reasons.

Some women have said they wear the Muslim veil to express their piety; others don it to symbolise their strong ties to a religion that is under sustained attack in the west, yet others put it on as a cultural marker of status.

The basic point here is that, as different as the women's reasons are, they all have one thing in common: the idea of free choice. What could be more liberal than free choice? Sure, we may not like the look of the niqab or the hijab and may even have strong views about the public display of religious affiliation. But since when has democracy been about liking what other people wear?

Of course, this is not to ignore those instances where women are forced into wearing the veil. In that case, treat those forcing women to wear something against their wishes the same way you would treat anyone who violates the rights of another person -- in terms of the law. No less, no more.

But don't patronise Muslim women by treating them like minors with no sense or agency.

As Madeleine Bunting, a columnist for the Guardian, pointed out recently, at the height of the UK's counterinsurgency war against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) there were many Catholic nuns who lived in relative seclusion in convents around the UK. "No one accused these nuns of rejecting the values of liberal democracy yet they were co-religionists of the IRA terrorists of their time," said Bunting.

But then again, when it comes to Muslims and Islam, it has become all too easy to rely on stereotype and prejudice instead of reasoned debate. Recall how the Americans, British and the Israelis always insist that they want to promote democracy in the Middle East. Well, what happened after the Palestinians voted Hamas into power earlier this year? They have been systematically starved and subjected to worse forms of collective punishment than even the Israelis thought they had perfected.

All of this calls to mind Henry Ford's announcement to the buyers of his cars that they could have a car in any colour they wanted -- so long as it was black. When it comes to Muslims, they can wear whatever they want -- so long as it's what we tell them to wear.


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