Its quite amazing when you think of it..walking or driving around East London, where I am staying currently, I see far more veiled women than I see in Mumbai or Delhi or any Indian city. Which is not to say they are not there. Its just that in my travels in India, I do encounter burkha clad women but rarely veiled women and that too fully veiled ones at that.
Former British home secretary Jack Straw has kicked up a blazing debate in Britain by saying Muslim women should consider dropping their veils in order to communicate better and foster community relations. He expressed this in an article in a local newspaper The Lancashire Telegraph where he said he felt uncomfortable speaking to veiled visitors to his constituency in Blackburn.
A day later (two days ago) he did something unusual for politicians (at least considering where I come from) reacting to a backlash – he stood by his statements. Then, he went on to say he would prefer it if Muslim women never covered up. When asked if he would rather the veils be discarded completely. “Yes, It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”
Muslims Split Too
In the same article Straw said a meeting with a veiled woman had made him consider the apparent incongruity between her entirely English accent and UK education and the wearing of the veil. “It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking,” he wrote.
Interestingly, the issue has split Muslims in Britain as well. Groups like the Lancashire Council of Mosques have attacked him, others like Dr Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain said he understood Straw’s views. “The veil does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this,” he said, adding Muslim opinion was divided on the veil (Evening Standard).
Prime minister of Britain Tony Blair, the Bishop of London and Jemima Khan have backed Straw’s right to comment on the matter. While the PM has not said anything further, Khan (a convert) has said there is nothing in the Koran which says covering the face is mandatory.
A Question of Identity
The issue as everyone know is larger. Its about integration. Britain clearly feels that millions of immigrants later, there is not a cohesive British identity, rather one of split identities. The fact that radicalized Islam has reached out to some young British Muslims too causes concern. Another raging debate here is whether universities are being used as recruiting grounds by such groups. There is a report out on the issue.
Am personally quite fascinated by this subject, not as much as the impact of radical Islam (though I’ve been doing some reading on its origins) but the very concept of a nation-state and its collective identity. Jack Straw may be right or wrong in his views but I would support his asking whether certain cultural practices go against the grain of his nation-state.
I would support similar questioning in India as well –not on veils since I don’t see it as an issue. Nor is it in other countries including apparently America. That's also to do with the nature of immigration I guess, of the kind permitted into the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Or the kind of people and when they came in.
Problems For The Future ?
My sense is that more and more countries are going to question their policies of free-for-all immigration and assimilation, often driven by economic necessity, on social grounds. It seems to me that the social price (tension between communities) to pay for relentless opening up of a country is not going to be offset by economic gains. This is a problem that will occupy the liberal politicians of the west in days to come. I wish to initiate some debates on this as well.
I do wonder at this point whether:
a) Do nations have a right to determine what their citizens wear ? Where does that definition stop or should it stop ?
b) Does the wearing of a veil by (mostly Muslim) women go against the grain of the society of they live in ?
c) Who decides, particularly in a democracy where a veiled UK citizen has as many rights as a non-veiled one !
The answers will be interesting and varied and may have ramifications on our own multicultural society and elements within in that may `break’ out or have a distinct identity.