The phrase “straw poll” has acquired some nuance in Britain this month. It used to mean asking people what they think about an issue — any issue. Suddenly it seems to mean asking people what they think about Straw — Jack Straw, that is, the former British foreign secretary — and in particular his opinion of Muslim veils. At about the same time as a young Muslim teaching assistant was suspended recently for refusing to remove her full-face veil in the presence of male colleagues, Mr. Straw said he found them objectionable and divisive.
Polls and letters to the editor suggest that a majority of Britons agree with him. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair has weighed in with a delicately worded expression of support for Mr. Straw. The anger revealed by this whole flap over a veil is something that European Muslims should not take lightly.
What is really in dispute here? Not, as one might assume, the right of British Muslim women to wear whatever they want in most situations. Which they do. Many wear the same things as everyone else. Some opt for the head scarf, or hijab, banned in French and German schools but such a common sight in Britain that no one blinks at it.
The niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered, is not so widely worn, but again, if a woman in Britain feels compelled to ward off unwelcome attention in that attention-getting way, she is generally free to do so.
But not always. The current dispute surely is about judging what is appropriate in a particular time and place. The time is one of acute sensitivity, not just to murderous terrorist surprises but to expressions of Muslim assertiveness, such as the clamor over Danish cartoons of Muhammad, an ambiguous speech by the pope and a scene in a German opera, that strike many in the West as disproportionate and confrontational. And the place is Britain, not Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.
It’s a pretty multicultural society, all things considered, but full Muslim garb is simply not mainstream there, and it is a provocation to pretend otherwise. The niqab is actually so extreme a form of dress it is banned in some Muslim countries, such as Turkey, and is a subject of intense debate in others, such as Egypt. So some reciprocal flexibility is called for from Britain’s more belligerent veil-wearers.
What that means is that while the niqab might be all right for a trip to the supermarket, it is not sensible to dress up like a suicide bomber to take a driving test. Or to go through passport and security checks at the airport. Or to attend a job interview. Or, in most people’s view, to teach.
Aisha Azmi, the teaching assistant who was suspended in West Yorkshire because she wouldn’t remove her face veil in the classroom she shared with a man, said she had “a brilliant relationship” with her pupils. Nobody, however, seems to have asked the pupils or their parents if they agree.
One can see how a teacher veiled head to toe in black might intimidate children. Similarly, Mr. Straw’s admission that he asked constituents visiting his office to show their faces when they spoke to him does not seem unreasonable. Why should consideration flow in only one direction?
There is no “right” or “wrong” view of this extraordinary garment. Look at the challenge it poses to feminists, who bounce back and forth between defending women’s freedom to wear whatever they choose and decrying the servitude to, and fear of, men that it suggests. Last week, it was hard not to sympathize with the writer Salman Rushdie in his forthright support of Mr. Straw’s stand.
“He was expressing an important opinion,” Mr. Rushdie said, “which is that veils suck. Which they do. . . . I think the veil is a way of taking power away from women.” At the same time, it was hard not to admire the vision painted by Ms. Azmi’s lawyer of a society in which religious and cultural differences went unremarked and the niqab was just another everyday outfit.
Unfortunately, that happy place is not today’s Britain. Even some Muslims have expressed surprise, if not outright consternation, that the full veil is being worn there by more young women rather than fewer, since it is not a strict requirement of Islam and is associated with societies in which women lack education and influence. Mr. Blair broached that topic Tuesday when he suggested some women might be wearing the niqab as “a mark of separation” rather than for strictly religious reasons. If true, it would link this furor to those earlier showings of Islamic self-assertion that have caused such ill-will across Europe.
The question for British Muslims is whether they want to stand apart from society more than they want to blend in — and if so, how they can do that in a constructive and accommodating way. It may be time to unveil a new approach.
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