If there’s one thing that encompasses Islam-West relations, women’s rights and religious expression all at once, it’s the ongoing debate surrounding the veil of Muslim women in England. A number of British leaders have spoken up, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, calling it “a mark of separation” for Muslim women.
Earlier this month, cabinet member Jack Straw claimed the veil “made community relations more difficult.” And just recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury claimed “there was nothing wrong” with a Muslim woman’s choice to take up the veil.
The controversy traces back to when a teacher wearing a veil was fired because, according to the students, she was hard to understand and they were distracted from learning. She refused to remove her veil and the school refused to continue her employment – the rest is the story as we know it. Tensions within the British Muslim community (one of the largest in Europe) are once again on the rise and riots are predicted.
What differentiates this situation from the banning of scarves in French schools is that the scarf is more of a requirement for women, while Islamic law does not require the veil. Therefore, the veil is usually more reflective of a woman’s personal choice and values. Upon entering Mecca or Medina, the two holiest Islamic cities, women are forbidden to wear it. I see this as a conflict of social norms rather than a religious conflict. It is generally considered a Western norm for people to communicate face to face and to have eye contact, which brings about the problem of communication with a veiled woman, pointed out by Jack Straw. But the problem is, it is framed more as a religious problem and is therefore forced into the West-Islam dialectic.
To present a parallel, I find the example of clowns rather relevant. If you’re a clown, you’re ok as long as you’re at a birthday party or a carnival. But if you try to act out a normal existence, you’re bound to run into problems. Personally, I find the concept of a clown riding the subway as scary, and would probably think it was plotting for world domination. However, I’ll admit it, I’m not like most people. Most people would probably just find it hilarious. It doesn’t coincide with the usual norms of acceptance, and yet, it’s funny.
But it seems there’s nothing funny about veils. Instead, it stands for the subjugation of women, the embodiment of separation between the East and West; it prevents communication. Here’s an idea: how about we make communication more about ideas and what is actually said, instead of who is saying it? Or how about we look at the veil as part of a Muslim woman’s choice (at least in England – Saudi Arabia is another story), much like what clothing we choose to wear on our other body parts?
I think only when we start thinking more simply about the veil and putting it in these contexts that we can stop forcing it into a larger dichotomy that is largely incorrect and only seeks to create panic and tension on a massive scale.