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October 16, 2006



A facetious question with a serious point. How about if the teacher in question were to wear S&M gear every day?

"if they wish to wear [S&M gear]and draw personal and spiritual strength from wearing [S&M gear], that is their decision in a liberal society".

The rest of that paragraph could continue as written, couldn't it? Or couldn't it? Why should religious costumes be allowed and others not?

Dave Hill

It's not a facetious question, it's a good one. As I wrote, I would be concerned if my daughter's Muslim teacher wanted to wear a veil in class. And, without knowing all the facts, I'm inclined to think the Dewsbury teacher shouldn't do it. There should be rules about what attire people wear in the workplace - be it a school or anywhere else - and these should be drawn up to reflect the best interests of those who work in it. So I wouldn't want teachers to work in classrooms wearing leather hoods and on the end of someone else's leash. But on the street is different. There need to be rules there too, but not the same ones. And as far as I'm aware S&M devotees are not being singled out as fellow travellers of enemy in the 'war on terror" - thought please correct me if I'm wrong.


Dear Dave

I struggle to see how Jack Straw's comments lead to a denigration of all Muslims.

Nobody said we were or are going to adopt a ban on the veil.

Asking for a discussion is not irrational, condesending or islamophobic. Why shouldn't there be a discussion on the way "new" Islam fits in with British society? I call it "new" as established British Muslims tend, on the whole, eschew the full face covering burka- what Jack Straw was talking about.

BTW, everytime the Guardian et al interview a "muslim leader" they trot out the Islamic equivalent of Dr Ian Paisley. They never seem to manage to speak to the everyday British Muslims, the majority, who work hard, integrate and who openly say "If you object to this country so much why are you here?"

As an immigrant myself, I have to agree.

The real problem is what it always has been for the white British middle classes- and that is colonial guilt. All I can say is it's time to get over that and move on to the 21st century.

You will find that the trouble here is not duplicated in the USA. The difference is people go to live in America to be Americans. People come to the UK and a significant minority want to crystalize their culture in time and remain completely separate from the mainstream. In the USA, the Amish etc work with the system and remain true to their beliefs. Here, a small, but significant of Muslims want to live by sharia law and an even smaller, but still significant amount will not be happy until a green flag is flying over parliament- and consider all options open in acheiving that end.

I know it is the post-colonial middle-class hand wringing knee jerk response to apologise existing and to indulge in a hand-wringing exercise on how we can make everyone more welcome here- but the truth is not everyone wants what we have. So do you engage in a temperate discussion with those who feel are are so separated- or do you put it up on a shelf- never discussed, never looked at- for fear of being called "islamophobic"?

As for Phil Dumbass, ministers should know better to comment on live litigation matters.


No, they're not. But I reckon if they started walking down the High Street in their clobber the Mail and Telegraph readers (who are, in my opinion, the most likely wearers of such garments) would be up in arms about the a war on our culture and so on.

In any case, it's not what the particular costume is, it's why some costumes are acceptable and others aren't. Clearly, a 3-piece suit is a costume, as is a t-shirt and jeans, and both are acceptable to most (I personally have a much stronger dislike of besuited types than any religious folks). So if people are really going to talk about what is and is not acceptable garb in public, they are going to have to think quite hard about what they want to say. If they have the least desire to be consistent, obviously.

The politicans don't like Muslims wearing veils, but I guess they don't have a problem with Christian brides doing it. Why not? "Cos brides aren't terrorists", the cry goes up. Neither are Muslims, obviously.

I wasn't having a go, I just wondered where you/we/they draw the line, and how you/we/they justify drawing it at one specific place and not another.

BTW, I agree with not at school. It should apply to crucifixes, yin/yang badges, long hair as displaying membership of some subculture, very short hair as displaying membership of some subculture etc etc.


A great post and some good comments. However I heard today that the women in question attended her interview without the veil, even though there were men in attendence.

I think she's on a sticky wicket!

Matt M

This post is one of the best I've read in this whole veil debate - you've managed to get a balanced take on the issue, something which has somehow escaped a lot of other commentators.

As far as I'm concerned, the government has no right telling people how to dress - unless your clothing risks causing (physical) harm to others. If it were up to me, we'd be allowed to cover up as much, or as little as we want to. Though obviously certain restrictions need to apply when it comes to things such as passport control and driving licenses, etc.

The rest of us, perhaps aided by the government, need to have a debate about how we deal with those who are different. A debate which will hopefully promote a bit of tolerance and understanding of that difference.

I think the biggest problem for a lot of people is that we simply don't know enough about the Muslim community in this country to make a valid judgement on the veil: people should have the right to wear what they want (with a few unavoidable boundries on account of "decency" - which will always be arbitrary to some extent), but if (and I stress: if) there's religious and social pressure on women to wear it, then is it actually a choice? If there is such pressure, then is it really different from the pressures on everyone else? How many women even wear a veil, come to that?

As for the teacher... it really comes down to whether her wearing a veil interferes with her job. Not sure how you'd determine that properly though.

Ms Baroque

Dave, what worries me is the extent to which the line is blurred between "forced" and "own free will." Much of the Islam we are talking about - not educated, liberal, urban Islam, not the intelligentsia - is a gender-segregated social construct; I spent five years working in an environment in which young women (older ones aren't working) cover their hair "because they want to be more religious," which is code for "not be castigated by the men" - and don't say anything in meetings (even when asked what they think, about an anodyne issue) because you just don't when there are men present. Sure, free will. But also forced.

I'm noticing an absence, in this Great Veil Debate, of the voices of one particular demographic group.

Now why do we think that is? Not seen and not heard in public? Even I, a woman, am not who should be writing about this - but where are all the women who should be?

I worked with men whose wives not only stayed home; the men left the office to go do the school run at 3.30, took the kids home to the wife in the house, and went back to work. I met one of these men walking down the road one day with his wife. She really WAS covered head to foot, she really WAS walking behind, and he was pushing the buggy, and she was very awkward over the what-to-say-when-you-say-hello thing. I also never found out her name, she was simply "my wife". That IS cultural. And also made me very uncomfortable! (I know; my problem.)

I do believe that if you believe, firmly and strongly asnd in your bones, in the complete equality of women (especially if you ARE a woman) it is hard to reconcile that with the very idea of having to cover yourself from view, and never let yourself be seen, on account of being a woman. It is a VERY threatening idea. My great-grandmother's generation faught for the vote and for the right to live their lives as conscious, independent adults. And the idea behind the veil, that of covering your beauty and keeping it private for one special man, is a sexual codification of normal everyday activity that is really scary. I was already a wide reader when I was little, and this stuff scared me stiff.

Then again that is my conviction, and I know guys who hold convictions just as strong which I can never agree with. One can say, okay, hold your convictions; there is no such thing anyway as a 'right' conviction; except that I think the equality of women is just as right as those guys think the segregation of women is. And does being a 'religious' conviction make it somehow okay? Burning Catholics at the stake was once 'okay'. We do need to say, this is what we believe in, and then follow it through.

Whoever 'we' is.

For what it's worth, I also agree with your quote above about the possibility of being religious and rational. My best friend is tattooed, pierced and deeply Catholic, and my grandfather (and his, and his and his) was a minister; I was raised, as it were, in the Church. So I don't feel threatened by religion. My grandmother always worked, for years as a secretary for the church office. I do think it is terribly sad that Europe is losing touch with its cultural heritage - which religion does represent, through the churches, use of language, music, and just as the driver of human events. I'm not saying we should keep oppression, or the martyrdom of heretics, or the rejection of other groups. I also grew up in a place where almost everybody was Jewish. (In fact, with my New York accent and my dark - Welsh, in fact - hair and eyes, I'm often mistaken for Jewish, and it pleases me for some reason.) But I'm not advocating burning Catholics.

And the debate we're having isn't essentially about the impulse of religion, not really. It's about immigrant groups hanging on to ossified cultural traits, defensive against the tide of culture rising from the adopted home. It's about dialectic politics on the world stage, simplified by people of little education (sorry, but true); it's about young men being angry; it's about how we as a species deal with the global village. It feels to me like the death throes of something - maybe just an assumption, if we're lucky. If we're not lucky, Western civilisation (just like they predicted when I was a kid).

Sorry - another long, top-of-the-head comment! This must be a complete mess. I'm reading Orhan Pamuk's book on Istanbul and I strongly recommend it. He's a guy who understands the conflict inherent in the modern cultural identity.

PS - I've previewed this comment three times. I'm clearly a bit scared to press 'send' - so here goes...


Ms Baroque, a lot of sensible comments there, but I strongly disagree with this: "It's about immigrant groups hanging on to ossified cultural traits, defensive against the tide of culture rising from the adopted home. It's about dialectic politics on the world stage, simplified by people of little education (sorry, but true); it's about young men being angry; it's about how we as a species deal with the global village". It's not. It's about whether it's OK for women to wear pieces of cloth over their faces or not. All the rest of it is extraneous.

Some people, mostly male judging from the public pronouncements made so far, seem to feel threatened by women wearing the aformentioned cloth. Others don't. It really is as simple as that.

BTW. There's no need to be scared of pressing 'send'. It's pixels. Pixels can't harm you.

Ms Baroque

Szwagier, thanks for the encouragement! You write: "It's not. It's about whether it's OK for women to wear pieces of cloth over their faces or not. All the rest of it is extraneous."

Not in my old neighbourhood it ain't! And the send button is scary because I've already got people in my old neighbourhood threatening me with libel. Trust me, I do know what I'm talking about! I know a lot of girls wearing, at least hijab... I've spoken to them about why, and I've heard about the harassment ("uncovered whores") they suffered when they weren't wearing them. I'm saying that this is cultural, not necessarily religious. And recent immigrant groups are indeed shown to behave in certain predictable ways.

I reiterate my point that I think it's bizarre that Muslim women are the only group not vocal in this debate. (And I think I'm scared to hit send!)

I'd love to hear more from them and not have to rely on my own observation.


They probably have more important things to worry about than what a bunch of white middle-class loudmouths like the politicians (and me, come to that) think of their dress code.

If there was a public outcry about the way I dress, I'd ignore it and get on with life.

Libel? As long as you're making clear it's an opinion you're offering, and you're not claiming it as truth, they can stick their libel threats where the sun don't shine. Behind a veil, for example.


That was an opinion, BTW.


Ms Baroque is spot on.

Noosa Lee

I've just done a long blog on this myself. I have a similar experience to Ms Baroque of working within Muslim communities and seeing first hand young women clearly not being extended the freedom to express themselves either physically or verbally that we all expect to enjoy in a free society. It's frightening to see the extent to which people are not prepared to incorporate that fact into an otherwise reasonable debate. We know that women have been killed by male family members for refusing to conform to cultural imperatives - like accepting an arranged marriage for example. That is one end of a very wide spectrum. We need to understand this if we have any chance of supporting women whose rights to freedom of expression need protection from within their own community. Having said that, I am vehemently opposed to the way in which Jack Straw took it upon himself to trigger this 'open debate' with his personal preferences and observations. And I'm even madder that the entire responsibility this political construct of 'separateness' has been suddenly thrust at women who have little or no influence over it.


Hmm. In my town I have noticed a trend. Young women are choosing to wear headscarves. I see girls at the mall with what appears to be their moms. Mom isn't in a headscarf and the teen is. Many of these people are second and third generation Americans. The local schools allow headscarves as long as they aren't, youknow, 'do-rags'.


Okay, so I'm trying to imagine some kind of parallel universe in which this debate would make sense. How about kilts? Weren't they disallowed at some point? Maybe it's kinda like that? Garments which speak to cultural identity?

Dave Hill

All the comments above have given me great food for thought and I'm grateful for them. If I can find a fresh angle on the extraordinary events of the past twelve days I'm going to write at greater length about it again soon here and/or at Comment Is Free. Briefly, though, on the niqab and freedom of women, let me stress again what seems to me a key distinction in how the issue is addressed.

I'm against gender apartheid in any form and within any culture or social group: it is Bad For People. I am also in favour of people looking outwards rather than inwards, of their being open to and adopting multi-facetted identities (I'm so glad I escaped from the suffocating parochialism of the small English town where I grew up).

My saying this, though, is very different from a leading Labour politician or 'liberal' commentator (such as Henry Porter or Polly Toynbee) pronouncing that all Muslim women who wear veils should stop doing it because it is, by definiton, oppressing them as and/or indicating a rejection of liberal democratic values.

The trouble with this ('muscular liberal'?) approach is it that discounts the views and motives of such women themselves, which are undoubtedly varied, ambiguous and as contradictory as the views of all sorts of women and men on all sorts of cultural practices. The effect of such tickings off from on high is to further objectify, and therefore reduce the autonomy of, the women concerned. Not very helpleful or liberal, I don't think.

The ultimate goal, surely, must be for Muslim women to have as free a choice as possible about wearing a niqab or not wearing a niqab, just as we wish all women - and men - to have more and freer choices about how they lead their lives. Of course, all the choices any of us make about anything in terms of our identities are made within the context of social pressures and expectations which often restrict us and even bully us. This is wrong. But we will not help Muslim women who long for greater self-determination to obtain it by attacking those who cover their faces. By doing so, we make them still more powerless, still more invisible, their voices even less heard.


I think it is wrong to allow a group of people to seclude themselves from society by masking their face. The veil worn in public makes it clear that 'they don't to be part of society'. In view of the reasons for the veil being worn 'men are pressumed to have no control over their sexual urges and women that don't cover are pressumed to be without dignity' i think it's highly immorally and offensive to all men and women, when this garment is worn. It judges all men to be sex beasts and women without dignity. No one should be given the right to discriminate against men and women in public. Nor should they be allowed to cry racist when challenged about showing their face. Racism doesn't come into it. Racism is a lever being used to further a right to wear a garment that is a religious symbol no less. Religious beliefs of this extremeness belong in the home or places of worship where they don't infringe on the rights of others. In addition, the veil gives out mixed messages to different people, i asked a young boy why he thought the teacher hid her face when the man came in the classroom, he replied 'the women had done something wrong and was scared of the man'. That insight from a 9 year old boy is shocking. That said, the actions of the veiled teacher teach young girls cover up its shameful to show ones body', it also teaches that women are submissive and that men are to be feared. These are indoctrinations we don't want to force onto children in schools. The veiling could also cause young boys to grow up resenting women as it tells them 'you are not worthy to share my space'.
As for the outcry in regard to jack straws request, a simple one that most of us never need to be asked 'can i see your face', i find it laughable that he was labelled as being racist. Eye tests require the face to be unveiled, so does dental treatment and operations? I take it that all veilers go without these things??? So are these people that offer these services also racist? I think not. When the racist card is played by veilers its nothing more than an attempt to get their own way. Where is my right to see who i am talking to? Racism has no place in this issue. This issus is about veilers wearing a uniform to identifiy their difference. I also perceive it as a display of their intolerance for people that are different to them. To allow a group of people to wear publically their beliefs over their head and face is intimidating, it also ensures they dont have to participate in society. The purpose of the veil is to cause a barrier, it does that with flying colours. I feel let down by the powers that be for allowing this divide to happen. Showing your face is respectful in uk. Helmets are removed out of respect, so are hoodies and hats. Why should a group of people be allowed to hide their face? No one elses difference offends me as they don't hide their face and peer out from behind a veil. This is 2007, not 700. No one should be able to make others feel as if they are not worthy. Religion has too much importance in society and it's all one sided. No one should have the right to wear a portable barrier to keep out those different to them. I do think human rights are being manipulated by veilers and that they have the upper hand. What about the rights of others that don't hide their face? We have none. Only in the workplace can a female be prevented from veiling, as it's sexually discriminating against men when they veil among them.
Communication problems caused by veils are another matter. Voices are muffled under a cloth. I could go on about this issue but i think the video of the teacher on u-tube makes clear the difficulty in understanding what the teacher was saying. She too had trouble understanding the questions put to her.
When veilers liken their right to veil to that of a surgeons, its laughable almost. Some other instances of masks worn are below: Bike riders helmet is worn to protect the head from injury should they crash.

Surgeons or dentists' surgical mask
is worn to protect from blood splashes and to prevent infection. It's also smaller and thinner and attaches around the ears. Its the surgeons/dentist duty to protect the patient and themselves from infection.

Rugby and hockey players face mask and helmet is worn to protect from injury.

Welder's mask is worn for health and saftety reasons.

Fencer's mask is worn to protect from injury.
Not veiling doesn't cause the wearer health and safety issues. Veils are also not required for speech. If they were life saving, i would accept them. If the person had a skin allergy to daylight, no one would object as exposure to light can kill people with this condition.
I think all religious dress symbols should be banned from the workplace and schools, so that no one can wear anything religious. That way the rule is fair. Schools are not there to accomadate religious requests, they are there to educate children. Religion belongs in the home and in places of worship. Until this loophole is tightened up, there will not be equality among men and women. France and Turkey imposed dressing curbs, why on earth can't the UK. On a larger scale, how do we know who we are talking too? If we can't see them....The veil is not a religious requirement in the quran and it's not compulory in Islam, so why is it choice here? How does one know all those that wear it, do so by choice? Given that females would be scared to speak out against their forcer.

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