Britain and the Veil: From Jack Straw to Jeremy Browne

The debate about whether or not “we” should have a debate about banning “veils” has returned – or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the volume has been raised, since this is a debate that seems to have been running in the background for most of the last decade. The amount of material on this topic is huge and seemingly endless, and the interest in rehashing the debate seems excessive, given that the face veil is worn by a tiny minority of the minority of Muslim women in the West.

Jeremy Browne. [Source].

This time the veil ban issue was brought back into the headlines by Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat, who as this Telegraph article reports, has argued that a “national debate” about the veil is needed in Britain.

Browne is the latest in a long line of British politicians who have shared their thoughts on the subject of what Muslim women should wear in public. Jack Straw set that ball rolling back in 2006, when he shared his sense of discomfort about women wearing veils when they spoke to him. Tony Blair, Nigel Griffiths, Phil Woolas, and David Davis have also commented on the veil. The right-wing parties UKIP (UK Independence Party) and BNP (British National Party) recently did a switcheroo, in which the side that had advocated a total ban (UKIP) switched sides with the one that advocated a ban in schools (BNP).  So the debate about the veil seems alive and well in Britain. But apparently, since no ban resulted, the debate needs to “begin” – again.

Browne says that while he is “instinctively uneasy” about banning behaviour, he thinks Britain should consider banning Muslim girls and young women from wearing veils in schools and public places – or as the article put it: “Mr Browne suggested the measure may still be necessary to ensure freedom of choice for girls in Muslim communities.”

I had to read that sentence twice. A ban to ensure freedom of choice. How does that work exactly?  Another quote from Browne clarifies this somewhat:

“But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married.”

The argument then seems to be about the degree to which children can exercise free choice, and make mature decisions about particular subjects. That does to me seem reasonable. I share the opinion of Salma Yaqoob, former leader of the Respect party, who has expressed her discomfort with seeing young girls wearing hijab, in a discussion with former EDL (English Defense League) founder and leader Stephen Yaxley Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson).

Yaqoob was speaking about young girls who wear the hijab when they are clearly not old enough to understand the debates around whether it is or isn’t a religious obligation or a way of dressing “modestly” – even when they might have wanted to wear it. For example, I have seen little girls wrap any available cloth around the house over their heads, in the same way as I have seen little girls clomp around the house in their mother’s high heels. Young girls often want to look like their mother or their aunt or older sister. Do we then talk about socialization? Do we say that this invalidates choice? In this case, all women socialized into various models of femininity are essentially without choice. [Read more...]