Jack Straw's thinly veiled abuse of power

I am no supporter of the veil. I have grave reservations about women wearing it, and serious disagreements with the allegedly Islamic principles on which the practice is based. But the struggle against this hoary old religious chestnut has to be founded on understanding and reasoned argument. Jack Straw's assault on the niqab, the full-face veil, lacks both. Indeed, I am flabbergasted by the sheer ignorance, simple errors of logic and law, and lack of cultural understanding demonstrated by the former Foreign Secretary.

Straw informs us that a regular stream of Muslim women visit his surgery to be counselled by him. A few come complete with a niqab, which means he can see nothing of their face except their eyes. A series of revelations follow from this simple reality.

First, he informs us that he defends "absolu tely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf. As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws." But he asks them to remove their niqab. So, Muslim women exercising their democratic right to consult their elected and paid repre sentative, and engaging in perfectly legal behaviour, must defer to the superior power and predilections of Straw. Surely, that is an abuse of power - power exerted over constituents who are in no position to refuse? Isn't this the definition of sexual harassment? As a lawyer by training, Straw ought to know that if any employer behaved that way in the workplace he would be on a fast track to an employment tribunal.

Second, Straw tells us he was "surprised" to learn the women's husbands had played no part in their decision to adopt the niqab. Further, probably with equal surprise since he particularly notes the fact, Straw found that the women did most of the talking about the problems on which he was consulted. So we are dealing with women who are not oppressed and are articulate and intelligent. They have shown tremendous courage in standing up to their men in a highly patriarchal tradition. So, what does Straw do? He orders them to remove their niqab, thus exercising his manly power over them. Once again, a man ends up deciding what is appropriate, acceptable and tolerable for a Muslim woman.

Third, Straw defends his action on the grounds that comprehensive communication can be achieved only by looking someone full in the face. This assumes a universal mode of facial communication. But body language is the most basic cultural imprinting of all. As endless anthropological studies testify, facial expressions are not universal but culturally driven: they are what we learn unconsciously from our cultures and they are the hardest things to change. When English people assent they nod their heads up and down. When Asians, all Asians, assent they nod their heads from side to side, which for most white people might be the equivalent of saying "no, no" or "I don't know". It is truly dumbfounding that someone with so many Asian constituents is not aware of cultural differences in communication.

But it gets worse: the women who wear the niqab wear it precisely because they do not want to look at a man face to face, in the eye. They are seeking to observe the religious law that asks them to "lower their gaze", hide their facial expressions. So Straw asks them to deliberately violate what they hold most sacred and would be none the wiser for looking at their facial expressions because he would not be able to read them anyway.

Fourth, Straw argues in conclusion that wearing the niqab is a "visible statement of separation and difference". How separate and different are women coming to consult their MP, presumably to secure or defend their civic rights as British citizens, seeking to be? The theory advanced by the intelligent and articulate British Muslim women who wear the niqab is that their mode of dress is adopted to enable their full participation in society without being demeaned, reduced and pigeonholed by the conventions of a commoditised consumer culture and its insistent sexualisation of women. By insisting on seeing these women as separate and different simply because they dress in a particular way, Straw has objectified them. By insisting on seeing their faces, he has sexualised them. Thus, he confirms their worst suspicions and demonstrates the validity of their theory.

And here's the coup de grâce. In the process of exercising his power and superior rights, Straw has silenced the legitimate concerns and questions of the vast majority of British Muslim women. All those who disagree with the theory and practice of niqab, like my daughter, must in all conscience support the views of women with whom they do not agree, and whose choice they feel should be exercised differently. Well done, Jack Straw MP!

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