Its quite amazing when you think of it..walking or driving around East London, where I am staying currently, I see far more veiled women than I see in Mumbai or Delhi or any Indian city. Which is not to say they are not there. Its just that in my travels in India, I do encounter burkha clad women but rarely veiled women and that too fully veiled ones at that.

Former British home secretary Jack Straw has kicked up a blazing debate in Britain by saying Muslim women should consider dropping their veils in order to communicate better and foster community relations. He expressed this in an article in a local newspaper The Lancashire Telegraph where he said he felt uncomfortable speaking to veiled visitors to his constituency in Blackburn.

A day later (two days ago) he did something unusual for politicians (at least considering where I come from) reacting to a backlash – he stood by his statements. Then, he went on to say he would prefer it if Muslim women never covered up. When asked if he would rather the veils be discarded completely. “Yes, It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”

Muslims Split Too

In the same article Straw said a meeting with a veiled woman had made him consider the apparent incongruity between her entirely English accent and UK education and the wearing of the veil. “It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking,” he wrote.

Interestingly, the issue has split Muslims in Britain as well. Groups like the Lancashire Council of Mosques have attacked him, others like Dr Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain said he understood Straw’s views. “The veil does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this,” he said, adding Muslim opinion was divided on the veil (Evening Standard).

Prime minister of Britain Tony Blair, the Bishop of London and Jemima Khan have backed Straw’s right to comment on the matter. While the PM has not said anything further, Khan (a convert) has said there is nothing in the Koran which says covering the face is mandatory.

A Question of Identity

The issue as everyone know is larger. Its about integration. Britain clearly feels that millions of immigrants later, there is not a cohesive British identity, rather one of split identities. The fact that radicalized Islam has reached out to some young British Muslims too causes concern. Another raging debate here is whether universities are being used as recruiting grounds by such groups. There is a report out on the issue.

Am personally quite fascinated by this subject, not as much as the impact of radical Islam (though I’ve been doing some reading on its origins) but the very concept of a nation-state and its collective identity. Jack Straw may be right or wrong in his views but I would support his asking whether certain cultural practices go against the grain of his nation-state.

I would support similar questioning in India as well –not on veils since I don’t see it as an issue. Nor is it in other countries including apparently America. That's also to do with the nature of immigration I guess, of the kind permitted into the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Or the kind of people and when they came in.

Problems For The Future ?

My sense is that more and more countries are going to question their policies of free-for-all immigration and assimilation, often driven by economic necessity, on social grounds. It seems to me that the social price (tension between communities) to pay for relentless opening up of a country is not going to be offset by economic gains. This is a problem that will occupy the liberal politicians of the west in days to come. I wish to initiate some debates on this as well.

I do wonder at this point whether:

a) Do nations have a right to determine what their citizens wear ? Where does that definition stop or should it stop ?
b) Does the wearing of a veil by (mostly Muslim) women go against the grain of the society of they live in ?
c) Who decides, particularly in a democracy where a veiled UK citizen has as many rights as a non-veiled one !

The answers will be interesting and varied and may have ramifications on our own multicultural society and elements within in that may `break’ out or have a distinct identity.


Jason said…
Attempts to homogenize society will always meet with resistance because hardcore traditionalists exist on both sides of the fence, albeit in varying degrees of intensity.

Goodwill and trust will prevail only if both sides understand and respect each other. Attempts to integrate society without understanding the people and their emotions and religious restrictions, thereby bulldozing over the less influential, will only accumulate more friction and the result will be rebellion.

The ploy should be "Let them be".

We are all different. And it can get uncomfortable at times, but thats tolerable. The consequences of fury let loose ,as a result of bottled up anger and resentment, may not be tolerable...
RameshJ said…
States should not be allowed to regulate what we wear. The society does that for us. Each section of society may be in a different state of evolution of "what is acceptable". And even in this evolution you would find "the survival of the fittest". So which ever type of dress is most convinient for that section of society will eventually win and will become "what is acceptable"
Arshad said…
State intervention in dress code is determined by your belief system. I have addressed it in my blog.
Anonymous said…
Society and certainly government, cannot and should not determine what we wear, what we do in our personal lives, what we watch and everything else that is about personal choices.
We live in a multi cultural world. The veil (niqab, hijab, Khimar) to muslim women is what the turban is to the Sikhs, the cloth skull caps to muslim men and yarmulkes are to jewish men, the jalabia of arab men, the head gear worn by arab men called the kafiyyeh and it is traditional, not religious. Wearing the kafiyyeh is similar to an African American wearing traditional African attire, or an Indian wearing a sari. The kafiyyeh shows identity and pride in one's culture.
In islam, the hijab, or headscarf, is worn by women because it is considered modest – imagine what an attempt to get them to remove it means – it attacks their belief of what is modesty.
.And am certain this is not just for the various ethnic communities in India but surely applies to other ethnic groups – each have their own ethos, customs they choose to cling to. History is testimony to the fact that religion is a very explosive and sensitive issue – when enforced, it has always resulted in the worst blood shed and loss of human lives. It does not help that there is this increased polarization courtesy the ‘mad man in the caves’ (in your words and who was responsible for your airport transit nightmare among other things). Any enforcement or statements of this nature are going to scrape wounds which are still raw and far from healing…. It goes without saying being a Muslim in today’s word is probably the worst thing. I fear that these prejudices or attempts to integrate are only going to create an increased ghetto type approach for these communities where ever they exist and chances are they will seek their identity and sense of being by turning to their religion and their kind.

While I agree the veil is discomforting and for all my own ‘openness’ of mind, I too find it disconcerting to talk to someone let alone with a complete veil but even their head covered….. but if this needs to change, the change should be a result of the awakening of the Muslim community itself – an attempt by them to integrate themselves into mainstream life for their own sakes.

Integration is best done when it’s not just enforced, but is a felt need by the community itself. More importantly, integration is best done when the diversity with which it needs to exist is accepted.

A great example of integration (excluding their dwindling numbers) is the parsis – their promise to be like sugar mixed in milk (or was it the other way) when they came to India centuries ago holds good even today – they have their own distinct identity (and how!) but they have become a sweet and important part of the diversity that is India.

I have to agree, if there is anything we as Indians have done is to in spite of such diversity, still stayed reasonably integrated. While the prejudices do creep in, as a whole, inspite of being at war with one country which is Islamic, we still have our very Muslim Indian’s who are a relevant and strong part of our India ness.

I believe, there is no debate – government and society cannot dictate what you wear. When things like what you wear, what you eat, what languageyou speak no longer remain a personal choice, then it’s the end of any claim of democracy or freedom.
Anonymous said…
mr govindraj,are you married? i'm just curious.
Anonymous said…
Govind, are you in London. Give me a call. - Girish Menezes(07791172144)
RameshJ said…
In Response to dreamcatcher
Society is going to regulate what is acceptable to wear. You can't get away from that. What you eat is yours to decide but what you wear also affects every one else who can see you. At best you can through Government attempt to minimise societal frowns, foster societies that offer wide latitude in what is acceptable to wear, hope that such societies continue to thrive and prosper and hope that societies that offer limited latitude disappear over time.
sophie said…
Interesting article.

I have read the Koran and
indeed it does not stipulate
the wearing of the veil
It suggests not flaunting
beauty and that is not
directed specifically at women
but at both sexes.

Whether it makes him uncomfortable
or not however, it is the
individuals choice to wear what
they choose.

I personally am uncomfortable
around men who wear ties but
that is - of course - their choice:)
Lubna said…
Hi Govind. I am back in blog land after ages. Sophie, I so agree with you. Jason, well said.
andy said…
Wearing veil seems to have become more popular in recent times in India and now as you say, abroad also. I do not see how we can communicate with a fully covered individual in a complete manner.

In times to come, western countries would strongly protest against a section of the community wearing veil and following practices which are seen to be retrograde by contemporary standards.

While religous tolerance is a necessity of any developed country, it does not mean that ancient and medieval practices would also be accepted.
shikha said…
1.Would Jack straw also mind a rajput women wearing" the ghongat" in britain...I doubt so?

2.These concerns have surfaced after 9/11 and raising belief that Islam is equals terrorism.

3. It is important muslims are allowed to wear what they want to hear and retain their identity(if muslims personally think that wearing a velis is an identity proof).

4. I think that companies have woken up to the fact of free immegration after 9/11 and now want to impose restrictions on some religions like Islam
Anonymous said…
در اجرای طرح ارتقای امنيت اجتماعی که از ابتدای ارديبهشت‌‏ماه آغاز شده, برخورد با مالکان خودروهای حامل افراد بدحجاب در دستور کار پليس قرار گرفته است، بر اساس اين طرح خودروهای حامل فرد بدحجاب يا خودروهايی که زنان بدحجاب راننده آن هستند، توسط ماموران اجرای طرح امنيت اخلاقی يا ماموران راهنمايی و رانندگی توقيف و به پارکينگ منتقل می‌‏شوند.
به گزارش خبرنگار ايلنا, نيروی انتظامی با اين توجيه که حضور فرد بدحجاب در خودرو از جرائم مشهود محسوب می‌‏شود، نسبت به برخورد با خودروهای حامل فرد بدحجاب اقدام کرده و راساً به توقيف خودروها می‌‏پردازد.

ماموران زنا زاده پلیس راهنمایی رانندگی ایران بجای اینکه هزاران راننده که مانند حیوانات با سرعت غیر مجاز، عبور ممنوع و صدها مورد جرایم مشهود خطرناک را پیگیری کنند در برابر این جرایم سکوت می کنند و ماشین افرادی را که موهایشان پیداست توقیف می کنند!

آی کیر خوک و خر و سنده خوک و خر تو کس حضرت زهرا بنت رسول الله چون ملایان می خواهند ایرانیان مثل این فاحشه قریش باشند.
سنده سگ تو کس ننه و زن و دختر رسول الله به خاطر این قوانین مسخره و حیوانی قرآن.
سنده شیطان تو حلق محمد قرآن شد.
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