The latest veil controversy: in defence of Straw's argument*

Never before I felt such a great symapthy and empathy for a Politician. And I was surprised Jack Straw would be this one. Nothing from what I knew about him prepared me for this new symapthy. I heard about the veil controversy this morning on the radio and thought that this was just another non-event transformed by our overzealous media as the event of the day and who knows may be the event of the month or the event of the next two or three months if they have no non sense to talk about. And of course there are all these extremist Muslim zealots giving their opinion on the matter and feeding the non-event.

I read Straw's opinion article about his interviews with Muslim women and why he asked them to uncover their face. He came out from this opinion as a fine human being. Straw's point was a humanist one. I think this is the first time I can see some honest objection to the veil based on a humanist approach and not some extremist secularism and what is the answer ? Western media and their present time darlings, Muslim extremists, are not able to pick up on the argument which can potentially bridge the divide between communities. There is no communication if you don't see the face of the Other and especially when this Other comes asking for help. There is no Other in the presence of the veil. I understand that some Muslim women might keep their veil in the street and I respect their choice, a woman is entitled not to be subjected to gratuitous scrutiny in the street or in the eyes of strangers and I think our civilisation with its overt insistance on coded appearances in a social setting with all their transformations and their sometimes provocative content has impoverished the face to face communication which is an open door to the soul of the Other beyond any appearance. In the absence of direct communication , looking at someone's face could indeed be a completely different matter, and it can be considered as voyeurism depending on the intentions of the moment. However, looking at someone's face in the presence of direct communication implying a dialogue, in which the two sides might engage in some theorising about the mental states of the Other, is a dialogue between two souls and two minds, it is no more voyeurism. In this setting, a veil deprives a woman from its soul and its mind in the face of the Other and this is where Straw's argument is highly valuable in my opinion.
Straw did ask Muslim women to unveil and he did it in a very subtle and gentle way and the women and their husbands accepted. So what's the hype about ? Instead of condemning and protesting, we should thank him for taking the veil controversy to another level, to a level where we humans should be communicating, with our souls and our minds and not with our ideolgies, being Muslim extremism or secularist extremism. And yes the latter exists, just ask the present Danish government, ask Hirsi Ali and some Islamophobics who cannot live without their extremist secularism...and this form of extremism, as much as Muslim extremism, is impoverishing and hindering the 'values' dialogue between Muslims and the West.

*UPDATE: A previous version of this post was written 'In defence of Jack Straw'. However after the heated and diverse debate around this post, I decided that a synthesis of all the arguments presented in the comment section makes it clear for all of us that we were not defending Straw but rather the argument advanced by Straw, on the condition that it comes with good intentions and that no matter the value of this argument, what is important, as some commentatots from both sides of the divide said, is that it allows a honest discussion in which everybody can see more than one aspect of this controversy, I believe...
Thanks for all the commentators, the comment section is not closed and everybody is encouraged to add new items and ideas to it...


L.M. said...

My impressions of this are very different. To me, Jack Straw is talking about his own comfort and making some broad assumptions about the response he is getting from the women involved. I think it's a patronizing and arrogant gesture that says more about his power since they are in his office and he is setting further terms for their dialogue.

Your approach to the issue actually does add arguments to the debate, but his approach is to eradicate any debate, basically to cancel any argument because he has a position that allows him to do so. (Though it seems he prefers to think that he is rescuing every distressed damsel that appears in his office.)

Sophia said...

You raise a good point. Cultural patronising. However I defended Straw's position for two reasons:
-Straw's demand should be put into context, direct communication. There is no real and equal communication without seeing someone's face. It is a biological matter. You have to identify with the person you are seeing and to theorise about her mental states and you cannot do this in the absence of the face. Our brain is equipped to simulate the movements of Others during a direct and active communication including the movements of the face. This ability allows us to feel empathy towards the person we are facing because we can identify with her and make assumptions about her mental states and even about the assumptions she actually has of our mental states. None of this wonderful silent communication can happen in the absence of the face. When someone comes asking me for help, I want to see her, his face, to be able to measure their reaction to what i am saying, etc...I think Straw's point is great and it should lift the veil controversy to a level where we can find common values which transcend our cultural and religious differences.
-I judged Straw ont he basis of his text. Whenever judging someone, you have to make charitable assumptions in the beginning about her, his intentions. Eventually if this person has bad intentions, they will end showing up during the argumentation, this is a logical process. But you can never start a discussion with someone by judging him on the basis of his intentions if they are not clearly stated. If he is covering up, it will eventually show in the argumenttion. We should always start by making charitable assumptions about the intentions of the people we are criticising. This is an ethical approach to communication.

ainelivia said...

There are many occasions when an MP is being asked to make a decision based only the facts as presented by person in front of them. Making the wrong decision can seriously damage their credibility and ultimately their ability to help other constituents.
As someone who has worked for an MP I know many of the cases brought to surgeries require the Member to be satisfied of the attendee’s identity and/or honesty.

L.M. said...


I thought a lot about the points you were making, and I would use your very same arguments for the necessity of eye contact in a live conversation. The same constraints exist in written communications, blog comments and telephone conversations, but we manage to look for alternative indications for someone's meanings. In conversation with any woman wearing a niqab, I end up looking straight in her eyes (normally I am lazy about this) and I listen carefully to what's being said and how it's being said. (normally I am disgustingly lazy about that too, ask my friends).

People have all sorts of boundaries when exchanging information, some of them we accept because they're familiar to our knowledge of customs, some we object to, perhaps because we believe they are a calculated sign of disrespect or an indication of dishonesty. Ideally, good communication involves mutual recognition and context. Straw's anecdotes about these conversations and his requests to speak to women unveiled, are taking place in his office and in his official capacity as an MP. This bothered me, ainelivia's response to this issue doesn't reassure me, there is something much more complex taking place in these instances.

As for Straw's text, one phrase that stuck me was "and most I ask seem relieved I have done so", to me this was very presumptuous on his part. I willingly admit I'm not inclined to afford a great deal of generosity towards someone in such a great a position of power.

I don't object to him engaging any woman in a conversation about this issue, the arguments from women who give a great deal of thought to this subject are interesting and important. I don't object to the larger discussion either, the comments in the Guardian are fascinating.

One thing that does puzzle me about his text is that he begins his essay by describing his interest being piqued by hearing a veiled woman speaking with "a broad Lancashire accent". I'm not sure I've sorted out all the implications of this yet, but I did wonder if this was a sign of cultural and religious choice that disturbed him. I may be wrong on this, but it was a strong impression.

Sophia said...

Thanks for the information. I believe looking in somene,s eyes can tell you if he is being honest or not. Actaully, we have a friend who did all his scientific carreer on blinking. He even studied blinking of the candidates for The US presidency and the candidate who blinks moreis usually going to lose the election. Blinking is connected to emotional discomfort and blinkers are more likely to lie. The only exception to this prediction was GWB. He blinked overall more than Al Gore but he ended up winning and we all know that he did so by cheating...

Sophia said...

I agree that Straw saying "and most I ask seem relieved I have done so" was tactless, it implies that the women in front of him were coerced in wearing the veil but then it must be true, who knows ? However this shouldn't be said...

Richard said...

Here's something just reported as having happened just a few hours ago here in my own city;Liverpool.

I think this is an example of the sort of thing that's not yet been considered -- well, certainly not addressed properly. For my own part, I feel that some of our 'local loonies' (here and elsewhere), will now become emboldened.

Nothing's ever plain & simple black & white, is it?

Veil snatched from Muslim woman

A Muslim woman's veil was snatched from her by a man who shouted racist abuse at a bus stop in Liverpool.

The 49-year-old, from Toxteth, was at the junction of Kensington and Holt Road when her veil was snatched by a tall white man in his 60s.

Insp Saied Mostaghel, of Merseyside Police, said: "This was a despicable attack, which has left the victim feeling extremely shocked and upset."

He added that police would not tolerate hate crimes.

"This kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in our communities and I would reassure local people that we are treating the matter very seriously," he said.

"We will be meeting with community leaders tomorrow to discuss any concerns they may have and I would ask anyone who may know who is responsible for this to come forward."

The attacker is described as slim with silver-grey hair and was wearing a light khaki jacket and grey trousers.

Sophia said...

What saddens me is that the children of lebanon and Gaza are dying from cluster bombs and from Israeli bombings and the world is concentrating on Mulsim women's veils...I have the feeling that there is some kind of manipulation going on. Nobodu noticed for example in the english spaeking press the call to end the Israeli-Arab conflict (published on this blog and by Le Monde). Isn't this surprising ?

L.M. said...

The fact that the letter of protest against Israeli policies has not been published in Britain would indicate to me that this debate isn't a smokescreen for that issue. But I assume that you're lamenting the fact that the discussion seems trivial in light of more pressing concerns in the Middle East, and I agree that your priorities are in place. (It also re-enforces my belief that all news services are ultimately local.)

I also believe you are correct in assuming that a manipulation is in place. What's debatable is the purpose and the desired outcome of the manipulation. There are many possibilities, since powerful politicians make detailed calculations with much advice. There has been some speculation that Straw, possibly with his eyes on the prize of leading Britain, may be eager to show that he is not under the control of a large Muslim constituency. There is much in Straw's text that makes me suspicious of his motivations. Newly posted articles in today's Guardian continue with further political speculations as well.

In your original posting, you do bring up an idea that's a revelation to me: secularist extremism. For some strange reason secularism didn't translate to ideology for me. (and now all these crazy light bulbs are going off in a previously underused part of my brain) With that in mind, some time in the future, I'd very much like to know how you would relate this to the 2004 French legislation outlawing religious dress in public schools. (at your leisure, of course.)

Now I'll shut up for a while.

ainelivia said...

Hallo everyone, I'm in a hurry here, Saturday morning shopping. Just quickly read all the comments. Yes, there are some very uncomfortable issues around this, however, what I feel is that it needs to be debated in British society. And by that I mean that the non-Muslim population need to have the opportunity to discuss what we feel about the Niquab. Personally the veil is not a problem for me. But I have to admit that the Niquab feels rather creepy to me. I also feel some reluctance attempting conversation with someone who is my culture is virtually masked. I think this is a good opportunity for us to discuss openly "our discomfort"; and in the long run would hope that would be beneficial to the whole community.

In a rush, hope my thoughts are getting across. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Sophia, If Mr Straw had asked a woman to cover up her body or wear a bra to control or manage her breasts there would have been a outcry from feminists.

As the father of two daughters, I know the resistence and arguements that follow when I ask my daughters to dress more modestly and not follow the latest fashions

I think that people should be free to wear or not wear whatever cultural dress they wish.

For Muslim feminists the veil is as important as the absence of a bra is for Western feminists.

I was taught by nuns in full habit. I remember that the Catholic students used to make fun of their dress and their vow of chasity. I always came to their defence and found their comments and jokes disrepectful of their own religion.

The negative stereotypes of Muslim women and the western obssession with the veil are used to attack Islam.

Fashion should not be used to judge a religion. Sikhs are allowed to wear their turban in every vocation and are often allowed to wear their religous dagger.

His arguement on removing the viel sounds to me like the freedom of speech argruement used to justify the Danish cartoons.

Sophia come to anyone's defence but not to Jack Straw, the implementor of Blair's disasterous Middle East policies.

I did not hear him complain about the Israeli bombing of Lebanon or the transport of cluster bombs through their airports.

Then again, maybe he wants to persuade Muslim women in Lebanon to take off their veils. A novel British idea

The more things change the more they remain the same.

Straw will be perceived as just feeding anti-muslim feelings in Britain.


Sophia said...

I will answer your question later. Very good question indeed.

Sophia said...

''Sophia come to anyone's defence but not to Jack Straw, the implementor of Blair's disasterous Middle East policies. ''

''Straw will be perceived as just feeding anti-muslim feelings in Britain.''

I agree with you on the whole. But again my argument is technical.

On your first remark highlighted here I would say that Straw was Blair's straw man and that he indeed showed insensitivity to Lebanese and Palestinians but I thought that makes my defence completely non partisan and detached from my liking of the man.

On your second remark, I would say that this is laready happening. Just read Richard"s comment in this section.

On the whole I would say that I suspect that these are maneuvres of diversion for the press. Not talking about the real thing but again Muslims are always falling in the trap of provocation and they bear some responsibility for their reaction. I am not seeing them protesting so much for what is happening in Lebanon and Palestine...

Richard said...


At last I remembered to do something I've been meaning to, for quite a while. I've just added you to my blogroll.

Richard said...

This BBC 'veil debate' page + further links should be of some interest.

UK Muslim panel on the veil row

Four British Muslims from across the country share their thoughts on the row over Muslim veils.

More here.

Sophia said...

Thank you

Wolfie said...

On this occasion I am going to put aside my some of my more considered nature because this is something I feel quite strongly about and shall take a slightly different tangent.

First of all I am suspicious of Mr. Straw, I have never liked or admired him as a politician and I am suspect of his motives in raising this debate, however I am also often suspicious of the motives of the women who go about London upon their business whilst veiling their faces.

My experiences, which have been many and varied, from Saudi princesses to ordinary Muslims have led me to believe that they do not wear their veils out or religious piety (although I'm sure that a minority do) but because they know that it intimidates the residents of this country. For us to face another person who covers their face is an unnerving experience that we associate with criminals and the dishonest. They are well aware of this yet do not not acquiesce to our wishes because it symbolises their defiance against our culture, their refusal to integrate. This is like young black men dressing like gangsters, they enjoy seeing us avoid them on the street. It empowers them and makes them feel special.

Well I'm not having it and many of my countrymen feel the same. They are guests here and if they want to stay they are going to have to get along... without a veil.

Anonymous said...

The majority of Muslim women use only a veil to cover their hair what is so intimidating about that?

The hijab is only obligatory upon entering a mosque and during prayer. There is no compulsion to wear the hijab in the Koran. However, I will admit that there is a lot of social pressure in some Muslim countries to wear the veil, just as there is social pressure in the West against the wearing of the veil.

Wolfie , It is Muslim women who are intimidated with violence and racial slurs in the West. Don't just blame the victim .

I suggest that you talk to a Muslim woman and you will get an insight into the abuse that they have to endure daily.

I know a red herring when I see one. The veil is one issue that is seized by the westerners to attack Islam.

For example Bosnia was the most secular Muslim society in the world-I have yet to meet a veiled Bosnian woman. Europe, the US and Britain just stood by while Muslim women in Bosnia were systematically raped and murdered. Shame on them all. All they can talk about is the veil.

I agree with you sophia that some Muslims fall into provacative traps . There are over one billion Muslims with a whole range of opinions and concerns and if you go to any mosque you will find that people are not indifferent to the plight of Lebanese , Palestinians and other Muslims.

Muslims are engage in peaceful protest whenever possible. The protests are only newsworthy when the demonstrations are violent. Most Muslims are intimidated and keep quiet. They are the Jews of the 21st century. At the turn of the 20th century Jews were anarchists and socialists. They were feared for their bombs and their ability to disrupt society. The result was anti-semitism in the West and the Holocaust.

Got to go. My daughter calls. We are going to buy her a new guitar for her birthday.


Sophia said...


I cannot believe that there is only one reason for which Muslim women wear the veil and that it is provocation. I must admit that only single women do so in a search for their identity, exactly like teens. I have known some here in Canada and most of the time they end up renouncing the veil when there uis no rpessure from the boyfriend or from the parents.
On the other hand there are other reasons. Some women wear the veil to please their boyfirend or their husband and usually these men feel flattered so they don't ask their wife or girlfriend to stop wearing the veil. There are cases also where women wear the veil against their will.
So in my opinion, there must be a provocative attitude but only within a certaqin framework, identity search.

Sophia said...


What a wonderful day for you and your daughter. Is she new to guitar playing ? I Wish her 'sana hilwa' and wish you all the best.

It is true that Muslims are becoming the jews of the 21st century. The situation is worrying. There must be some rapid awakening or it will deteriorate rapidly in my opinion.

Sophia said...


I remember having discussed the veil wearing in France and in Canada with one of our country's most prominent human rights lawyer (he is a friend). We came up with this answer, which at the time did not seem satisfying for me, but I am cionvinced now that this is the only reasonable position one can take on this question:

The context is different in the two countries and I think when discussing those matters one should have the history and the social context of the country in mind.

France is a truly secular society, since the revolution. I lived there for more than ten years (I have been living in canada for 15 years now) and I can tell you that religion and faith have no social or political role in this society. Moreover, the French are real secular people, even those who go to the church, baptise their children and marry at the church. France's laws ban religious symbols in public schools. There are private schools and those ones are authorised to have religious symbols. The French state functions with the universality and equality principle (universal declaration of Human rights). All citizens are equal. I think the Frecnh society resent the veil, not because it is Muslim but because they see it as a defiance to their laws and their history. So yes I am for the veil ban in France according to the rule of the law. And I don'T callthis secularist extremism. I would call secularist extremism movements who fight the rights of Muslims to live their religion as they want to in countries where the secularism principle does not apply (Like the US or Canada for example).

Canada is a multicultural society. Even though it has the separation between the church and the state, religion is very important here and cultural communities tend to regroup around religious memberships. An interdiction for wearing the veil can be interpreted as coercing one religion while giving rights to others. Also, Canada's declaration of Human rights mentions 'la personne' and not 'L'homme', the latter being more universal, the former more individualistic. If you take into account the rights of the individual and not the Human being in general, communautarism or the regrouping of communities around religious values are an integral part of the individual. The definition of a Human being 'L'homme' is more detached from the community. Because of the difference in the terms contained in the legal frameworks binding the French and the Canadian societies and because of the historical and social differences, I would defend the right of Muslim women to wear the veil in Canada but not in France.

Cosmic Duck said...

I see it as an act of political opportunism. Since he was fired as foreign secretary, Straw has had an eye on coming back to the foremost limelight. The veil is well chosen as the means as it is on the mind of a lot of British people.

Wearing a veil is not against the law in Britain. It is a cultural custom. There are others who conceal the "face" of their activities in the public space in more vicious ways that you would never dream of forbidding. How about business people who conceal their business activities and investments in the Cayman Islands. That is a much more harmful way of concealing your activities than a few women wearing veils. But it's not what the media wants to focus on.

Wolfie said...

Simon Jenkins has a balanced article in The Times this morning :


Lets not get too distracted by the political sideshow on this and I'm sure that the reasons that some Moslem women cover themselves are multifaceted but myself and other Londoners are observing a clear rise in the wearing of such clothing in the last five years and we often find them in large groups being loud, rude and aggressive (yes mostly they wear the hajib). Now are you going to tell me that these ladies are being pious?


"The burqa, or full veil, is an assertion of cultural separateness, now with obvious political overtones."

I know aggressive cultural posturing when I see it.

Sophia said...

You are right in raising this point. When discussing cultural differences in clothing we are discussing appearances. And the other worrying trend is that the veil controversy is distracting us from real problems.
However I would maintain that, even though it is not a priority and that it may have been opportunism on Straw,s side, I still believe that his argument is highly valuable. How can you establish a direct and efficient communication in the absence of the face and in the absence of the reaction of the other ?
There are different means for establishing the truth of a statement. Written language and spoken language are two different matters. Spoken language coveys a temporary meaning and for this temporary meaning to become an established truth it must be integrated to feelings of moral equivalence registered at the same moment one is hearing the statement during a conversational exchange. This is not only a social and cultural fact but also a biological one. Straw's argument is exactly that, he wanted to see the face of the women who came in his office asking for help.

Sophia said...

Thanks for the link. I now want to assume the charitable stance toward the women who wear the veil and one consider with this assumption their act of defiance, when wearing the veil is cheir own choice and can be considered as an act of defiance or the affirmation of cultural difference, as an identity search. I liked your analogy with other rebellious groups. I definitely would liken this attitude, when women are not coerced of course and when they are not playing the seduction game with their husbands, lovers, boyfriends, to a teen attitude. In my opinion it is definitely an identity search in a very complexe and sometimes adverse environment.
I agree with you that it has nothing to do with religious faith. It is a cultural affirmation.

Gert said...

Jack Straw isn't the worst of the lot, not by a long shot. The man has clearly shown doubts about the war in Iraq and is completely against any military action against Iran.

His raising this question was perfectly legitimate. Some of the reactions from Muslim quarters were predictably polarising: "demonisation!" No, my dears, debate...

L.M. said...

Sophia, thank you for your comments on France. When the law was passed most Canadians had a hard time wrapping their minds around it, because it was such a strange solution to us.

Someone recently explained to me about how important the idea of fairness was in France, and it made me wonder if we looked at the issue differently because we've become accustomed to negotiating all sorts of exceptions to the rule. (which is fine by me, I think it makes for a lively cultural life with interests that go way beyond North American borders)

Wolfie, your original post made me laugh, although Issam's response to it was spot on, I'd add that in a perfect world, yes, the ladies would wear the veil to gleefully scare the crap out of men, but that's not what happening here. (having been brought up with bossy older brothers, I am conversant in all the ways that males can intimidate females. I also know that persistent, pointed, gentle mockery will scare the crap out of men too. No need for a special wardrobe)

One thing I have to point out is that terms are being confused, the niqab is a different garment from the burqa. Straw was referring to women who wore garments that covered their bodies and faces with the exclusion of their eyes. The Times article uses the terms interchangeably. The burqa covers the woman's eyes with a panel of meshed fabric. The burqa makes me crazy with anger over the idea of a garment that prevents peripheral vision and eventually damages eyesight. The niqab doesn't hinder mobility and health in this way.

Sophia said...

The comments for this post are now closed.
Thanks everybody, we have to move on to more important issues.

Since March 29th 2006