Muslims are the new ‘Jews’
I've been meaning to share my two cents worth on Straw's recent statement about Muslim women's veils, but I haven't found the time.
This Times commentary pretty much mirrors my thoughts on the subject and is well worth sharing for its passion, its style, and its good sense.
There is one example, however, that the author used to illustrate her point about tolerance, that struck me as odd and misplaced - can you guess which it is? I won't give you any hints.
Very little makes sense in this business about Jack Straw, Muslim women and veils. Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant from Dewsbury, Yorks, was last week suspended for refusing to take her veil off in class - she was allowed to wear it everywhere else at school, but, rightly to my mind, was told by her local education authority that her pupils, who are mostly learning English as a second language, needed to see her mouth when she taught. This seems entirely sensible.
The rest of the whole sorry 'debate' is anything but.
The white, male former foreign secretary said the veil was a “visible statement of separation and of difference”, and that he asks women who visit his surgery to remove it. And nuns? Does he demand to see their hair, too? It’s open season on Islam — Muslims are the new Jews. And the idea that Straw’s divisive statement should not only be tolerated but adopted on all sides, as it has been with a kind of bullying relish, troubles me.
Especially since July 7, it has become acceptable to say the most ignorant, degrading things about Islam. And then we all sit around wondering why young Muslim men appear to be getting angrier and more politicised, or why “westernised” young Muslim women whose mothers go bare-headed are suddenly, defiantly, opting for the full-on niqab-style veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes.
I am particularly irked by ancient old “feminists” wheeling out themselves and their 30-years-out-of-date opinions to reiterate the old chestnut that Islam, by its nature, oppresses women (unlike the Bible, eh,?) and that the veil compounds the blanket oppression.
In their view all Muslim women are crushed because they can’t wear visible lipstick or flash their thongs. Does it occur to these idiots that not necessarily everyone swoons with admiration at the fact that they have won the freedom to dress like 55-year-old slappers?
That perhaps there exist large sections of our democratic society, veiled or otherwise, who have every right to their modesty, just as their detractors have every right to wear push-up bras?
But I’ll get to that in a minute. I should start by saying that my mother was born in Pakistan of a Hindu mother and a Muslim father. She was convent-educated and went on to marry two Catholics (not at the same time). I therefore — unlike some “offended” Wasp commentators — know what I’m talking about, a) because of my endless “aunties”, and b) through spending much of my childhood in India and Pakistan. Given the mish-mash of my ancestry, religious bigotry brings me out in hives. And what we are witnessing is religious bigotry of the most shameful kind. The words used in the context of the veil debate — “strange”, “spooky”, “weird”, “offensive”, “creepy”, “wrong”, “evil-looking”, “sinister” — are not words a civilised society should use about other human beings.
People are made uncomfortable by all sorts of things: I find shaven-headed, tattooed men unpleasant, especially if they’re drunk. I’m not mad keen on hooded gangs of youths at three in the morning. Facial piercings hurt my eyes.
My former husband and I once went to look at a house we were thinking of buying in a Jewish Orthodox bit of London. As it happened we were the only non-Orthodox people on that bit of pavement that morning. I noticed a group of Hassidim were walking around us in a peculiar way. “They’re avoiding our shadows,” the estate agent said, “because we’re unclean.” I didn’t think much of that, either.
But we all need to coexist peaceably. The fact that I find the man in Camden market with bolts through his face, or the Orthodox woman dressed in a drab sack and wearing a bad wig, as “weird” — weirder, actually — than a woman dressed in black with only her eyes showing is neither here nor there.
I don’t expect they think much of me, either. But I would have to be deranged, or consumed with hatred, to attribute random demerits to them on the basis of their physical appearance. A lot of people are made uncomfortable by disability, for instance — but because they live in a civilised society they don’t say it.
Imagine if Straw had said, “There are an awful lot of autistic people in my constituency. I tell them to look me right in the eye, otherwise I can’t help them.” Would there not be an outcry? I’m sorry to equate Islam with disability, but I am doing so because an observant person’s religion is as integral a part of them as their genetic make-up.
Oppressed women are everywhere: there’s probably one living in your street. She may be a Muslim wearing a veil, or a white woman whose husband beats her. She may be covered from head to toe, dressed like a librarian, or fond of micro-skirts. She may be your mother or your sister. She may be you — regardless of how you dress, what you believe or where you come from. And that is the point. Unhappy, abused people come in all colours, shapes and sizes. It is absurd to suddenly, appoint ourselves moral arbiters, and decree, very loudly, that a piece of fabric is an indicator of an unhappy, down-trodden life.
Happy people come in all formats too. The concept of the men hanging out together while the women “work” in the kitchen may seem peculiar to a non-Muslim — though not that peculiar, given that a less formalised version of the same thing happens whenever you have friends round — but I’ve been to many memorable, jolly parties where gangs of Muslim women ate, gossiped and laughed together without seeming overwhelmingly oppressed, or indeed, oppressed at all.
My experience of Muslim life is not that it is the patriarchal nightmare of legend, but that women are powerful, vocal and iron-fisted beneath their velvet gloves. This is a subjective viewpoint: I am not claiming that every Muslim woman in the world is gloriously carefree. They aren’t (who is?), and I am particularly offended by Straw’s comments because the women Straw described are by and large first-generation immigrants — ie, poor working-class women trying to get on with their lives.
I wonder why none of the army of instant experts has pointed out that, by and large, middle and upper middle-class Muslim women do not veil themselves unless they have the misfortune to live in a country that insists on it.
So Straw and his acolytes — the self-appointed sisterhood among them — are picking on the women who are most voiceless and least able to defend themselves. They should be ashamed.