In the midst of all the newspaper discussions from last week on the peculiar clothing worn by some religions, there is one point that everyone has been too PC to point. It is time to stand up and say it loudly: Amish women should be banned from wearing bonnets.
Why? Because as Jack Straw puts it, the bonnet is such a visible statement of separation and of difference. And as Martin Kettle writes in the Guardian:
It says something not just about the wearer but the non-wearer too. It says, or seems to say, I do not wish to engage with you. It is at some level a rejection. And since that statement of rejection comes from within…cultures, some of whose willingness to integrate is explicitly at issue in more serious ways, it is hardly surprising that it should be challenged.
Oh wait, it isnt the Amish costume that people are complaining about, despite the fact that they are a community who has defiantly not integrated into society. Its Muslim women with veils. Freedom of speech is one thing, but freedom of dress…
Its difficult to discuss the issue of the veil because there are so many different concerns being packed into one garment, but the comparison with Amish dress does make some of the hypocrisy clear. There are a few good reasons to be concerned about the veil. Wearing a veil is likely to makes face to face communication more difficult. There are some situations where there may be concern about security. If women are being coerced into wearing the veil or threatened for not wearing it, thats obviously wrong. These cases mean that there are some situations where its justified asking a woman to remove her veil. It seems to me acceptable for schools and other institutions which have uniforms or dress codes, for example, to decide whether or not veils are appropriate. Maybe Jack Straw finds it easier to conduct constituency business, but he needs to think hard about whether hes potentially deterring some women from coming to talk to him.
But Jack Straw goes further: he thinks women shouldnt wear the veil in public, because it is bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult. And this is where the hypocrisy starts coming in. Does he stand up and tell white people they shouldnt go round wearing Union Jack T-shirts? I bet there are a lot of ethnic minorities who would see that as not only a visible statement of difference, but also an implicit rejection: Im British and youre not. Would Jack Straw dare say that you shouldnt wear very revealing clothing in certain areas, because it might scandalise the religious communities there and worsen relations?
When I saw women wearing the full veil (in Gloucester, its not common in Hitchin) I thought it was peculiar, but I didnt take it as some kind of statement rejecting me. Some religious people choose to wear funny clothes: nuns, Buddhist monks, Amish and Hassidic Jews, to name just a few. I would probably personally prefer women not to wear the veil, but then a large percentage of the population go round wearing things I think it would be better not to. Jack Straw, by broadening the issue beyond what he finds helpful in his office, is pandering (consciously or not) to all the bigots of Britain. And behold, theyve come out. I saw the tabloid headings: 97% of Daily Express readers want the veil banned. Its fair enough to discuss the limits of free speech and free dress, but Jack Straws soft bigotry (Oh, you can do that, but itd be better if you didnt, because it might upset the natives) isnt a good place to start.