I watched Question Time on the BBC last night. The panel consisted of Hillary Armstrong (the New Labor politician who best exemplifies the Peter Principle), Chris Huhn (a LibDem politician who failed in his bid for leadership of the party when the previous leader was found out to be a cheerful drunk; his chief characteristics seem to be his coiffure and his permatan. The LibDems have taken up a political position to the left of Tony Blair), Teresa May (a New Tory politician whose one claim to fame was wearing shoes made of Alligator skin at the Tory Party Conference), a left wing Sikh comedian with a Scottish accent, and a Moslem woman who was also vice-chair of the Respect party. It is strange that the BBC claims not to be biased when they happily give a platform to the far left Respect party (that's George Galloway's lot) but never do the same for the far right British National party. The audience was packed with Moslem women wearing the full regalia with only their eyes showing.
It was no surprise therefore that half the program was given over to discussing the affair of the primary school teaching assistant who was employed to teach English to small immigrant children whose first language was Urdu. These were mainly Pakistani children, and the school was a Church of England school. She insisted on wearing a full veil while teaching. Teaching assistants are there to assist teachers. They work in the same classroom as the teacher. The young woman would not have veiled up if only the children were present, but because the class teacher was a man, she insisted on wearing the veil. The school reckoned that it was impossible to teach a new language to children with your face covered, because the children needed to watch her lips to see how the sounds were formed. They therefore suspended her. She appealed against her suspension and yesterday a tribunal found in favor of the school.
It seems to me that the woman picked a fight over an unwinnable issue, assuming the well known ploy of crying victimization of an ethnic priority would trump common sense. It is good to know that common sense has triumphed.
However, there is a larger issue here. Should Moslem women be permitted to wear the veil in public. France, which is a much more secular society, would suppress the wearing of a Moslem uniform. In England we believe that people should be free to wear whatever they like unless it is dangerous or likely to cause a breach of the peace. Last year a man was permitted to walk naked from Lands End to John O'Groats, only getting arrested in towns where a breach of the peace was likely (from offended ladies). We frequently see young women with their navels showing in January, often with pieces of metal stapled to it. People dress up in all sorts of weird costumes. Very seldom is dress or lack of it commented upon.
We do not object to religious symbols. Sikhs where turbans, Moslem women wear the Hijab, Buddhists go about with bald heads and saffron robes and one Christian walks about dragging a huge cross behind him. There have been objections to hoodies. These are jackets with hoods that cover the face, a garb adopted by young people to cover their shyness and by criminals to hide from CCTV cameras. Shopkeepers refuse to serve young men wearing those large, face-covering, rash helmets. This is for the same reason, it conceals the identity, and some robbers wear them to hide from the ubiquitous CCTV. In our society anyone concealing their face is a figure of fear. English people do not wave their arms about while talking in the way that Italians or Spaniards do, but we do use body language. It is subtle. It is done with the face. Full communication is face to face. Phone calls limit communication. Letters are better because the English language is so full of nuance that by choosing the correct word you can communicate so much more than just the plain meaning. I sometimes take days to write a letter so as not to cause offence. E-mailers have developed emoticons to soften the effect of straight prose ;-)
Moslem women who insist on covering their faces are being as culturally insensitive as the English woman who drives a car in Riyadh with the top down and cleavage showing.
There is no instruction in the Qu'ran that women should wear veils. They should dress in a modest and seemly manner, but that is an instruction for Christian (I Corinthians Ch 11) and Jewish (Proverbs Ch 31) women too. The veil is not a feature of female dress in most Moslem countries. It is not seen in Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan or India, the Sudan or in Arab countries except Saudi. It was a feature of Afghanistan under the Taliban, where it was a symbol of subjugation of women.
The veil is principally a political statement. Even the headscarf was not seen commonly in the UK until the 1970s when radical Arabs started hijacking airliners. It has become much commoner since 9/11.
There is nothing more nauseating than draping a political cause in religious dress. Whether it was the IRA appealing to the Catholic heart or the Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland masquerading as Protestants or the Republican Party becoming synonymous with followers of Jerry Falwell or Jihadists claiming to be the purest Moslems, it is sanctimonious garbage. It enlists the sympathies of co-religionists, blinding them to the political errors. It is no longer "My country, right or wrong!" but "My God, right or wrong!". The only place for such unquestioning loyalty is when supporting Manchester United.
Yes, of course, I must follow God rather than man. But follow what God says about himself, not what some leader says about God. The very central verse in the Bible says, "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man."
We should not allow politicians to hide behind religious sensibilities. If Tony Blair makes an ass of himself it is perfectly legitimate for David Cameron to call him a silly Billy - or even to use stronger language. He can't turn around and say I'm a Christian , I'm one of a persecuted minority you can't abuse me like that. No more should a veiled woman be able to make her political statement and then claim to be a protected species by virtue of her race or religion. It would be like an IRA terrorist wearing a Balaclava to hide his face and then when told to tkae it off claiming he was being abused as part of the Catholic oppressed miority.