The pretence that choosing to wear a veil is a fashion statement – an argument that conjures images of a Muslim girl asking a friend ‘does my head look small in this?’ – does the veil’s defenders no favours. Choosing to wear a veil is not like choosing to wear a miniskirt.
So I have been perturbed by Muslim Council of Britain spokesperson and former lord mayor of Manchester, Afzal Khan’s assertion that, ‘if constituents choose to have a particular dress code it does no harm to Jack Straw’. How apparently reasonable, but how very disingenuous. A couple of days later Afzal Khan took a whole page in the Manchester Evening News (sadly not online) to make the same point, in an ironically titled piece: ‘we need to understand the reasons behind the veil’. Without giving any ‘reasons behind the veil’ he complained that Jack Straw had given license to bigots and called for a debate on issues that (unlike the veil) matter.
As is so often the case with religious texts, there is some debate on what the Qur’an says on the matter. Most translations Wikipedia points to quote 33:59 as a warning to women to cover up so as not to be ‘molested’, but some have ‘harmed’, ‘annoyed’ or other lesser crimes.
In any case, the passage places a responsibility on women to dress in such a manner as to avoid male attention; there is an implication that the miniskirt wearer is responsible for any unwanted attention she may receive. And this is why the veil is, for many, a symbol of grotesque misogyny and the wearer pitied as a victim (whether she chooses the veil or not). I doubt this is news to Afzal Khan.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that while the wearers of miniskirts and low cut tops cannot be held responsible for any molestation they suffer, they are aware that people will look at them and consequently have no right to complain if they don’t fancy the voyeur. It’s also reasonable to expect them to dress more modestly in, say, a work environment.
Similarly, while Muslim women should not be attacked for wearing a veil (or compelled to remove it), they too should acknowledge the impact the veil has on others. That includes an awareness that while for some, including some Muslim women, ‘it is a symbol of the subjugation by men of their wives and daughters’, for others ‘the veil can be frightening and intimidating’ (perhaps because Muslim leaders like Afzal Khan refuse to engage in open and honest debate).
By belittling the debate as unimportant, while trying to close it off by accusing those who tackle the subject of fuelling racism, the disingenuous Afzal Khan does us all a great disservice.