Saturday, October 07, 2006

Veiling: Thanks, Jack

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Dangerous attack or fair point? Straw veil row deepens:

Muslim opinion on the streets was not unsympathetic to Mr Straw, but hardly anyone put other communities' feelings before the religious right - duty in the eyes of a sizeable minority - to wear the full veil. A self-employed electrician waiting for the end of lessons at St Nicholas and St John infant and junior school - which is overwhelmingly Asian - said that the roots of social division were much older than veil-wearing.'It's all to do with the way we were treated in the Seventies - I was regularly chased along here when I was a kid by white lads. Other communities just didn't want to know about us - funny that they're all so interested now in things like veils. I was a soldier in the British Army for 11 years and I can tell you very clearly how I couldn't get anywhere because I wasn't white but brown.'

The electrician knows best.

In all the stuff I've been reading for my current project on multiculturalism, with every conceivable theory and speculative fantasy concocted by journalists, pundits, politicians and academics on the table, the remarks of people on the ground--when they manage to be heard above the noise--point in the same direction. Immigrants and people of color face discrimination and exclusion. They can't get into the mainstream so they cluster together. Their children, who expect more than second-class citizenship, take up cultural affirmation and identity politics with the blessing of multiculturalists: better to be Other than under; if you lock us out pooh on you--we've got our own club.

Then along comes Jack--fretting because he can't read the emotion on his constituents' veiled faces. Of course this isn't the issue, any more than Islam, female modesty or female subordination is. The issue is people publicly asserting ethnicity, cultural identity and otherness. That assertion of otherness makes group identity more salient, promotes further discrimination, and sets back the interests of most Others who just want to assimilate, be regular plain vanilla citizens and, most importantly, to be treated as such.

Fat lot of good it does to get women to take off their face veils or otherwise encourage those Others to dress and behave like regular guys if the color of their skin still marks them as Other and they're treated as such. It's not the bus--it's us.

The response to discrimination helps perpetuate it. Bigots who wouldn't dare to say they didn't want brown people around can point triumphantly to veiling and other forms of Otherness to make the case that the problem is the refusal of those people to integrate, their commitment to radical Islamicism or their rejection of mainstream cultural values. There are, of course, Those Counterfactuals: if all those Muslims dropped their veils and converted to industry-standard CofE agnosticism, the bigots still wouldn't want them around. It's reminiscent of anti-semitism in Christian Europe from the get-go to the Holocaust. "We don't want you Jews around because you dress funny, talk funny, reject our culture and reject Christ. Oh, you've assimilated and converted, and don't dress funny or talk funny? Well, we still don't want you around."

Still, it's the state that hasn't kept it's part of the bargain--or at least what I believe the bargain should be: "we'll see to it that you're treated in the same way as other citizens if you behave like other citizens." Shifting the burden to minorities accomplishes nothing. Immigrants and their children can't avoid discrimination and exclusion by assimilating any more than the Jews in Nazi Germany could. Only the state can break the vicious circle by aggressively promoting integration and equal treatment, by affirmative action, by every available means.

But such policies are expensive and unpopular. It's cheaper and easier lob the ball into the Others' court, and then complain that they won't play the game.


Boofykatz said...

Absolutely true, and a big effort to overcome the racism would certainly help a lot... but... Oh dear, does the 'but' make me a bigot?
Well perhaps I am, but I agree with Jack Straw. I drive to work through Thornhill, a suburb of Dewsbury, three or four times a week. There are a lot of brown immigrant families in Thornhill, and a lot of children going to school as I pass through. I would guess that about 40% of the mothers taking their children to school wear the small black Dalek costume. The girl children are not so attired, so I think this dress option is, as you indicate, a political statement. It is, however, a statement of otherness. I don't know about the US, but there are many social dress code restrictions in UK communities. We discourage large groups of teenagers wearing hoodies from congregating outside the 24/7. One cannot wear a motorcycle helmet in a bank or a Balaclava in a pub. In fact, concealing one's face is generally considered an indication of 'shiftyness'. It's a cultural thing; we are allowed to have 'cultural things', aren't we? So the argument cuts both ways. We should make an effort to be tolerant and to shout down those racists, and there are still many, in our social networks. The quite well-to-do ladies in their Mercedes SUVs, barely able to see over the steering wheel and certainly having impaired peripheral vision due to their niquab, taking their well behaved children to school, might consider how their political fashion choice is likely to vitiate the situation.
Incidentally, there are substantial West Indian, Chinese, Sikh and Heinz 57 communities in West Yorkshire. Only the Muslims feel compelled to make their religion the be-all and end-all of life and rub our noses in their pathetic delusions. I wonder why?

H. E. said...

I still don't think veiling is for the most part religiously motivated even if those are the noises people some veiled women may make. It's along the lines of "doing black" with afros and dashikis that was fashionable here years ago: to a few a radical statement of identity politics; to most, a fashion statement. Not exactly that simple since the rhetoric of identity politics, Otherness and ethnicity were themselves youth fashions.

There are minorities and then there is The Minority, the minority group that's achieved sufficient critical mass to be set up as a nation within a nation, the paradigmatic Other and consequently the one whose members get hit with the most discrimination.

In the US it's unlikely that Muslims will ever achieve that status because there are too few. Hispanics are The Minority. There are Muslims in my area, though I think mostly Middle Eastern rather than South Asian, and quite a splendid new mosque but I haven't even seen a whisp of a hajib much less the whole rig. They aren't seen in any serious way as a "community" but more along the lines of people who have some exotic connection. More like, "How interesting--you mean you're actually an Eskimo? Cool."

Boofykatz said...

Yes, absolutely, but for me the issue is why does the islamic 'paradigmatic other' insist on choosing as its badge of honour a set of behaviours which are patently alien? US Hispanics don't want to set up their own legal system, do they? They wear T-shirts and skirts or trousers, don't they? They get their hair, teeth, skin and attitude tuned, don't they? They want their kids to be congressmen, and have the wit to realise that would-be interns have a short haircut and an open manner. Now this is equally true of muslim parents with respect to their sons; but there is something very bizarre going on with respect to muslim women in the UK. I am familiar with Ophelia Benson's contention that the suicide bomber is a testosterone fuelled male adolescent, but I am beginning to wonder if there might be a spot of 'look at me in my tent, I'm special and my brothers will die for me' beneath those burkahs. Perhaps having been emancipated these muslim women think it chic to cling to an anachronistic dress code? Twenty years ago, when the vast majority of muslim immigrants to the UK were poor, the vast majority of their womenfolk wore just a headscarf. The less wealthy still do.

Sanpete said...

Why is the customary dress of Muslims, developed where Muslims are the majority, considered a statement of Otherness? Why isn't it simply a statement of Muslimness?

Only the Muslims feel compelled to make their religion the be-all and end-all of life and rub our noses in their pathetic delusions. I wonder why?

Could it be that they take their religion more seriously than the rest?

Boofykatz said...

Well yes, it could, and don't you find that rather worrying? That people take their religion as more important, or perhaps inseparable from, their politics? The debate seems to end up as secular v sharia.

Sanpete said...

I don't know which to find more troubling, that people take their religion seriously and apply it to their politics, which can be good or bad, or that people don't take their religion seriously (or don't believe at all) and apply that to their politics. From what I can tell, though, the debate over sharia in Britain isn't the primary one. That's a problem in places like Iraq. In Britain the debate seems to more over what conditions should be required for full acceptance in British and/or Muslim culture, and there is some tension over that.

Gamma Male said...

Liberals/the Left tend to treat all cultures as equal - mainly because deep down they regard distinctions between humans as determined by scientific reasons, and mainly economics. Would that it were so.

While all immigrants face issues of acceptance and discrimination, the UK's record is fairly good in this respect (and for blacks, a lot better than the USA). A large part of the Muslim population (not all) is distinct because they choose not to integrate at all, and are pretty open about denigrating the host culture. Essentially they identify with their religion to the exclusion of identity with their chosen new country. It is not true of Hindus, Sikhs and other immigrant communities, even if they still keep separate.

We have had multiculturalism to such an extent in recent years that the native white population now feels discriminated against, especially working class men. In the case of Muslims it has simply not worked.