October 16, 2006

To veil or not to veil? That's not the question!

The British politician seems to have had it enough. The least that he can do to serve his constituent is to know her face. With Islam claiming to be the fastest growing religion around the world, it's natural that any politician would want to know which faces of his voters were veiled. Muslim women who want to bank their modesty for their Mr. Rights ought not to feel disheartened. They should be glad that the politicians are not clamouring to poach on the other (arguably, more bankable) parts of their inalienable property.

Seriously, was Jack Straw (Labour MP for Blackburn and leader of the House of Commons, UK) transgressing on the rights of the Muslim women, when he said he preferred them to remove their veils when visiting him? I don't think so, but not for the reasons Mr. Straw has articulated. Explaining his position on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr. Straw said,

"Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers - people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able pass the time of day," he said. "That's made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That's just a fact of life. I understand the concerns but I hope, however, there can be a mature debate about this. I come to this out of a profound commitment to equal rights for Muslim communities and an equal concern about adverse development about parallel communities."

Well, what if I did not care much for informal relations with strangers? Is it not my prerogative to show or not show my face to some stranger whom I pass by on the street? To the best of my knowledge, the English Law does not prohibit anyone from being a recluse, does it?

To veil or not to veil my face is a question that has a simple answer in my book. It's my choice, and mine alone. As an informed adult, I'd weigh the pros and cons and arrive at the right decision. If I were invited to a costume party that required me to veil my face, I should know that I won't be admitted if I chose not to. Similarly, I should not wail about my veil, if I wanted to drive on the Florida highways. To be fair, Mr. Straw emphasized that he was not being prescriptive, but he was quite clear about his preferences. The right question to ask is whether Mr. Straw has the right to demand that the Muslim women, who come to meet him, remove their veils. The answer, clearly, is yes. Mr. Straw has a right to his preferences, just as the host's right to require face masks for those invited to her costume party.

The case of the teaching aide, Ms. Aishah Azmi, at the Headfield Church of England Junior School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, is quite similar. It's not her right to veil her face that's in question here, but the right of the school to require what it considers to be the proper norms of appearance and behavior of its employees. The school has every right to suspend, sack, or reprimand in any way that it deemed appropriate, the deviant from these norms. That there is "no religious obligation whatsoever for Muslim women to cover themselves up in front of primary school children", as claimed by Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury, is irrelevant. What is relevant is what the school considers to be in the interest of its pupils, and not what Ms. Azmi's religion does or does not dictate. Besides, Ms. Azmi is being disingeuous, to say the least, to unveil her face to a male interviewer to get the job, and then insist on veiling when doing the job.

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