The great debate about the full-face Muslim veil is usually cast in terms of religious rights, says Carol Sarler. But what about my right to see who I’m talking to?
So we’re all agreed then. The great burka debate has enthusiastically consumed recent weeks, even though its conclusion was never in doubt: nobody actually intends to ban the thing. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman was correctly smacked for gushing that the garment ‘empowered’ women, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown raged against it as ‘a perversion of our faith’, while on these pages last week Hugo Rifkind more calmly disparaged the robe as ‘rude’. Nevertheless, all would prefer that the sledgehammer of legislation not be used.
As it happens, I am with the consensus — not least because the word ‘ban’, along with its implementation, always reeks of choleric impotence. I would like, too, to be able to share Rifkind’s restrained scorn; to shrug it off as a mere discourtesy. Yet while there may be little left to say about a ban, there is still much to say, and to keep saying, about a burka, especially about the niqab, or full-face veil.
The gist so far has solely concerned the rights of the Muslim woman faced with a choice: to wear or not to wear. On the one hand is the fear that her freedom might be restricted by a man who forces her compliance, on the other is the fear that her freedom might be restricted by a state that dictates her wardrobe. But wholly ignored, as if irrelevant to the issue at hand, are other women and other liberties. Me, for instance. And mine.
I live in Finsbury Park, an area renowned for Islamic prominence, where the growing numbers of bleakly black shadows are such that the veiled woman embracing her freedom to live according to her culture is now encroaching on the unveiled woman’s freedom to live according to hers.
In the non-Islamic corner, selective nakedness is as intrinsically cultural as anybody else’s concealment — and arguably more entrenched, given its acceptance by, effectively, 100 per cent of us. The handshake, for instance, depicted in Greek statuary as early as the fifth century bc, has been used ever since to convey trust and equality, while the rule that the hand be ungloved declares peace: look! No knives! By the same token, a man who politely removes his hat inherits the gesture from late 18th- and 19th-century wearers of top hats, who would bare their heads to show that they were not among the dastardly dandies who concealed a pistol therein: not me, Ma’am; I come as friend, not foe.
The presumed right to gaze fully upon others is viable social currency. Soldiers face discipline for insubordination based on nothing more than a sullen expression — dumb insolence, my military father used to call it. Teachers admonish children, ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you.’ Lovers plead their cause, ‘Look me in the eye and tell me…’ By common consent, we believe that to restrict the chance to gaze is to handicap the gazer. Last month I did precisely that; throughout lunch with a woman I had not previously met, I forgot to remove my sunglasses. I felt rotten, later, that this oversight on my part had unilaterally removed an essential tool of interaction on hers.
It is a particularly useful tool in multi- racial communities, in that it surmounts many difficulties of unfamiliar speech. Take ten women, speaking ten languages, show them a man behaving like a prat and in a heartbeat their glances unite them as eloquently as a shared tongue. Take those same ten women, show them another woman treating a child badly, and they will fluently read each others’ faces while wordlessly agreeing what action, if any, need be taken.
And so we muddle on, in Finsbury Park as elsewhere, mindful of our manners and our safety as we process our constant, flickering visual assessments: nice or nasty? Friendly or mean? Until we come across a woman in a burka and everything changes — not only because she is exercising her right to behave consistently with her culture but because, by so doing, she has curtailed our right to behave consistently with ours.
Faced with her shroud, I am stymied. Should I smile, as I otherwise might? Don’t be daft; I wouldn’t even know where to point it. Besides, a smile takes two. If we board a bus together, should I offer her the last seat? Obviously I would if she were 72… but what if she is 27? I am denied the assessment, so my manners, learnt in childhood, are useless.
In similar vein, small differences loom suddenly large: take, for instance, dogs. Enjoying a ritual of my culture, I walk two huge, soppy sight-hounds in the park, passing the time of day with all comers as our charges sniff each others’ bits. In the past few years, however, such idylls have been pierced by the screams of apparently terrified children accompanied by darkly veiled mothers. At first, I did as I would with any child: soothed, consoled, encouraged. ‘Don’t be scared,’ I’d say, ‘come on, give him a pat.’ But there would be a black-clad swoop and they’d be scurried away in a trice.
Last year a friend clued me in. It isn’t fear, she said, it’s distaste; to a Muslim, your dogs are filthy. Oh. OK. Well. But: how could I have known, given that I could not read distaste — or anything else — in the mothers’ faces? Had I seen it, naturally I would not have attempted to introduce Waldo’s inquisitive wet nose to a nervous little Muslim hand; once more, unhappily, my manners are rendered redundant.
In terms of clothing, only the burka or the niqab can achieve this. The yarmulke, the crucifix and the dreadlock are also symbolic of culture or faith that I do not share, yet none hinders my endeavours any more than I hinder theirs. We rub along together, making time, making room and making clear who we are; it is only the wearer of the burka who obscures that clarity. And fine, if what she really seeks is determined isolation.
She cannot be surprised, however, if in the absence of clarity some of us will resort to speculation. We are told, for example, that a woman in a burka is staking claim to modesty. In which case, is she not implicitly and even provocatively reproaching me and mine for immodesty? And how long before that becomes, ‘Who does she think she is, calling us sluts?’
Back to the dogs: if she is urging upon her children her distaste for them, does that distaste extend to me, who smooches the dopey beasts? I have an Irish neighbour who also dislikes dogs, but she beams warmly at me, so with her I know the answer. With the burka mama, by contrast, I don’t — so I am left to wonder, what will her nine-year-old boy think of me a decade from now? And here, in restless, radicalised Finsbury Park, there are no prizes for guessing where that thought takes you. Unhealthy? Of course. Curable? Probably. But only if social harmony is recognised as the fruit of cultural give and take — and there’s not much give in a burka.
If a woman, free from duress, is considering wearing one, then, frankly, I suggest rather more may be asked of her than has been fashionable. If I am to consider her protocol, it is only fair that she also considers mine; further, unless she does, properly amiable integration will be never be more than a twinkle in an unseen eye.