In a pluralistic society, there is the insidious charge that only a particular segment of the population can speak to certain questions, the segment most affected. Thus, feminists say that no men can speak about abortion since they cannot get pregnant, whites cannot speak on discrimination because they have never lived as minorities, etc. This is the charge being leveled in Britain concerning Jack Straw's reservation about the veil that Muslim women wear. He finds it divisive, uncomfortable, and unacceptable. Muslims screamed "intolerant" an "Islamophope" in response.
So now we have the response of a Muslim woman, whose family emigrated to England from Kashmir:
My mother has worked all her life and adapted her ways and dress at work. For ten years she operated heavy machinery and could not wear her chador because of the risk of it becoming caught in the machinery. Without making any fuss she removed her scarf at work and put it back on when she clocked out. My mother is still very much a traditional Muslim woman, but having lived in this country for 40 years she has learnt to embrace British culture — for example, she jogs in a tracksuit and swims in a normal swimming costume to help to alleviate her arthritis.
The writer herself wore a school uniform in British schools so that she could participate fully and take advantage of all opportunities in clubs and sports.
Some Muslims would criticise the way my mother and I dress. They believe that there is only one way to practise Islam and express your beliefs, forgetting that the Muslim faith is interpreted in different ways in different places and that there are distinct cultures and styles of dress in Muslim countries stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. But it is not a requirement of the Koran for women to wear the veil.
Remember that there a plethora of Muslim teachers and interpreters. There is no such thing as "orthodoxy."
It is an extreme practice. It is never right for a woman to hide behind a veil and shut herself off from people in the community. But it is particularly wrong in Britain, where it is alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask. The veil restricts women, it stops them achieving their full potential in all areas of their life and it stops them communicating. It sends out a clear message: “I do not want to be part of your society.”
Some Muslim women say that it is their choice to wear it; I don’t agree. Why would any woman living in a tolerant country freely choose to wear such a restrictive garment? What these women are really saying is that they adopt the veil because they believe that they should have less freedom than men, and that if they did not wear the veil men would not be accountable for their uncontrollable urges — so women must cover-up so as not to tempt men. What kind of a message does that send to women?
This is the key point that is mysogynistic: the relations between the sexes are skewed to pin sexual sins on women, and paint men as innocent victims. Then she hits the other key point about "freedom:"
But a lot of women are not free to choose. Girls as young as three or four are wearing the hijab to school — that is not a freely made choice. Girls under 16 should certainly not have to wear it to school. And behind the closed doors of some Muslim houses, women are told to wear the hijab and the veil. These are the girls that are hidden away, they are not allowed to go to universities, they have little choice in who they marry, in many cases they are kept down by the threat of violence.
So if we accept the faulty premise that only some can speak to various questions, we have now met that silly criterion. Will this voice carry weight? Or will it be smacked down by others as "unorthodox" or "selfish"?
This is my message to British Muslim women — if you want your daughters to take advantage of all the opportunities that Britain has to offer, do not encourage them to wear the veil. We must unite against the radical Muslim men who would love women to be hidden, unseen and unheard.
The other faulty argument which paralyses the religous-minded is that either all religions are treated the same, or there is unfair discrimination. Discrimination is not necessarily a bad thing (we do it every time we step off the curb, in distinguishing if it's prudent to cross the street). Until we can have a rational and civil debate about what religious practices build a better society and which don't, we'll be slaves to a false egalitarianism. Then Muslims and Christians and Wiccans will sink along with the Satanists and the Talibani -- because we couldn't distinguish what promotes authentic human rights and what suppressed them.