Lifting the Veil on this old debate

Another debate about covering faces? Have we not already been through this before? Conservative MP Philip Hollobone in 2010, and before him in 2006, Labour stalwart Jack Straw both made a point of preferring not to have to endure the apparent horror of speaking to a Muslim woman whose face they can not see.

The right of people not to be discriminated against on the basis of religious beliefs, sexual preferences or disability is laid down in law. In defending the right of a gay couple to stay in a double room at a guest house run by Christians the former General Counsel for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, John Wadham, said:

When offering a service, people cannot use their beliefs – religious or otherwise – to discriminate against others.

It’s that simple. You cannot dictate that someone may not use a service simply because you have an opinion on how they must live their lives. If, like I, you believe that this means homosexual couples should be free to stay in any B&B they choose, doesn’t this naturally also mean defending religious minorities against attacks upon peaceful expression of their religion?

There is an argument that facial expression counts for a lot in human communication. Do people who use this argument also struggle to listen to the radio, use the telephone and e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn? All of these communication methods lack real-time facial expressions.

And then there are those who think that the veil is a misogynistic throwback – and I have some sympathy for this – and that Muslim women are being forced to wear it. This may well be true in a minority of cases, but for the most part, wearing a veil is a freely made choice.

Is it revealing that none of the contributions to this debate seem to be built upon actual personal experiences? In her piece in the Telegraph Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston cites not a single personal incident in over 2 decades of practicing medicine. Has she actually met a covered Muslim woman with whom she was not able to communicate?

Rather than relate an authentic personal experience, none of the – mostly non-Muslim, mostly male – voices in this debate seem to relate to us any personal experiences with this issue. It’s all about contrived theoretical situations in which a solution must be proscribed by central Government rather than taking judgements on an individual case-by-case basis.

I don’t want to believe that this debate is being brought up – yet again – out of fear, but it seems that way to me. The tone of this ‘debate’ is distinctly a “them” and “us” debate in which Muslim opinion – in particular Muslim women – is notably excluded. Sarah Wollaston justifies this in part by claiming that:

We must be bold in resisting those who would allow the niqab to masquerade as personal freedom… Sometimes you have to force people to be equal.

On which other policy issues has Sarah Wollaston decided that precisely the opinion of those whom a change in the law would directly affect is exactly the opinion that does not matter?

Other opinions on this issue discuss what is acceptable in “our” country. Sure, but “our” country includes a small minority of Muslims. Are they not part of the “our” in “our” country? Does their opinion not matter? Should they really be forced to conform to some idealised version of what someone should look and act like?

Nobody should be forced to wear something that they do not wish to. On this issue Liberal Democrats, in particular, cannot have their cake and eat it. Our Constitution asks us to build a community that is not “enslaved by conformity”. Liberal Democrats must not be duped into exchanging one perceived conformity, that is, a requirement to wear a veil, for another, that is, a requirement not to wear a veil.

Following Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne’s ill-advised comments, I’m glad that the Liberal Democrat grass roots, along with Nick Clegg, seem to have their collective heads together on this, but the real danger here is of Liberal Democrats closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Surely the right thing to do all along has been to at least ask Muslim communities their opinion? It matters, doesn’t it?

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