Britainís former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, wrote an article in the Lancashire Telegraph, a local newspaper that circulates in his parliamentary constituency, describing his difficulty in communicating with Muslim constituents who met him with their faces veiled. He wrote that he often requested them to unveil themselves (always in the presence of another woman) so that he could read their expressions as they conversed because the point of two people meeting (as opposed to talking over the phone) was so that they could be literally face-to-face.
I teach in Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in Delhi. Jamia was founded and nurtured by a remarkable group of Muslims in the early 20th century: Maulana Mohammad Ali, Professor Muhammad Mujeeb and Dr Zakir Hussain. Given its history, Muslims make up a much larger proportion of its student body and faculty than is usual in Indian universities. In some of my classes the attendance register lists more Muslims than non-Muslims. In the fifteen years Iíve taught there, one or two of these Muslim students have worn the burqa, the enveloping black garment that generally (though not always) veils the wearerís face.
When the Jack Straw controversy erupted, I read Strawís newspaper column online and tried to compare my response to veiled students with his reaction to veiled constituents. This isnít the most considered way of making up your mind about an issue, but it has the merit of making abstract argument trudge through the underbrush of personal experience.
When I first encountered veiled students in Jamia, I can say with complete honesty that I didnít feel disconcerted. I spent a part of my childhood in old Delhi where burqa-ed women werenít an unusual sight, specially in the Sixties. Also, like most north Indian children, I grew up watching Hindi films where the veil was sometimes used to create comedy around mistaken identities, and the burqa was a standard prop in an odd genre of films called Muslim Socials, whose stories were made up by stringing together received ideas about Muslim mannerisms and Muslim lifestyles.
As a young lecturer, I thought I might have some trouble connecting a veiled studentís name with her face because it wasnít on view, but the opposite was true. There were no more than one or two burqa-ed girls in any class and their conspicuousness was a kind of cue. Telling them apart wasnít an issue either: every lecturer learns that there are only two sorts of students: animated ones on the verge of asking a question and sleepwalkers, a breath away from snoring. Veiled students, I discovered, werenít quieter than the unveiled ones; just more covered up.
Did I have a view on the burqa' Yes I did. I thought it was a traditionalist hold-over, something that represented the seclusion of women that would be less and less commonly worn as women entered the public world. Since the overwhelming majority of women in Jamia, both students and teachers, didnít wear the burqa, I assumed it was vestigial. I thought the burqa was an extreme version of other forms of veiling that I had encountered within my (Hindu) family: I had aunts and cousins on my motherís side of the family who lived in Chandni Chowk and used the anchal of their saris, their ghoongats, to cover their faces in the presence of fathers-in-law and other strange men. I patronizingly thought that they didnít know any better, that my mother, who was a working woman who never covered her head, was emancipated whereas they were not. Sometimes Whiggish expectations of progress are borne out: none of the girls in my extended family deploy their ghoonghats like their mothers did, and over the years, Iíve seen a secular decline in the incidence of burqas in Jamia (though the number of women wearing the head scarf or hijab ó to which Straw has no objection ó has marginally increased).
The point is that unlike Jack Straw, I felt no urgent unease about the burqa. I didnít ask my students to unveil themselves and I didnít see in their burqas an ominous portent. I didnít use a newspaper column to implore Muslim women to cast them off. My Muslim colleagues (unveiled women and men whose wives and daughters didnít wear the burqa), thought the presence of burqa-ed girls was a good sign because it meant that girls from traditional families were being given a modern, secular education. The burqa in their view was an enabling garment, a form of insurance that allowed anxious conservative parents to send their daughters out into the world.
Jack Straw is entitled to feel uneasy about the niqab and in a free society he is within his rights to publish his feelings. But he is unwise to request his constituents to remove their veils. He reports that all the women he made the request to complied without demur and I believe him. But he makes a mistake in assuming that the burqa is uniquely disruptive of human contact. Itís much harder conversing with someone wearing dark glasses. Where Jack Straw needs lips and noses to look at, I need eyes and I find it irritating, even offensive, when people donít do me the courtesy of shedding their goggles through a long conversation. But I donít ask them to take them off; neither, I imagine, does Jack Straw.
Obstacles to face-to-face conversations depend on what youíre used to and therefore comfortable with. Straw is probably undistracted by tiny skirts and plunging necklines but it might be harder for an Asian MP, accustomed to more covered-up women, to concentrate on a constituentís problems if her every move revealed (in his prudish mind) inches of intimate skin. If he asked her to cover up (knowing Asian men, thatís a stretch, but this is a thought experiment) for the sake of more focused communication, I expect heíd be denounced for infringing her right to wear what she pleased.
But Straw in his column isnít opposed to the burqa only because it obscures a womanís face; he wants women to discard it because he is concerned that ď..wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult.
It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference.Ē
Thatís a large statement and it tells us more about Straw and possibly the English attitude towards difference than it does about the burqa as an alienating symbol. I went to a Jesuit school in Delhi and I remember as a child being astonished by the cassocks the padres wore. Men in authority wearing maxis: it was very odd and ungendered and had Straw been a classmate he might have described the cassock as a visible statement of separation and of difference, even an obstacle to better, positive relations between two communities. But as Indians, we grow up surrounded by such ripely different sorts of people, that after our initial bewilderment, my classmates and I decided that padres came with cassocks attached. Our acceptance of difference was so complete that when we met padres in trousers, they seemed forked and lewd.
I was an unveiled man who wore standard issue clothes in England for two years but that didnít stop the odd skinhead from having a go. Goodwill in the face of perceived difference is the responsibility of the beholder. A burqa is no more a statement of separation than a mini-skirt is an invitation to familiarity. The next time he walks into his surgery or settles down to blog, Jack Straw might remember that.