| Emblems of identity
If we are to believe the recent pronouncements of big-fish politicians and their supporting chorus of publicity-hungry smaller fry, reasoning society in this country is drowning in the sea of its own liberal principles. The experiment of multi-culturalism has, we are told, not worked, and there is a move to retrench along new lines that reduce our differences at the same time as defining them more clearly. Most of the population rub along together quite happily and many of us delight in being part of a multi-coloured, multi-faith and multi-racial society where we can share in so diverse a range of cultural wealth. There is no doubt, however, that the obfuscating cloak of politically correct verbiage has concealed a seething social discontent founded on incorrect assumptions of seamless social adaptation by immigrant populations who have often had to struggle for their rights as British citizens.
Politicians have not chosen to lift the lid and peer into the murkier depths of the cultural melting-pot, but have rather concentrated on more comfortable areas of integrated social success. This is hardly surprising; it is a long time since Labour politics was vested in the real under-class in this country, to whom Labour politicians owed their allegiance through the medium of the trades unions. There is a sense that New Labour has never really got its hands dirty beyond a vast raft of new social legislation that has mostly seemed reactive to the media issue of the moment. Now there is fearful discussion of a growing social division, following the cracks of mutual misunderstanding, into ghettos united by shared disappointment and the cold comfort of religious extremism.
The ghettos are nothing new; poor working and immigrant populations always lived in ghetto conditions in East London and other inner city areas. Adherence to an open-door policy for refugees has bred cultural enclaves at least since French Huguenots took refuge here in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Sixties slum clearances and re-housing to hideous concrete multi-storeys only succeeded in isolating individuals from a shared community of the street and the doorstep, by making the ghettos vertical.
The social problems today have less to do with inter-racial issues than with bad planning and the inability to provide poorer communities of any and all colours with the services they need. It is nothing new for the grievances of older generations to be articulated most loudly by the youngest. Bad planning and the building of alienating concrete deserts sowed the seeds of a paranoia exemplified by contemporary street violence. Young people in this country are not poor by comparison with slum and street dwellers in India, but they are poor in terms of anticipation unfulfilled in spiritual and educational needs; ambitions and expectations unfulfilled.
They are part of, and yet not fully participating in, our generally wealthy and consumerist society. Aggressive foreign-policy decisions and an overtly Christian righteousness has informed our deeply unpopular war-mongering in Iraq and Afghanistan; alienating religious minorities and diverting government attention and finance from essential domestic needs. Education is not being properly delivered in spite of trumpeted measures to raise standards during this government. Constant twistings and turnings over educational policy and funding have left teachers disillusioned and pupils badly served.
Instances of National Health Service failures appear in the press every day, pointing to a vicious circle of cost-cutting, poorly planned remedial over-spending and bad management. The general air of dissatisfaction is not helped by the ongoing leadership impasse in the government. Tony Blair has become a lame duck and sounds increasingly enfeebled. Gordon Brown appears a grim and unsympathetic alternative. The publication of David Blunkett, the former home secretary’s soul-and-career-baring diaries, in two different national newspapers during the last couple of weeks, has done nothing to improve the government’s image.
Blunkett is presumably intending finally to throw in the political towel, although he has already achieved miraculous serial reincarnations. At the moment, the country seems to be sailing with a damaged rudder. Lack of strong and caring leadership; a constant and vain attempt to empathize with all elements in society and therefore do nothing; media space given to the narcissistic and unnecessary views of politicians at all levels on the issue du jour give the impression of government drift, a devalued parliament and a reduced democracy.
Parliament has lost its central role in national debate and representation; it is filled instead by government directive and press opinion. Lack of clarity of government intention and conflicting policies have damaged social guidelines and responsibility. Our support for the recent international activities of the United States of America have pitted this country against the countries of origin of many of our citizens without due and legal cause, and on top of that we are failing their children. It is not surprising that a problematically nurtured multi-cultural national identity and pride should begin to break down into allegiances to traditional community and to the wearing of the outward badges of the racial origin and religious affiliation of that community.
The row over the refusal of the nursery-school teaching assistant, Aishah Azmi, to remove her veil when teaching has highlighted such issues of identity. Since there are no religious strictures to cause her to wear a veil when teaching small children and she has admitted removing her veil in the presence of a male school governor at interview, it seems that she has felt the necessity of fighting to retain a visible sign of her self-image as a Muslim woman. The case followed Jack Straw’s call for women to remove their veils in his constituency surgery as he found them a barrier to proper communication. The wearing of the full niqab has become increasingly prevalent here and even small girls wear the hijab these days. Jack Straw, former foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, has made a reasonable request from a purely personal viewpoint and the issues are rightly being aired. In a society where we are still surprised by women wearing the full veil, it has an effect closer to its original strict religious significance and not necessarily that intended by a modern young working woman like Azmi. It creates a cloak of invisibility into which women disappear. I think that is a tragedy.
The British Airways female ground crew member who insisted last week on her right to wear a crucifix in such a way as to make it highly visible and somewhat inappropriate over her uniform has had her appeal quashed and quite rightly too. Whatever personal preferences, no-one suggests that there are not some stipulations in Islam attached to the possible wearing of the hijab or the niqab. There are absolutely none attached to the wearing of the crucifix by a Christian. Since a crucifix is regularly worn as a fashion item by believers and non-believers alike, it is not a very satisfactory emblem of identity either.
This week, we have seen a highly successful woman, the law lord, Lady Hale of Richmond, stand up for international women’s rights and for the sliding image of this country as a haven for the persecuted, oppressed and most hidden. Lady Hale was responsible for the first comprehensive survey of women’s rights at work and in the family, in 1984, and her commitment to equality in the law has been unfailing. Yesterday she led the law lords, in a judgment that overturned a previous court-of-appeal ruling against granting asylum to Zaina Fornab, aged 19. Fornab fled her home in Sierra Leone under threat of one of the most barbaric expressions of female inferiority, female circumcision. It is shameful that three male appeal judges last year ruled against her asylum on grounds that female genital mutilation was, “while repulsive to most societies”, accepted as “traditional and as part of the cultural life” in Sierra Leone.
British women have the opportunity to rise as high as any man in any field in what nevertheless remains an unequal struggle for gender parity in top level business and politics. In theory, covering your face should not be a barrier to achievement. But for women to succeed, they need to be highly visible, not only for themselves but for other women too, or they will at best be ignored, at worst remain subservient chattels to male-dominated traditions.