Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Veiled intolerance

The UK has now joined France in being stuffed in the head about religious regalia. Some while ago, France got its collective knickers in a twist about Muslim girls wearing head scarves in school, and, to block that, banned most overt religious symbols — including yarmulkes, stars of David, and crucifixes. Now Britain is joining the ranks of the unenlightened by suspending, and threatening to fire, a Muslim woman who is a teaching assistant and insists on wearing a veil when men are present:

Phil Woolas, Britain's race and faith minister, was quoted by the Sunday Mirror newspaper as demanding that Aishah Azmi, a Muslim, be fired for refusing to remove her veil at work. "She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job," Woolas said.
This also relates to a recent post by Ken Goldstein about religious preferences affecting service providers, and the ensuing discussion in the comments section.

Now, the French were at least egalitarian about it (though rather forgetful of the fraternité part of their motto). But where is the possible harm in allowing head scarves in school? If they're really worried that backward baseball caps, berets, or tam o'shanters will interfere with the learning process, it's pretty easy to explain why head scarves and yarmulkes are different, and to make the distinction in enforcement.

I similarly fail to see why "she can't do her job" with a veil on, and no explanation for that is given in the WaPo article. It does say, though, that Ms Azmi will remove the veil in class, as long as there are no (adult) men present. I see an accomodation here, don't you? And yet the British authorities aren't going there.

But that's what all this should be about: reasonable accomodation. That doesn't mean it's burst wide open. If someone tries to say that his religion demands that he teach class in the nude, we can say, "No, accomodating that is not reasonable in our society." But allowing something like this is easy and reasonable, and it's just loony to get so upset over it. Make the accomodation and let everyone get on with the teaching and the learning.

It's also a wonderful opportunity to teach children that there are all kinds of people around, with different customs, beliefs, dress, and ways of life, and to show them how we can all live together and learn from each other. Why choose, instead, to teach intolerance and rigidity?

What's more, doesn't this drive more of a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim society? How does that benefit anyone? The Post cites David Davis as worrying that these divisions in our society could help spawn homegrown terrorism, but it strikes me that it's the very refusal to accomodate cultural and religious customs that puts us more in danger in that way.

Finally, Salman Rushdie opines that "veils suck" because they are "a way of taking power away from women." A similar argument was brought to bear in France, with some stating that many girls wear religious clothing not by choice, but because they're forced to by their families. Banning them in school, they said, is a way of freeing the girls from those fetters.

But that's a silly argument. For one thing, it's saying that to "free" some girls, you must hurt those who are doing it by their own choice — as Ms Azmi clearly is as well. For another, families using veils and head scarves as part of a system of oppression will simply put their girls in private schools, away from official interference.

The veil may or may not "suck". Regardless, a woman who chooses to wear it, and who can do her job with it on, should be allowed to.

Update, 20 Oct: The WaPo reports that an Employment Tribunal has awarded Ms Azmi $2000 in compensation, but has not upheld her claims of discrimination:

LONDON, Oct. 19 — A Muslim teaching assistant was awarded about $2,000 Thursday for being victimized by officials who told her to remove her full-face veil while teaching, in a case highlighting a fierce debate about integration and religious tolerance toward Britain's nearly 2 million Muslim residents.

"Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens," said Aishah Azmi, 24, whose more serious claims, of religious discrimination and harassment, were rejected by the government's Employment Tribunal.
Also, see my further comments here.


jim said...

But would the same logic apply to a teen-age boy who decided he wanted to walk around school/town/wherever with a balaclava helmet on? I think - quite rightly - he wouldn't be allowed. Hiding one's face is an act of distrust and isolation. This is why people take their hats off when they enter buildings - not to do so shows disrespect.

I'm all for reasonable accomodation, but completely covering one's face is just going too far. Perhaps I'm just reactionary, but I wouldn't be comfortable if (e.g.) my doctor had his face covered, whatever the reason.

Bear in mind also that the veil isn't a Muslim thing - it's an Arab thing. Muslims in non-Arab countries don't wear them and there's nothing in the Qu'aran that compels them. It's just an Arab interpretation of the commandment to dress modestly.

If I walked into the bank or some such place with a balaclava on I'd expect to be asked to remove it; why should there be one rule for me and another for Muslim women?

Barry Leiba said...

Jim, thanks for the comment. I've posted a response as today's blog entry.