What to make of the veil debate? I interviewed Afshin Rattansi, author of The Dream of the Decade about it.
RATTANSI: “Firstly, I think that former foreign secretary, Jack Straw - who blithely cries innocence over a war that may have cost 655,000 lives - may not be the best person to have started the debate about veils. That's especially so when he wants to be Deputy Prime Minister now that Prime Minister Tony Blair has all but resigned. "
ME: Tony Blair said that it was “a mark of separation" and that “it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable. "
Gordon Brown, widely tipped to succeed him as British PM said that he would “prefer it and think it better for Britain if fewer people wore veils. That is what Jack Straw has said and I support. ”
RATTANSI: “Picking on a group of British women (an estimated 10,000) who come from the poorest in society is not a very useful thing at the best of times. The Labour government has exacerbated the gap between the very richest and very poorest in British society and so picking on those least well able to defend themselves for career advancement is hardly charitable. "
ME: But the debate over veils is a fascinating one, nonetheless. It exposes the Voltaire quip that one should defend to the death the right of people to express themselves even if one doesn't agree with them in very bright light, surely?
RATTANSI: “Shaken into this cocktail is power and powerlessness as well as the opposing concepts of liberal pluralism and the desire for a truly secular society.
"It's plain, I think, that the way to stop British women wearing veils is not to demonise them. Attempts at banning the peaceful actions of marginalised groups leads to them engaging in those acts with greater vigour than before. The triumph of atheism as regards the Anglican protestant faith in the UK has been based on ignoring people who choose to practise the national faith as well as the use of targeted comedy.
"The veil is obviously a very different manifestation of a faith in that it, theoretically, is deeply misandrist. It assumes that men can only think of one thing. As in any text from one of the Abrahamic faiths, it's impossible to use them to decide whether prophets and messengers decreed this sanction or that one as mandatory. "
ME: What about *** connotations?
RATTANSI: “Societies based on the works of Thomas Paine et al have progressed so far (after ensuing wars and colonisation that has killed more than any faith) that the veil itself can be sexual. I'm sure that as I write this, there may well be powerful men an women using veils as *** equipment. But I doubt the poor 10,000 whose families experience poverty and racism are wearing them for that. They are most probably clinging to the veil for a sense of identity. Rather than Prada and Cartier , they believe that not only does the veil bring them closer to God but that it connects with history. This, some feminist veil-wearers say is far better than having to wear expensive make-up to be employable and commodifiable as ‘the West’ demands. (The counter to this remark is that countries such as Iran reputedly have the highest incidence of rhinoplasty surgery - the veil can make women more obsessed by physical self than most exasperated anorexic adolescents. )"
ME: What about identies?
RATTANSI: “We all have multiple identities. Veil-wearers - as anyone on a flight to the Gulf will tell you - can be just as hung up on designer makeup and trinkets. However, the full veil subsumes all other identities of these women to many eyes. This may well be the intention.
ME: Your novel, The Dream of the Decade, deals with such concerns when it comes to punk music?
RATTANSI:"During the glories of punk, it was impossible not to feel that those who wore the styles inspired by Vivienne Westwood were subsuming all identity except for the names of bands signifying particular strands of music on the back of leather jackets. The cry of many a punk band in opposition to commodification was that no one had the right to tell a person what they should or should not wear.
"The answer to the veil debate depends on what type of society one wants. "
RATTANSI: “If one seeks a fundamentalist Muslim state in the UK, the veil should surely be actively encouraged.
"Second, if one seeks a multicultural UK society in which all customs and faiths are protected because they are perceived to add to individuals’ life-experiences, then Straw was terribly wrong. This holds that all life should be a series of negotiations between seemingly opposing ideologies in a constant Brownian flux.
"Third, if one believes that all religions are at heart a form of madness akin to any faith in all powerful extra-terrestrials, then one has to work out how best to put an end to religion as it spreads faster and faster. "
ME: The Muslim faith in the UK is the country's fastest growing faith.
RATTANSI: “Let's look at those who seek the third ideal. One could either choose to lock all religious people up. That is a little like the Straw method. Banning the wearing of crucifixes (tiny, tiny ones even) and telling British women they can't have jobs if they wear veils will certainly make people think again when they choose to flaunt their religious beliefs. However, something tells me that when that happens - particularly with the most marginalised in a modern capitalism subsumed by class immobility and vested interests - the people who are religious will find their faiths getting stronger.
"If that is true, then the second ideal merges into the third. It will be precisely a liberal tolerance that will give rise to people ignoring religion. That, however, has not been the case in states which have no constitutionally established faiths - the U. S. , for instance. Tolerance of Islam in Britain has not led to its waning.
"Still on that third ideal, one could surely make a case that if it is what one wishes, one has to look at the reasons for why people subscribe to irrational beliefs. Ultimately, it must surely be a case of the believer seeking an answer to perceived powerlessness. And given that money engenders power, a more equitable distribution of wealth will lead to the third goal. "
ME: Of course, money and power do not of themselves confer confidence. Those who bombed London on 7/7 were not from the poorest of backgrounds.
RATTANSI: “But, for them, it seems British foreign rather than home policy was the catalyst.
"There is something brutal about the poorest women in a community repeatedly backing an MP, desperately needing help from him, only to be told that he finds it difficult to communicate without seeing them. The disgraced former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, was, alas, able to communicate very well without seeing people. The telephone seems to be quite a good communication device.
"Straw and others should be seeking the narrowing of the gap between rich and poor if they feel so offended by women who wear the veil. That would be a start. "
Edward Victor represents Afshin Rattansi , whose novel "The Dream of the Decade" is available at Amazon.com .