Since the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, made some comments about the Muslim full veil, or niqab, a couple of weeks ago, the media in the UK has been in a frenzy. First some background. The article that sparked the controversy was written by Jack Straw for his column in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. For those that don't know the story, it's relatively simple. Jack Straw says that whenever Muslim women dressed in full veil (pictured) come to his MP's surgery for help and advice, he asked in that very British way, "You wouldn't mind terribly, if you could just consider thinking about contemplating removing your veil".
Jack Straw reckons that the communication experience is enhanced if people who are talking can see each other's faces and read their expressions. Perhaps. The comments flooded into the BBC website. Comments such as "Jack Straw must have problems with emails, then. No faces." Worst of all, he offended blind people. Blind and partially-sighted people can't see the people they're talking to, and they'd argue that their interactive experience isn't diminished by being blind. Listen to In Touch, a programme for the visually impaired on Radio 4. (Do it by evening, Tuesday 10th, or read the transcript).
Communication is the reason he cites for asking that his constituents take their veil when they appear before him, however, in an interview with the Today programme, he lets slips his actual motivation. He's worried about "community relations". In other words, the people in a community cannot communicate with a woman who covers her face, in this instance at the behest of her religion. The veil here, acts as a barrier, just as 18-year-old boys in hoodies are intimidating. And if non-Muslim and Muslims who are trying to live harmoniously alongside each other cannot interact, "parallel communities" start to develop.
In one sentence, Jack Straw's comments about the veil is, about how Muslims practise their religion, and how it affects the British society in which they live and belong.
Since the debate is about religion, some see it as a non-argument. If we live in a society where religious freedom is a human right, it is the believers' prerogative to practise their religion as they see fit. However, these are the exact reasons why the issue must be debated.
First of all, there's the issue of the State. Every citizen, who interacts with the state must be, if you'll forgive the pun, naked. Who is beneath the veil talking to Jack Straw? In Islamic countries, where women wear the full veil, they are usually searched and identified by other women. This allays security fears, and the woman can still cover up. If heaven forbid, an accident happened, and a male police officer was on the scene, would he have to wait for a female officer before the woman in niqab can be helped?
The Aishah Azmi furore at the weekend is another interesting case to look at. Most telling is the interview, where she buckle under Peter Sissons's hard questioning.
Such religious expression in the presence of the State invariably melds both together. While countries like France and the US have an explicit separation of Church and State, the Church is still fully intertwined with the State. The Head of State, Elizabeth Regina, is the "Defender of the Faith". The head of the Anglican communion, The Archbishop of Canterbury, and other bishops sit in the upper House of Lords. He is also chosen by the government, and appointed by the Queen. And if you go back to medieval times when Estates of the Realm meant something, the Lords Spritual was one of the three. The only distinction in this case is that the religion in question is not Christianity, but Islam. If bonnie Prince Charles gets his wish to become "defender of faiths", things might change.
Secondly, there is the debate about why woman wear the veil. Some argue that it's an edict straight form the Qur'an, while others say that it's merely cultural. There's a great debate taking place within Western Islam about how faith can be compatible with citizenry. The question of whether one can be British and Muslim arises time and again. Whether a Muslim's obligation is to the state or to Allah, or if at all there has to be distinction.
The Yasmin Alibhai-Brown contention is that women wearing the veil is an attempted indictment on all men in the West. If the veil is worn to prevent the lecherous advances of men, it almost means that men are beasts of the field who cannot control their primitive urges. In this instance, it means, "back off, I'm unavailable". As this becomes a signal of being unapproachable, nobody approaches a woman in a niqab. So once again, the community relations and interaction argument kicks in again.
Nonie Darwish, contends that the rights gained by feminists who fought for women's rights in the last century have been misused. When women wanted sexual liberation, they didn't expect women to become hard drinking ladettes who are as lewd as the filthiest of gutter-mouth men. It wasn't so that women should take up the worst excesses of men. Likewise with the niqab. Women's liberation was not fought so that Muslim women could wear the veil - by choice. It's almost paradoxical that the choice of the modern woman is seen as a retrogressive by those feminists who espoused choice as a tenet of their liberation.
On the one hand, some women have embraced those rights by utilising them to the full, while other women embrace them by choosing not to use them.
There is the issue of sensitivity on the part of Muslim women who wear the veil. When any woman goes to Saudi Arabia, she covers herself. Someone like Frances Harrison (right), BBC's correspondent in Iran, always wears a headscarf when she's reporting. People visiting certain parts of the Middle East dress appropriately to the host culture. That may be by showing respect, or by diktat. In Western culture, even though culturally people don't wear full veils, there is nothing against it. As a result of liberal democratic philosophy, in theory, you can wear what you want. Some reckon that as Muslims have been allowed to practise their religion in Britain, the least they could do is to be sensitive to British sensibilities. The lands that their forefathers came from in the Middle East and South Asia are not so tolerant of non-Muslim religious practice. The recent case of a man in Afghanistan was facing execution for converting to Christianity is an example.
It's a livewire topic in Muslim countries and not just in the West. Nigeria, despite not being a "Muslim" country (even though we're members of the OIC), has its fair share of "ninjas", as they're disparagingly called. I can't envisage an immediate future where Nigerians are debating the wearing of the veil - it would mean that the country's religious veneer has faded. There might be the occasional ructions between Muslims and Christians, both religious leadership harbour socially conservative attitudes. In this, they are one and the same.
Turkey's secular state has proscribed the headscarf, while only a couple of days ago, the Tunisian government has spoken out against the headscarf. The distinction in the Middle East is quite interesting. In Egypt, more women wear the veil and headscarf now than did 20 years ago, whereas in Tunisia it's not as widespread. It should be also be noted that both countries are de facto police state dictatorships.
No doubt this will rumble on.