Not Saussure

October 9, 2006

Crisis? Which crisis?

Filed under: civil liberties, Islam, Religion, UK — notsaussure @ 10:08 pm

Says Janet Daley in today’s Telegraph,

There was bound to be a crisis eventually. We could not have gone on talking about rights and diversity and freedom in a conveniently messy, unresolved way forever. At some point, the contradictions that we had been pretending not to see would become so blatant that they could not be obfuscated away.

Now we have it […]

And what crisis is this? That brought about by, say, the apparent conflict between things like habeas corpus and judicial independence and whatever Dr Reid and Tony Blair today take to be the demands of the war against terror, in which there are to be ‘no “no-go” areas’, perhaps?

Nope. Far more serious.

Islamic women are presenting a challenge to our modern political settlement that is likely to bring the entire edifice into question.

Crikey! How are they doing this? By wearing veils, apparently.

Hmm. Some of the people commenting on her piece try to make sense of the assertion by drawing parallels with — for example — hoodies and people being asked to remove their motor cycle helmets or balaclavas when entering banks and building societies. Someone, for example, comments

If motorcyclists have to remove their helmets in banks, shops and pubs, so that they may be seen, and people are rightly suspicious of those wearing ski masks or balaclava worn back to front, what impression and effect do they consider they convey when fully veiled, to the majority of society?

This I could take more seriously had there been many examples of niqab-clad women taking advantage of the anonymity thus afforded, and robbing the banks in question or mugging passers by. Possibly it’s a wide-spread and under-reported problem in Jack Straw’s Preston, but I rather doubt it.

And, to be fair, Janet Daley doesn’t seek to advance this line. She asks,

Does a woman have a “right” to repudiate the freedom to be treated as an equal by society? No, she does not. If mandated democratic governments have passed laws that say that women should be educated, enfranchised and treated the same as men by the law, then that is the judgment of the nation as a whole and should be accepted by all those who reside here.

Being “free” does not mean that you can pick and choose among the freedoms that are on offer, as if the political culture were a supermarket. It is as much an undertaking on your part to uphold the responsibility of freedom as it is the undertaking of the government to safeguard it. Under this formulation, freedom does not mean what you choose it to mean: it means what the nation as a whole has decided is in the best interests of all the people.

This seems to me to go off at a complete tangent. No one, I take it, is suggesting that women wearing such clothing have ‘repudiated the freedom to be treated as an equal by society’; I don’t know if there have been any cases involving, for example, the right to be educated ‘the same as men’ and wearing a niqab, but didn’t recently one Shabina Begum go all the way to the House of Lords to try to establish her right to be educated while wearing what she takes to be the dress mandated by her religion?

She wasn’t saying ‘my religion tells me not to go to school’; she was saying, rightly or wrongly, ‘I very much want to go to school but I want at the same time to wear what I think my religion dictates’.

Indeed, I’m not sure how someone would ‘repudiate the freedom to be treated as an equal by society’, even if they wanted to. How do you do that? Unless, of course, the assumption is that society — which, as Mrs Thatcher reminded us, comprises individuals — is somehow justified in treating women who choose to wear veils or niqabs or whatever as less than equals. And on this, there’s a very good comment, to my mind, from a former editor of Ms Daley’s paper over in The First Post:

It is amusing sometimes to watch the atheist or agnostic try to reconcile a person’s religious beliefs with the fact that they also appear to be rational, professional and sane. These women probably went to Mr Straw’s constituency surgery wanting to talk about bin collection, or the yobs in their neighbourhood. They were rendered socially ‘separate’ not by their veils, but by his request to remove them and then to write about it in a local newspaper.


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