Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/459/1536
Straw, the veil and racism
IN THE wake of the horrific 7/7 bombings last year, racist attacks increased by 600%, particularly against Muslims. Now, a year later, another increase in racism is occurring. Incidents have been reported in the press of Muslim women having their veils ripped from their faces as well as a general increase in hostility towards Muslims.
The catalyst for this was Jack Straw's comments on Muslim women who wear the niqab (a full veil covering the whole head apart from the eyes). His comments were supported by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality. Following Straw's remarks a series of ministers have made similar remarks which will undoubtedly further increase racism.
Some commentators have defended Straw's comments by arguing he had a right to his opinion. As socialists, we support the right of everyone to raise criticism of others' beliefs, including their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, Straw was mistaken to raise the issue in the way that he did.
Given his position as an MP, who the women were going to for help, his request will have been interpreted as a demand by many. In addition, he is part of a government responsible for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that in Britain has overseen increased repression, particularly of Muslims. Therefore the fact that he not only asked women to remove their veils, but wrote about it in the press, is inevitably seen by Muslims as an attack on their religion.
The issue of the veil is complicated for Muslims, non-Muslims, and from the standpoint of socialists and the labour movement. Many people, including many Muslims, feel that the all-encompassing niqab is repressive to women. As socialists we stand for the right of women to choose what they wear without facing discrimination or repression as a result. This includes the right to wear the niqab in most circumstances.
Phil Woolas MP's comments were completely wrong, when he publicly called for the sacking of a classroom assistant for insisting on wearing the niqab in front of male members of staff, as was Blair's intervention supporting her suspension.
Nonetheless, the teaching of young children while wearing a niqab is a particular circumstance where the rights of the children must take precedence, so the wearing of a niqab might not be appropriate.
However, where a teacher or classroom assistant is willing to remove her niqab if no adult males are present, as appeared to be so in the case mentioned above, the school should attempt to accommodate her wishes without jeopardising the interests of the children concerned.
A very small minority of Muslim women in Britain wear the niqab and their reasons for doing so vary. Some are recent immigrants from countries where it is common. Others view it as a statement of solidarity with their religion; the number of young women in this category has increased markedly in the last few years, because they have felt their religion to be under attack. Jack Straw's comments will lead to more, not fewer, women choosing to wear the niqab in protest at New Labour's attitude.
There are other reasons why Muslim women wear the niqab. Some reluctantly accept it because then they are allowed greater freedom by their families to study and move freely outside the home. Others are horrified by the pressure that British society puts on young women to dress in a certain way (to wear skimpy clothes etc) and see the veil as a certain protection. Some are pressured into wearing it by their families.
As socialists, we stand just as much for the right of women to choose not to wear the headscarf or niqab as to choose to wear them. However, politicians coming out 'against' the niqab, or it being banned as is the case at Imperial University, will do nothing to assist those women who are wearing it not through choice, but due to family or societal pressure. On the contrary, a situation of heightened prejudice against Muslims will tend to force Muslim communities to turn inward and will make it more difficult, not easier, for women to stand up against oppression.
If the ban on the niqab becomes general in universities the result will be that women from families where it is considered a necessity will be prevented from attending university.
In any case, any attempt by the government to dress up their views on Muslim women as concern for women's rights is blatant hypocrisy when the effects of government policy on fundamental issues affecting women such as low pay, health care and domestic violence are considered.
It is not a coincidence that so many different government ministers are singing the same tune. However, the reason has far more to do with New Labour's slide in the polls, and the leadership ambitions of various New Labour politicians, than it does with how Muslim women dress or, as New Labour claim they are attempting, encouraging the Muslim community to 'root out the extremists in their midst'.
The current onslaught will do nothing to cut across what New Labour calls 'extremism'. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain completely oppose the profoundly mistaken methods of terrorism. However, there is a tiny but growing minority who are prepared to support, or even taken part in, terrible attacks like 7/7. Their numbers have grown, not as a result of the actions of the 'Muslim community,' but because of the profound anger and alienation they feel because of New Labour's wars of occupation and the increased discrimination they face here in Britain.
The latest ratcheting-up of racism by the government will only increase the anger and alienation felt by many young Muslims, and increase the size of the tiny minority willing to take the mistaken road of terrorism.
Traditionally, playing the race card was a tactic of the Tories - often under a Labour government. Now it is New Labour which is starting to accommodate itself to anti-Muslim prejudices - a dangerous game. Frightened of being undermined by the Tories and, in some areas by the far-right, they are echoing some of their sentiments.
The statements made, and the baying they have produced in the right-wing press, can only make it easier for far-right, racist organisations, like the British National Party, to gain support.
Socialists defend the rights of Muslims, and all ethnic minorities, against racism and attacks on their democratic and religious rights. At the same time we explain to the working class as a whole that it is not in their interests to allow New Labour to whip up racism and division. The attacks on democratic rights being introduced under the guise of 'fighting terror', including the latest sweeping assault on the rights of students, will be used in the future against the left and the workers' movement. Already anti-terror legislation has been used against peaceful anti-arms trade protesters.
Ruth Kelly, in charge of the Orwellian sounding 'Commission for Integration and Cohesion' has publicly stated that the government would only fund and engage with Muslim organisations that are, "taking a pro-active leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values". But the majority of working-class people in Britain do not share New Labour's values.
New Labour 'values' include the brutal occupation of Iraq and a headlong rush to privatise public services. More than 70% of the population has different values - and opposes any further sell-off of public services.
New Labour is unpopular because it has carried out consistently pro-big business, anti-working class policies - a diet of cuts, privatisation and war. While attacking working-class people they disguise their policies by claiming that, as Blair put it, "we are all middle-class now". Straw even went so far as to suggest that religion rather than class is now the "great divide" in society.
In reality, social class remains the major division. The gap between rich and poor in Britain today is wider than at any time under Margaret Thatcher and Muslim workers are, on average, amongst the lowest-paid strata of the working class. Two-thirds of children from British families of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin grow up in poverty.
The workers' movement has to stand against the prejudice being whipped up by New Labour at the same time as campaigning amongst Muslim workers for a united struggle against low pay and racism.
In The Socialist 22 October 2006:
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
War and terrorism
Socialist Party review