Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lifting the Veil in Great Britain

The British Muslim teacher's veil controversy is coming to a head this week. The New York Times reports today that Prime Minister Tony Blair has criticized Muslim facial coverings in British society:

Prime Minister Tony Blair joined a passionate and increasingly contentious debate on Tuesday over the full-face veils worn by some British Muslim women, calling it a “mark of separation.”

It was the first time Mr. Blair had so explicitly backed Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons, who raised Muslim ire this month by saying he did not believe that women should wear the full-face veil, a headdress with only a narrow slit for the eyes. Mr. Straw had asked Muslim women meeting with him to remove their veils, arguing that it prevented communication and set the wearer apart.

“It is a mark of separation, and that is why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable,” Mr. Blair said at a regular news conference, echoing some of Mr. Straw’s sentiments.

His remarks reflected a sense that British society is heading toward ever deeper fissures between Muslims and non-Muslims, evoking questions about the nation’s readiness to embrace Muslims, and Muslims’ willingness to adapt.

The discussion mirrors earlier public disputes in France, Turkey and elsewhere about head scarves, though in Britain it is largely limited to the use of the full-face veil, the niqab.
“No one wants to say that people don’t have the right to do it,” Mr. Blair said. “That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society.”

There were signs that the dispute had spread farther across Europe. In an interview in Italy, Prime Minister Romano Prodi was quoted Tuesday as saying that women should not be hidden behind veils.

“You can’t cover your face; you must be seen,” Mr. Prodi told Reuters. “This is common sense, I think. It is important for our society.”

In Muslim societies, the full veil is sometimes worn to shield a woman from the view of men outside her immediate family. The debate about its use among a small number of British Muslims has crystallized around Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant suspended by a local council for refusing to remove her full-face veil during class in the presence of male teachers.
Two points here: First, this controversy demonstrates the difficulties of Muslim assimilation in Western societies -- the veil does establish a mark of separation for Muslim women and would obviously make communication difficult.

I also see this as a learning impediment for the kids. I read lips, as do most people (usually unnoticed). How can Ms. Azmi expect her students to learn when they can't see her lips or facial expressions, which are an important element of non-verbal communication?

Be sure to check the article's photo of the pro-Muslim demostrators' signs attacking Jack Straw: "Prosecute Jack Straw for Inciting Religious Hatred." Give me a break!

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