Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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The Veil: a Western Woman's View
Last uploaded : Thursday 26th Oct 2006 at 02:05
Contributed by : Carol Gould


In the past two weeks Britain has been gripped by a public debate about the niqab, or black head-to-toe veil worn by some Muslim women. The debate was sparked by an article written by Leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw for the Lancashire Telegraph, the newspaper of his Blackburn constituency, in which he reflected that it would be appropriate for Muslim women to reveal their faces when seeing him in his surgery (local Parliamentary office.)

He embellished his comments by adding, in a television sound byte, that he would not mind the whole garment being abandoned altogether. In the same time period of this statement, Aishah Azmi, a teacher’s aide at Headfield Church of England School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire decided to take her school to a tribunal for asking her to remove her veil when talking to pupils.

The discussion became heated when Salman Rushdie joined the fray and said ‘the veil sucks.’ People made jokes about ‘veil’ also spelling ‘evil.‘ Angry young women appeared on various British television and radio programmes expressing their determination to remain covered. The atmosphere on BBC ‘Question Time’ was incendiary. On ’Any Questions’ an intimidating Inayat Bungalawala, deputy head of the Muslim Council of Britain, complained about MPs and other discussing the veil issue at all, but was reminded by Anne McElvoy, Editor of ‘The Evening Standard,’ that Britain is a dynamic democracy.

On ‘Question Time’ a very angry young Muslim woman shouted at an audience member not to tell her how to dress in Britain. No-one on the panel bothered to remind this lady that if any of us walked into a Muslim country with a Christian or Jewish Bible, or with a passport with an Israeli stamp, we would be expelled or even arrested. Daniel Pearl, the Islamophile journalist who only wanted to find out what motivated Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, was beheaded because the Pakistani kidnappers found out he had an Israeli father. Most Muslim countries are Judenrein ( no Jews) and are not too nice to Christians, either. The journalist Ann Leslie remarked on BBC News 24 that in Muslim countries she respected the dress codes even though she loathed walking in blistering heat in the highly impractical ‘bin liner.’

The issue reached a climax when Muhammed Abdul Bari, Director of the Muslim Council, was quoted in the current issue of 'The Jewish Chronicle' warning that Britons would wake up to two million terrorists and 700,000 in London alone if the ‘demonisation of Muslims’ did not cease. If one actually takes this statement apart, it suggests that an open and honest discussion about the pros and cons of the long black garment in British life means British people are ‘demonising’ Muslims. No-one has said Muslims are dangerous because they wear the veil. But Dr Abdul-Bari strikes an own goal by telling us that yes, all 100% of British Muslims actually do want to blow us all up because a very British discussion is enough to create mayhem in our streets from Penzance to John’o ‘Groats.

When the Danish cartoon demonstrations occurred in London in February ( one demonstrator wore a full suicide belt) the slogans on posters were threatening to the extreme. Inasmuch as the British media portray Israel, Zionists and Jews with daily disdain and in grotesque cartoons, one would expect to see Jews threatening mayhem. It just doesn’t happen. Frankly, if four Jewish men had blown up tube stations and a bus and four more had been apprehended a fortnight later with unexploded bombs, one cannot imagine the Jewish community by the wildest stretches of anyone’s imagination proliferating on television and radio demanding that ‘demonisation’ be curtailed. Nor could one imagine the British government going into paroxyms of hand-wringing, as it did after July 7th 2005, and bending over backwards to create 'bridges to an alienated community' had Jews, Hindus, Sikhs or Christians perpetrated carnage in London's streets.

During the IRA atrocities the voice of Jerry Adams was actually muted out on British television. Irish Catholics were not storming onto the airwaves demanding that criticism cease. If anything, I remember Irish workers in my locale being utterly appalled by the IRA and desperately trying to maintain a low and respectable profile.

I have been thinking long and hard about the ’veil’ issue. Britain is a nation steeped in tradition. All one has to to is watch Trooping the Colour, or sit through the Royal British Legion Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph and Royal Albert Hall to realise that this is a culture built on centuries of a common cultural heritage. That British people criticised my dress sense when I first came to these shores because I wore garish American t-shirts is a signpost of this adherence to tradition. Conversely, the Britain I came to in 1976 was also a swinging, rocking country with a fashion and popular music industry that was dazzling the world. The nation that brought the rest of us the Beatles, Mary Quant, Twiggy, the Rolling Stones and The Who did not seem to me a future home for burkhas and mad mullahs.

My own tradition and upbringing would place the niqab in the realm of bizarre. Imagine growing up in a big American city in the 1960s and 70s, where the only image of a person dressed from head to toe with slits for their eyes was that of the terrifying Ku Klux Klansmen and women. In my youth the only people in my own city who wore black head coverings with slits for their eyes were violent criminals. In the opening sequence of Woody Allen‘s ‘Radio Days’ two robbers are raiding a house wearing balaclavas.

Imprinted on my psyche and on that of millions of people who lived through the agony of the Munich Olympics siege was the image of the PLO terrorists in black hoods with slits for their eyes. They butchered the Israeli Olympic athletes in a manner I am too decent to describe here, but for years I would jump if I saw a person in even a simple black scarf or woolly hat.

This is not to be interpreted as ‘the veil is like a KKK gown.’ However Muslims have to appreciate that some of us who have grown up in swinging, dazzling Western environments are taken aback by the sight of women in what we see as ‘demeaning’ garments. A neighbour told me she will never forget her god-daughter hiding behind her in terror and whimpering when she tried to take her up Edgware Road to Burger King. They were surrounded by literally hundreds of women in niqab as it was summer, when the exodus from the Middle east occurs, and the little child was merely reacting to a sight that was utterly alien to her -- albeit short -- life experience.

Today a London website administered by a Muslim public affairs organisation is running a page about the poor treatment of some 300 Palestinian children in Israeli jails. As an enlightened Westerner it is appalling to me that any child should be incarcerated without care and rehabilitation. However, the website compares the situation to the Nazi genocide of Jewish children in the Holocaust. I was incandescent with rage and profoundly hurt when I saw this obscene comparison. I thought of the one and a half million little stars at Yad Vashem representing every Jewish child exterminated in Nazi camps. But I go on with my life and I do not threaten to blow up the perpetrators of that scurrilous web page.

The clash of Western and non-Western values and imagery may be witnessed by the statement this week by an Australian cleric that scantily-clad women are akin to fresh meat ripe for beasts of prey. Australian outrage rapibly followed led by Prime Minister John Howard, with the interpretation that rape should be expected by women in revealing clothes.

When I was an executive with ITV I had lunch one day with a colleague who informed me that the Hasidic Jews who lived in her neighbourhood in North London made her blood boil. I asked her what they had done to cause her ire and she said ‘Oh, nothing, I just cannot bear the sight of them. They make my skin crawl.’ I decided to pursue this and reminded her that those men would never lay a finger on her and that because of this, she lived in one of the safest areas of Britain. I asked her what on earth could be so bad about them and she said ‘It is in my blood; I really think I hate Jews because it is in my genes.’ I went on to get into a heated discussion and never had lunch with her again. However, it became part of my memory. I did not think about killing her.

Likewise it was interesting that something as banal as the Hasidic black coat would cause such discomfort to a British woman. In her case it was pure, medieval anti-Semitism in its truest form. By the same token my bemusement at the niqab is not, I stress, 'Islamophophobia' but a reaction from a woman who grew up in a country that gave the world Margaret Mead, Midge Decter, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Chesler, Bella Abzug, and my own mother, one of the most liberated, forward-thinking and 'in your face' females one could imagine.

My late mother wore a beautiful uniform as a member of the Women’s Army Corps. I have pictures of my elegant grandmothers from the 1920s. My life experience has never included veils and burkhas and niqabs. This does not make them bad.

But Muslims in Britain have got to open their hearts and minds to the depth of feeling Britons have about the way we look and dress in daily discourse. If we are forbidden from dressing as we wish in their countries and are beheaded just for being a non-Muslim, they have to swallow hard, count to ten and make room for the traditions of Britain with graciousness and dignity.

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