Veil Debate in Britain Is Also Divisive for Muslims

By Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 21, 2006

LONDON, Oct. 20 -- Wearing a Muslim veil revealing only her chestnut eyes, Maheesa Razia grabbed two small bundles of coriander and handed them to a vegetable vendor at the Whitechapel Street Market in east London.

She passed the man a coin and walked off, quietly completing the most mundane of daily tasks while wearing a garment -- the full-face veil, or niqab -- that has caused a raging debate about how well Britain's nearly 2 million Muslims are integrating into society.

"I feel comfortable wearing the niqab here; there was zero awkwardness," Razia, 24, said through the flowing fabric of her veil.

After she walked away, the vendor, Mohammad Dehbourzorgi, a Muslim who moved to Britain 22 years ago, sounded almost contemptuous. He said he agreed with Jack Straw, a top official in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government and leader of the House of Commons, who started the controversy this month by complaining that veils create distance between individuals and cultures.

"Jack Straw has a point," said Dehbourzorgi, who was wearing blue jeans. "If you come to England, then try to be English."

The veil debate has become part of a larger discussion in Britain about Muslims and religious tolerance, free expression, human rights, prejudice and security. These issues have dominated public discourse since the July 2005 bombings on the London public transportation system and a plot uncovered in August this year that allegedly involved blowing up transatlantic jetliners. In both cases, Britons were alarmed to discover that the men who allegedly committed or contemplated mass murder were young Muslim men who had been raised in Britain.

While the veil issue has exacerbated tensions between non-Muslims and Muslims, it has also sparked passionate reactions within Muslim communities. Some Muslim leaders have accused Straw, Blair -- who called veils a "mark of separation" -- and others of demonizing Muslims, but others have said they have raised an important issue that has no clear consensus among Muslims.

"It's a valid discussion for the times in which we live," said Humera Khan of the An-Nisa Society, a Muslim social welfare organization run by women. "But we shouldn't be seen as some crazy, weird people."

Khan said the niqab is worn by "a tiny minority" of British Muslim women. An increasing number of young women have started wearing it, she said, as an "assertion of religious identity" in a climate of "irrational paranoia" about Muslims since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

"The debate has become more political than religious," said Khan, who wears a head scarf that does not cover her face. She said Muslims have discussed the veil for hundreds of years and that the issue periodically pops into Western consciousness, often when raised by non-Muslim politicians. "There is historical Islamophobic line of thought about women in veils," she said. "It doesn't tell you anything about us. It tells you more about the people who are raising the issue."

Many Britons have praised Straw for bringing up a delicate issue in a reasonable way. But Fareena Alam, editor of Q-News, a Muslim magazine, said she believed that Straw's comments were a cynical attempt to boost his own political fortunes and that his calls for debate were "complete rubbish, irritating and patronizing." She said the controversy had driven more Muslim women to start wearing the niqab in "rebellion."

Alam said the situation has stifled serious and nuanced debate about the issue, as Muslims who believe that their religion is under attack from outsiders instinctively side with Muslim women who wear veils. She said she recently talked to two traditional Islamic scholars who said the full-face veil was "out of place in the West" and a "barrier to integration."

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