British Parliamentarian's Veil Controversy

Mona Eltahawy
Journalist and Commentator
Thursday, October 12, 2006; 1:00 PM

Last week Jack Straw , a member of the British Parliament, provoked international debate by saying that he asks Muslim women constituents who wear the veil to uncover their faces when meeting with him. The veil, he said, is "such a visible statement of separation and of difference" that it makes communication between Muslim and non-Muslim communities "difficult."

In the wake of similar disputes around the Danish newspaper's caricatures of the prophet Muhammed and Pope Benedict 's citation of a 14th century anti-Islamic scholar, the controversy illuminates the difficulties of Muslim assimilation into non-Muslim societies.

Journalist and commentator Mona Eltahawy joined World Opinion Roundup blogger Jefferson Morley Thursday, Oct. 12, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the controversy.

Read World Opinion Roundup: Unveiled: Another Debate About Muslims in the West , ( Oct. 12, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator. Her essays, which focus on Arab and Muslim issues, make her one of only a few writers whose work appears regularly in both the Arab and U.S. media.

She has published Op-Eds in the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat , Egypt's al-Dostour and Lebanon's The Daily Star . Her Op-Eds have also appeared in The Washington Post , the International Herald Tribune , The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

In March 2006, the Next Century Foundation awarded her its Cutting Edge Prize for distinguished contribution to the coverage of the Middle East and in recognition of her "continuing efforts to sustain standards of journalism that would help reduce levels of misunderstanding." She is a board member of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America.


Jefferson Morley: Welcome all, I'm delighted that U.S.-based Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy is joining us to talk about the debate in England and around the world about Jack Straw's comments about his dealings with female Muslim constituents who wear the full veil.


Santa Fe, N.M.: I find myself very torn on this issue.

I would like to feel that people should be able to dress however they want, particularly if they are prompted by religious/ethical feelings.

But the Moslem dress requirements for women seem to be based on the assumption that women are solely responsible for men's sexual feelings. I can't accept that: individuals are responsible for their own feelings.

Additionally, wearing all that stuff weighs one down, both literally and figuratively. It's harder to see with a full veil, and even a hijab is one more thing to have to adjust every morning. Men get away with wearing easy clothes.

And this sort of dress is a visible symbol of being separated from others. In these days of overstrong religious feelings (in many religions), such a statement can overshadow other kinds of communication.

Not an easy choice, is it? But it would be nice to talk about it without accusations from either side.

Mona Eltahawy: Thanks for your question which taps into the kinds of debates and arguments that Muslims have been having for centuries over dress requirements for women.

I myself used to wear a headscarf for nine years because at the time I believed it was a requirement. However, I read the works of many female Muslim scholars and writers such as the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi and the Egyptian American Harvard Divinities School professor Leila Ahmed and became convinced it is not a requirement.

My mother wears and sister wear headscarves, known as hijab, but would never wear the face veil.

Having said that though, I am dismayed at times at the obsession over women's dress - among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In many Muslim countries, women are much more concerned with illiteracy, health care and poverty than veils of any kind.

But ultimately it is about choice and unfortunately there are many Muslim societies today where that choice doesn't exist - for example in Saudi Arabia and Iran women must cover their hair, in Turkey women cannot cover their hair in government buildings and schools.


Jefferson Morley: Mona, before taking more questions from readers, I'd like to solicit a broader perspective from you.

The British debate over the veil follows controversies about the cancellation of an opera in Berlin that the producers felt might provoke violence; the controversial comments of the Pope; and the furor over the Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons about the prophet Muhammed. Why do you think these controversies are recurring so often?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you Jeff.

I think a large part of the problem is that the debate about integration and immigration has largely taken place between the left wing and the right wing in Europe, with very little input from Muslims, except for the most radical elements which have unfortunately been the loudest.

For years, the right wing in my view practices an overt racism, the kind that claimed Muslims don't belong here and can never fit in. The left wing on the other hand in their attempt to counter those arguments practiced a covert kind of racism, the racism of lower expectations that was content to ignore too many things that shouldn't have been ignored, such as the abuse of women's rights and radicalism among some Muslims.

Both these sides have ignored that there is a huge silent majority of Muslims who are successful and integrated in Europe and who really don't care about cartoons, operas or face veils.

But we are not seen. I say "we" because I grew up in London and have spent a lot of time in Denmark this year. Instead, there is a fixed idea of a Muslim - angry, bearded, veiled and easily insulted.

To be fair and to practice self-criticism though, many Muslims have been all too happy to provide that model.

We must make a distinction among Muslims - we differ culturally and ethnically and there are various sects of course.

And also make a distinction between Muslims in the West and the rest of the world. There are different issues at play for us and we are not one homogeneous blob.


Washington, D.C.: From what I believe and understand, veil is not a requirement for Muslim women; it is not even recommended in fact. During Haj, for instance, men and women alike are required to have their faces uncovered and visible. Veil has been a custom in many societies and cultures in history. Why do some Muslims believe it is necessary? I even know of many women who wear a headscarf who agree that a veil need not, maybe even should not, be worn, one must be identifiable. What do you think?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question. I agree with you.

I don't believe that a face veil is a requirement. It is a cultural and tribal tradition.

I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years. Women wear the face veil there if the head of their tribe deems they should. It has nothing to do with religion.

As a Muslim woman, I agree with everything that Jack Straw said. The face veil, or niqab, scares me too. Its complete erasure of a women's identity is frightening.

Mona Eltahawy: Interestingly, as the debate over Jack Straw's comments was raging, Morocco was working on ways to discourage women from wearing headscarves.

The education minister there said they saw headscarves as a political issue that indicated radicalism.

Muslims do not talk about the veil, for the hair or the face, with one voice. It is imperative to recognize the diversity and difference.


Brussels, Belgium: Why does the immigration debate in western Europe always center around Muslims? There are numerous immigrants of other faiths, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists, Sikhs, Greek Orthodox, Assyrians, Zoroastrians, that may be discriminated against and have difficulties integrating into western societies, that are never mentioned. Why this concentration on Islam ? Any connection with the conclusion of the Arab Human Development Report ?

Mona Eltahawy: Thanks for your question.

I have just returned from a long visit to Denmark where the word "immigrant" is interchangeable with "Muslim", much to the detriment of everyone.

It is essentially an immigration debate that has little to do with religion but to do with unemployment, poverty and whether one feels heard in the debate or not.

Many Muslims have successfully integrated into western societies but we never hear about them because their integration has been so successful. It is essential that they step out and act as role models and help to dispel the idea that all Muslims refuse to integrate.

It is also essential that everyone stop acting like there is one kind of "Muslim" - culturally, ethnically and economically that is not true.

Having said that though, as a Muslim who grew up in London and who has spent a lot of time in Denmark this year, I must also admit that Muslims need to be much more self-critical. We need to confront the radical elements in our communities more and to stop using the excuse that unemployment and poverty are the only reasons for radicalism.

In the UK for example, Hindus and Afro-Carribeans have endured both unemployment and poverty and yet the London Underground bombings were carried out by Muslims.

So Muslims must confront our own "right wing" - i.e. the radicals - and refuse to let them speak for us.

It is happening more and more I'm glad to report. In Denmark, the first Muslim member of the Danish Parliament Naser Khader launched a group called Democratic Muslims earlier this year during the cartoon crisis to break the stranglehold that the radical imams had on the debate. They claimed they spoke for all Muslims, Naser showed they didn't.


West Orange, N.J.: Begum Khaleda Zia, PM of Bangladesh, appears without veil at her Web site. Benazir Bhutto, when PM of Pakistan, also went unveiled. Ditto for Indonesia's Megawati. All cover their hair, but do not consider covering the face to be essential. Doesn't the same hold for most Asian Muslims? Do sentiments shift when in Europe or North America? Or do fundamentalist imams in the West make a point to impose Saudi standards as the common denominator?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question which raises again the fact that there is no uniformity of views on the veil, whether for the hair or the face.

I mentioned my experience in Saudi Arabia in answer to another question above but it bears repeating and also adding that the ultra-orthodox type of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia, known as Wahhabi or Salafi Islam, is the main reason for the prevalence of the face veil, or niqab.

That type of Islam is a mix of Saudi culture and tradition and their interpretation of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, the head of the tribe decides whether a woman covers her face.

The Saudis for years have used their petro-dollars to export their version of Islam across the world.


Brussels, Belgium: I consider myself a feminist and tend to look at this issue from that angle. Normally, people who wear non-western dress in western countries do not give me pause, nor do people who freely choose to wear religious garb. However, I'll admit to feeling put off by women in veils for two reasons. First, it seems there is a double standard for men and women. Veiled women are often with husbands who are completely in western dress, whereas, for example, Hassidic Jews and the Amish, both men and women, adapt their dress. Second, veiled women become invisible, anonymous and apart and, again from the feminist angle, this smacks me of the type of subjugation of women that feminists have always fought against. However, I have read that some women actually feel empowered by wearing the veil. Are you aware of that line of thinking? And are there any data (gathered, of course, outside the presence of men) to suggest why women are motivated to wear the veil?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

I too am a feminist and was one while I wore a headscarf for nine years. I wore it because I believed it was required of me as a Muslim. I took it off because I learned from the writings of female Muslims scholars - and I must add some men also share their views - that is not a requirement for a Muslim woman.

When I wore the scarf I always made the argument that if a woman could choose to wear a mini skirt then surely she could choose to cover her hair. That it was all about choice.

I continue to defend the right of women to cover their hair if they so wish but I'm worried that social and peer pressure and a growing conservatism in many Muslim countries have all eroded that choice.

I cannot however defend the face veil. Its erasure of a woman's identity frightens me.


Washington, D.C.: This is a real problem for our law enforcement and airport security. Some do not allow a picture on their license and/or identification. And will not let the officer or inspector see their face to make a identity cheek. Why should they be allowed to drive, let alone fly without proper ID?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

Of course it is a security issue. In many Muslim countries, a woman who wears a face veil must remove it for her driver's license, to enter university and other areas that require ID.


Superior, Wis.: Good afternoon.

George Orwell once said that the habit of assuming that a group of people consisting of millions can be fit into one tiny category is patently ridiculous and only serves one's own self-interests.

Do you agree with that statement? Do you see it happening with the West's attitudes toward Muslims?

Thank you.

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

I absolutely agree.

There isn't one type of "Muslim". There are 1.5 billion of us.

I describe myself as a liberal Muslim and when I give lectures or make media appearances the question that is guaranteed to annoy me the most but the one which I've learned to expect is "how representative are you?"

Only a Muslim would be asked that question. How can one person possibly represent 1.5 billion people.

And worse, it implies that to somehow veer from the stereotype of the angry, bearded or veiled woman somehow makes me less of a Muslim. Or to express a rational, logical view makes me less of a Muslim.

My reply from now one will be "what kind of a Muslim are you looking for?"


Boston, Mass.: How do you think the discussion on veils in the UK compares with or parallels the process in France of making a similar decision? I know there was a very controversial measure against Muslim girls wearing the veil in public schools, both as a measure for personal safety (gym class) and as a way of keeping religion out of state-run schools. (Interestingly, Catholic girls would not be allowed to wear cross necklaces for the same reason). This also touches on issues referred to in the article, that young girls don't have the freedom to decide for themselves whether to be veiled, and in certain communities might even be in danger if they don't.

I find this debate in Europe very intriguing because I feel if the same issues were being discussed in the US, the discussion would focus almost exclusively on individuals' right to exercise personal religious freedom of expression.

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question which throws an interesting light on how different European countries have death with these issues.

The UK and France have approached the veil in very different ways.

Unlike France, which as you mentioned, has banned visible religions symbols, the UK has been very accommodating. I know of schools there where because the student body is largely Muslim, the headscarf has been incorporated into the school uniform.

When the France debate was raging, I was dismayed at times that the argument on integration - which still rages between the government and French citizens of immigrant origin - was basically being fought over girls' and women's bodies.

It was the French government on one side and radicals who claims to speak for all Muslims on the other.

We need to hear from and to see the Muslims in the middle and more importantly when it comes to issues of dress we must see the girls and the women and what they want.


Caracas, Venezuela: As an Egyptian journalist, how can you defend the disgusting anti-Semitic cartoons published almost daily in Egypt? What a disgrace!

Mona Eltahawy: This has nothing to do with our debate but I'm taking your question anyway because I am outraged that you assume I would defend them.

You have perfectly illustrated my point that too many people assume that all Muslims think alike. Thank you.


Herndon, VA: Is it not a right that someone can choose what they wear without others telling them what to do?

If I choose to dress modestly, what difference does it make if I choose to cover my hair?

When a nun wears a habit, it is not ridiculed or shunned. Is it not a sign of her conviction to her beliefs?

My work can dictate I dress in business casual clothes but they cannot tell me how to fix my hair or whether or not I wear make-up.

Why should I be judged by what I wear on my head? I don't personally agree with the veil but I have friends who choose to wear it. I don't feel threatened by talking to them while they are wearing it.

I am offended when I am walking down the street or in the mall and I see skirts so short the wearer has to hold the bottom close to her legs when standing on an escalator, shirts so tight (short and barely there) that it is almost not worth the wearers bother to even wear one at all, shirts that have sayings so indecent I am embarrassed to read them, and pants so low (as far as on the persons hips and the crotch) I see underwear and the person has to keep pulling them up because they keep going down. If I am offended by this, shouldn't these people be required to change?

I don't where the scarf on my head but should it matter if I do? Isn't it my right for freedom of expression? A religious belief of which I believe I have a right to freely express without being prosecuted. Why is it not a problem for people to go around almost naked but when someone chooses to cover up people have issues or they are viewed as extremists?

I was born in this country, as my parents, grandparents and great grandparents before me were. I have broadened my views to a global view yet my fellow countrymen/women seemed threatened by someone's show of faith if it is bigger than a cross they can wear around their neck. Isn't religious intolerance the reason the Pilgrims left England and came to this country in the first place?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question. I appreciate your focus on choice. As I said above, I've always defended a woman's right to choose to dress this way if she wants. No one forced me to wear a headscarf and no one forced me to take it off.

But as I've also said, choice is moving further and further into the background.

Take my country of birth, Egypt, for example. It is estimate that up to 70 percent of women now wear headscarves in Egypt.

So imagine what it is like in such a conservative environment when you aren't wearing a headscarf. I know of many women who wore it not out of choice but to get people off their back, because of peer pressure.


Alexandria, Va.: I've watched the same issue develop in Australia, which unlike Europe and like the US, is an immigrant-based, multicultural society. One of the necessities of such a society (though it has waxed and waned over the years) is a large degree of tolerance. I saw a lot of frustration there with people essentially trying to tolerate intolerance.

Can you help me understand why someone with an extreme, close-minded religious and social outlook would immigrate to the sort of society they seem to despise and condemn?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

This is why I would like to see more moderate/liberal Muslim voices in the debate. Because we can turn to those who have tolerated the intolerant and say this has to stop and being Muslim we are not likely to be called racist.

I've found that in Europe political correctness and not wishing to be perceived as racist has led to the tolerance of things which many Muslims find abhorrent - forced marriages, denying a girl the right to finish school and go to university, etc.

But as one Egyptian Danish friend of mine recently asked me "how far does tolerance go when I don't look just like you or behave just like you?"

Some immigrants to Europe moved there from very conservative, rural areas and others were fleeing political persecution. It is up to all of us - government and citizens included - to help them adjust and integrate and the quickest way of ensuring that is through employment.

But we also need to see Muslims who have successfully integrated be role models.


Las Vegas, Nev.: I dare say that Jack Straw would not ask a Sikh to remove his turban, or a member of clergy to tuck his crucifix inside his vestment when meeting face-to-face. But, Ms. Eltahawy, give the state of global Muslim affairs and perceptions these days, it must be a fine line to be trod between a response of indignation and one of patient explanation of the need to respect these types of cultural marker's, no?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

Jack Straw didn't ask Muslim women to remove their headscarves. He asked them to remove their face veils.


Washington, D.C.: I agree we you that there is a difference in Muslims. However here is the problem. I was raised Lutheran, if a group of radical Lutherans were doing the same thing as these radical Muslims, and said they represented the true feelings of Lutherans, I and many like me would become very vocal and denounce their activities. This does not happen in the Muslim groups, why?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

Muslims have denounced, again and again, the violence carried it out in the name of our religion.

As a media person I hate to blame the media but I have to say that it is much "sexier" for many media outlets to concentrate on the angry and the bearded than on those of us who can make complex, nuanced answers that will take more than 30 seconds. I guess we should work on boiling down our message to 30 seconds!


Jefferson Morley: Mona, one subject that hasn't come up yet: Iraq. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the occupation have obviously increased hostility to the United States and the West in the Muslim world. You've talked about how Western discussions have omitted the perspective of assimilated Muslims. Does the war in Iraq blind the Muslim world to the diversity and tolerance of the West?

Mona Eltahawy: Thanks for your question, Jeff.

You have a point. Seeing diversity must go both ways, of course. The war in Iraq has fueled more stereotypes of the West, yes.

When I'm in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East - I was in Qatar and Morocco earlier this year - I am always asked questions about the U.S. that assume that all American felt the same about the Iraq war.

The same thing happened with the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. I was not offended by the cartoons but I understood why many Muslims were but I could not understand or defend the boycott of Denmark, it was wrong to punish a country for something a privately-owned newspaper published, and was abhorred by the violence, which was politically motivated.

I'm always asked also what it's like to be a Muslim in post-9/11 America. I tell my friends that while there certainly have been difficulties - my brother for example was one of the 5,000 Muslim men interrogated by the FBI and had to undergo Special Registration (fingerprinting and photographing by Homeland Security), and I myself have been profiled when I returned from an overseas visit recently, I also remind people that there have been many instances of kindness.

I lived in Seattle when the attacks took place and I'll never forget how the local community stood guard outside our local mosque for more than a month.

But yes, both "sides" need to see the diversity of opinions.


Rockville, Md.: I never really cared what Arab women wore before 9/11. But afterwards it really started to bother me, the way it discriminates and limits women so much. The way it assumes women will misbehave if they are uncovered, or that men cannot control themselves if they see women's faces. And this is really a middle Eastern thing - I know a Muslim woman who is from Indonesia and she has never dressed that way. In fact, I have even become irritated by people like the Amish who dictate what their women will wear. I'm no feminist, but it is really demeaning to the intelligence and morals of women to require them to wear such restricting clothing.

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

In answer to Jeff's question above, I mentioned the difficulties of being Muslim in post-9/11 America. There have also been attacks against Muslims - and those perceived as being Muslims, such as Sikhs because of their turbans.

Your discomfort was mirrored by many Muslim women for whom it became a safety issue - should they remove their scarves so that they don't get attacked.

Some Muslim scholars in the U.S. told Muslim women they could remove their scarves if they feared for the safety.


Bethesda, Md.: Please tell me who these moderate/liberal Muslims are and where they live? My guess which would probably be right is that they live Western countries and are mostly women.

Therefore to me there are no moderate/liberal Muslims because in non-western Muslim societies (which is where the majority of Muslims live and Muslims Scholars who dictate Muslim doctor) women are considered in the same category as children who must be under the control of a man!

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

There moderate liberal Muslims everywhere. I'm almost out of time so can't go into too much detail but would be happy to send you names and organizations if you contact me through my Web site.

I mentioned Fatima Mernissi earlier, she is Moroccan and lives in Morocco.

It doesn't matter where they live. Their message matters more. And the willingness to listen to them.


Munich, Germany: I'm not a proponent of exacerbating conflict between cultures, but I think that Straw has a point when he says that he wants to look a women's face when he hears her views and complaints.

When trying to decide how sincere and honest a person is, facial expressions are very important.

In places like Saudi Arabia, I understand that there are forums where women can voice there complaints, but leaders there are still used to seeing women as lesser empowered individuals.

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question. As I said above, I agree with Jack Straw.

I'm glad he said what he did because we can now argue about this issue and we can hear the diversity of views that weren't heard before.

Jeff's column today mentions the fact that many Muslims defended Straw. That's good to know because it helps to disarm the right wing - both the political right wing and the Muslim right wing.

Moderate, liberal Muslims do exist. We are here.


Orange, Calif.: Why is it that Muslims do not FLATLY say in PUBLIC "Hezbollah started the recent war in Lebanon" or "Muslim terrorists are violating Islam by killing" or "today's fundamentalist mullahs are extreme" or "we as Muslims should embrace our neighbors?"

Why do Muslims let pride - or fear - keep them from honest statements about Islam today?

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for your question.

Many Muslims have said all those things and more.


Mona Eltahawy: Thank you to everyone who sent in questions. Apols to those whose questions I didn't get to. I'd be happy to continue this discussion if you contact me through my Web site.

And Jeff thanks for the chance to share my views with your readers

Good afternoon everyone!


Jefferson Morley: Thank you Mona. For those who are interested, Mona's Web site is Look for World Opinion Roundup every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, exclusively at


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