Why Tony Blair Is Right About the Veil

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Young Muslim women outside the office of British MP Jack Straw, Blackburn, England.

I dislike the veil. But last year, when I spent a month reporting from all over Afghanistan, I wore one the entire time — because Afghan society cannot yet tolerate unveiled women, and I wanted to connect with people and do my job effectively. I could have gone bare-headed, but it would have sent the hostile message that I didn't care about integrating with the society around me. Did I enjoy having to reconsider my anti-veil stance? Of course not. I detested how wobbly the veil made my beliefs feel, and I trashed it on my flight out of Kabul. But I was the one who had gone to Afghanistan; Afghanistan had not come to me. That made it my responsibility to deal with how my presence affected those around me.

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I've thought about this constantly since the debate erupted in Britain over whether Muslim women should wear full-face veils. Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed calls by his party's parliamentary leader, Jack Straw, that Muslim women in Britain should refrain from covering their full faces, particularly when dealing with the wider society. The indignation of British Muslims — their refusal, really, to even have a conversation about the issue — strikes me as particularly delusional, given the climate of post-9/11 Europe. It would be like me traipsing as an American into hostile, post-Taliban Afghanistan, imagining I could bare my hair without alienating those around me. To expect this would involve an unhealthy relationship with reality.

The fact that the issue in Britain does not seem to be the veil per se, but the more extreme full-face covering known as the niqab, the comments of Blair and Straw seem perfectly reasonable to me. Neither of them asked Muslim women to abandon their belief in hijab, or the custom of veiling, altogether. Both zeroed in on the niqab, a minority practice considered extreme by even mainstream Muslim standards. (The niqab tradition is confined to certain regions of the Muslim world, parts of the Gulf, and Pakistan; a similar covering is known as the burqa in Afghanistan.) I come from a Muslim family and have spent years living in various Muslim communities around the Middle East. Every single Muslim female friend I've had, from pious to secular, veiled to vixen, has been unable to befriend, or even hold a proper conversation with a niqab-wearer. The young son of a close friend, raised in a large Muslim family in a large Muslim country, calls them "ninja ladies." Covering the face, whether in Yorkshire or Beirut, seems to send a universal message of separateness. If the full-face veil is considered creepy by many Muslim women in the Middle East, why wouldn't it cause a twinge of unease among ordinary British people with no tradition of veiling at all?

The idea that women in niqab can assimilate properly into a community or be effective as teachers distresses me, because it is at heart disingenuous. Clearly, meaningful social exchange requires a face. And the argument that non-verbal communication is inessential only addresses half the problem. The obscured woman, who can see her interlocutor clearly through her slits, is enjoying contact with a face; it's the other party, conversing with a tiny black tent, that bears the burden of the discomfort. It would be more sincere for niqab-wearers to say that they accept the cost of refusing to compromise on the niqab; that it will be considered provocative by their non-Muslim fellow citizens, that it might slow their own assimilation into British society.

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