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.

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It's no coincidence the British debate surrounds a teaching assistant who refused to take off her full-face veil around male colleagues. Niqabs in school are an even more delicate issue than niqabs at the supermarket or the park, for teachers serve as role models to children, and the niqab sends a controversial message that may or may not be appropriate in the classroom. Even more so than the headscarf, the niqab is premised on the traditional Muslim belief that uncovered women are sexually stimulating to men, who are presumed to be incapable of controlling themselves. In a Muslim society where many men hold such an ugly view of their own gender, perhaps a heavily veiled woman connotes no insult. But to a Western man living in a culture with very different norms of gender relations, the idea that a woman is covering her face and body because she considers him a potential sexual predator can seem deeply disrespectful.

Non-Muslim adult men may find this unpleasant, but in a diverse society, they are probably expected to just deal with it. Schoolchildren are a different matter altogether. They may not be briefed on the roots of such Islamic mores, but they'll still wonder why they can't see their teacher's face. I wouldn't want a niqab-wearer as a role model for my child, and I wouldn't want to explain that his teacher considers her bare face somehow immoral. It is ironic that living in an Islamic theocracy, this is something I would never have to do, while non-Muslim British parents are being asked to do so on grounds of cultural tolerance.

None of this is to say that I consider the wearing of the more commonplace form of hijab, a headscarf, objectionable. If people, British or otherwise, feel uncomfortable because a woman has a scarf on her head, that's not a concern to be taken seriously. Men who wear unattractive baseball caps make me uncomfortable, but I've gotten used to the world not being aesthetically designed to my taste. No, the issue is very specifically the niqab, and the obstacle it poses to human interaction and smooth integration. What does seem obvious is that the assimilation of British Muslims is a troubled process, and that intrusive squares of cloth should remain an open, but peripheral debate.

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