Selective unveiling

A couple of weeks ago British Cabinet Minister Jack Straw made a few comments on Muslim women wearing veils in Britain. The comment rekindled the usual debate over Britain’s multiculturalism, tolerance, freedom of expression etc. The issue, at least with respect to Straw’s involvement, is quite dated and I should have probably posted it earlier to retain its news-worthiness. Nevertheless, one of the points, often mentioned in all debates related to this issue, is never too barren. It’s the argument that the Muslim women “choose” to wear veils.

On Oct 8’s ‘Dateline London,’ it brought this topic for discussion. In order to have a “balanced” discussion, they had invited two Muslims (a man and woman) and two Christians (again, a man and woman)1. They were all from different countries, stationed in London as foreign correspondents. One of the panelists, Editor of the Daily Jang--Shahed Sadullah, argued that Straw’s comments were in bad taste (because Britain is a democratic state and all that). And the Christian woman from America backed his argument on the same basis – that people, as long as they don’t infringe on others’ rights, need to be given the freedom to practice what they want.

The Muslim woman (presumably from Pakistan or India) rebuffed that it’s a symbol of slavishness that the British troops were fighting against, in Afghanistan. In this page you can find a debate that is quite close the one the panelists had. I’ll now get to the point where she said “sure, they ‘choose’ to wear their veils. After all, they have been brainwashed since they were six.” She made the “brainwashing” assertion several times before the program ended. Luckily for her, the argument sounded very convincing then.

What’s ironic is that she, in other discussions, has accused the Western media (the BBC included) for alienating the Muslim community by portraying some of their practices in the wrong light. She has also spoken about religious and other kinds of freedom that might be trampled by the new “anti-terror” laws proposed in Britain. I am with her in most of what she says about the Western media and about the veil issue. But I sense a sense of dishonesty from her side. Or perhaps her views are not thoroughly analyzed.

Here’s a woman who speaks like a liberal but is not too liberal because it gives way to subliminal patriarchy. She uses the “brainwashing” argument wherever and whenever she deems it fit. That is, while Muslim women who choose to wear veils are “brainwashed” to do so, she doesn’t have a problem with children being brainwashed to become Muslims (or Hindus, Jews etc.). She does not mind if they are “brainwashed” to acquire a particular kind of education. She does not mind if they are “brainwashed” to be “free, to choose” other things because of their adults in charge (usually parents). She does not mind if their environments are contrived to nurture a certain personality out of them. She does, however, when it’s about women and veils.

As I said earlier, I do agree with her about veils2. But her premiss’ underpinnings also support arguments against so called free will and freedom of expression. It negates her claims in other discussions. Surprisingly, the other two panelists did not deconstruct her argument (instead went on repeating whatever they started with).

Though the topic of ‘propaganda and media-influence on people’ is increasingly discussed in pseudo-mainstream mediums such as documentaries, it does not seem to offer an alternative. They themselves form a new layer of presumed reality. Thanks to scholarly sophistry, all debates seem like an infinite deconstruction.


1Because I saw the program in TV and could not find the transcript or even a reference of that particular episode I am not able to recall any of their names (I’m not even sure about Shahed Sadullah. I just know that the panelist was a correspondent for Daily Jang in London). The fourth Panelist is a Jamaican. I’ve mentioned their religion and countries of origin to provide an identity that we often relate to when people are involved in a debate. If you are not the judgmental reader that I have assumed you to be, I’m sorry. For others: you’re welcome.

2I go all the way as discussed earlier here, here and here.


Priya said...

A similar incident happened in Singapore. Small kids here started to wear head scarves to school. They were then asked to leave the school because the head scarf was not part of the school uniform. This issue caused a lot of tension within the local muslim community and there was a silent protest.

Here, all they could carry out is a 'silent' protest with a police permit. But the issue was finally resolved by making the distinctions clear. They were not allowed to wear head scarves in school, because it is a place where there should be some kind of equality among students. That is the reason why we all have to wear uniforms isn't it? However, nobody is going to stop these children and adults alike from wearing head scarves to public places and private functions. Even muslim teachers are allowed to wear head scarves to school.

Here, i'm not talking about the veil which covers the whole face. But the head scarf that just wraps around the head. While they have the freedom of religion and freedom of expression, they should also respect the government and its laws. Especially, in a multi-racial society like Singapore. Why should they allow their kids to wear it to schools? There are muslim schools for that, if they wish to do so.

The Individualist said...

This whole business of making people wear uniform sounds stale to me. It always did. When I was in my ninth std, I thought I was immature to decide on it. I am not able to shy away from saying this anymore. I still feel the same way.
If it is to present equality, then, taking it down to ground level, they are trying to make a person who's father earns, let's say, 10000 rs/mth and a person whose father earns 1000 rs/mth, look equal by making them wear the same uniform.
lol For the cost of uniforms these days, people might as well buy their kids three sets of casual wear. And if that's the case, they might as well wear those clothes to school. For me, it is all self-contradicting. Of course, being an ambivalent person, I can also say that they were just trying to simplify things by making people wear uniforms else, they'd have to set rules for the exposure allowed and blah. But still. The purpose either remains unsolved or solved to a negligible extent.
Come to think of it, if people were allowed to wear what they want to, that gives greater indications and insights onto his/her character and likes, and hence, the tutor will have a better idea on how to deal with that person and thus, maybe, idealistically thinking, a personal 'feel' could develop between the tutor and the pupil, which as I have seen never existed in any of the schools that I studied in.
And no. I don't believe that uniforms suppress racism and casteism. Like I said, they probably only make a negligible difference, if they do. And that negligence is permitted for the colour and the freedom and the gaiety added, when allowed otherwise.
I know this is not exactly in relation with the post but I just read something about this and couldn't help regurgitating the ensuing thoughts-

Suresh said...

@ Priya – It’s a good comment but it has taken the post to a less reflective direction. So I’ve removed some empty exchanges above.

Generally speaking: I really hoped that it did not come to this discussion (about school uniforms and stuff). But that’s ok. We all digress, so no worries.

@ Sudhir -
No Sudhir, I have actually been to a school where they let you wear “colour dress" 4 days a week. And I have seen the rich-poor divide stare at students' face. Especially at that young age when you see some kids wearing visually rich clothes when you are stuck to faded half-trousers. It can be really depressing. The school, a few years ago changed its policy and now all students need to wear uniforms. Uniforms do suppress, to a great deal, class discrimination.
It has several purposes, especially in a country like India where the law comes only after the society. The society, thanks to its prying nature makes sure students can't "cut" classes easily. The uniform tells others which school one belongs to if he/she gets in to a fatal accident. It helps you witnesses identify the children easily (for whatever reason).

But all that is beside the point. The school has every right to expect its students to comply with its rules as long as they are legal. They don't need to justify why they do what they do (again, as long it's legal).

The so called "right to wear what I want" is just BS. First, they are not even adults, they don't have that kind of "rights" yet (this point is worth discussing under a separate topic). Second, your rights go only to the extent to what you don't agree to comply with. For example, when you join a company, you sign a 30 page contract which clearly states that you need to appear in certain attire. I wonder if people can "fight" their employers saying that it's summer and they have right to come in their underpants. If you reserve the right to do what you want, they reserve the right to sack you.

That said, I have different opinions about dress codes in general. Especially about how men and women are discriminated with regard to what they wear.

“Character identification” based on what one wears is as shallow as it can get. And there’s no study to support to this claim. It can actually be a very good reason not to let people wear what they want; so that the teachers are not judgmental (like my lecturers were in college).

Most of my comments in this topic are qualified and each argument has its own loop-hole within a particular domain.

The Individualist said...

I liked the way you ended it.
"The society, thanks to its prying nature makes sure students can't "cut" classes easily."
lol One reason why uniforms need to be abolished.
"First, they are not even adults, they don't have that kind of "rights" yet (this point is worth discussing under a separate topic)."
Hence, I won't speak about that one since it could drag the topic even further away. (not that it hasn't already...)
"If you reserve the right to do what you want, they reserve the right to sack you."
I agree. They pay you. You work. You abide. And moreover, you have signed an agreement that you are now breaching. So-
I don't see that the workplace and the school make for apt comparison.
The purposes of both the place vary.
And as for character identification by attire being shallow, I agree that it doesn't provide great insight. But the little extent to which it does, it becomes important. Especially in a time, when most teachers don't know or don't care about the kind of students he/she is teaching. (wanted to say all, but for obvious reasons, didn't).
Anyway, I guess the positives and the negatives impact different people differently. And hence, the results.
By the way, why do you think children yearn to wear 'colour dress'? Would they yearn for 'uniforms' if they were forced to wear colour dress five days a week? Or is it a simple case of 'wanting to show what you've got'? Or is it just instinct that makes them turn towards whatever they are more 'happy' doing?

Suresh said...

@ {{One reason why uniforms need to be abolished.}} - I know! Damn we hated it. We cannot play cricket (mass bunk) or go to movies or anything. We had to bring casual clothes hidden in our school bags and assemble in a friend's place whose parents are out of station. Some of us change and go play or watch movies or whatever while others would stay there and watch porn for 6 hours back to back :)).

Whether you pay or get paid, it's a private enclosure. They have all the right to expect you to be dressed in a way when you're there. (Think about bars that won't let you in if you're not wearing shoes. Bars? What the hell? Like it's some bloody holy temple!)

As I had mentioned in my 'condescension' podcast, children develop a sense of status, superiority and pride when they are quite young (2, 3 years old). It's a manifestation of the "territorial nature" you find in many animals. You are right in a way, if wearing uniform is going to make them look unique (while everyone else is wearing casuals) they might even want that. And I'm not sure if we can paint all the children with the same brush. For me, I never bothered about it (except for the times I mentioned in the first paragraph :p). Remember the days after Deepavali? you are allowed wear you "Deepavali dress". I have hated that day. Your classmates bitching about whose dress is better and what not (of course there have been times when I thought I wore "enviable" dress and would be waiting to be praised :p).

I myself have had completely mixed feelings about wearing uniform, but never felt too strongly about it, either way. I think it is fairly reflective of most students' state. I think this is a non-issue as far as school children are concerned. Because, a debate inevitably takes us to an impasse.
There, we are converging to the actual post. The debate that centers the post also drives to the same point. The difference however is that veils in public places has fewer "good" to back it up. At least in a liberal society. I also wanted to make a post on this, how liberalism is its own victim. Because it needs to accommodate conservative forces, even if it means that they might one day usurp the very liberal state

The Individualist said...

lol @ the first paragraph and lmao @ watching porn for 6 hours-
Am falling down laughing now. :p
*tries to sound like someone who had never in his life done that-
But well, you cannot hide yourself at the end of the day, I guess. :p
I know @ bars not allowing you to get in without shoes. It's so stupid. Well, they are doing so possibly to help you not get your feet stomped out of shape- :p
How true @ liberalism being its own victim. I have found myself strongly attracted towards liberalism, every now and then. But yes. For it to exist, I guess it needs to contradict itself here and there, by not being 'too liberal' about forces that could upset it.
And to sum it all up, I understand the motif of uniforms. But since I am, to quote my previous manager, 'against everyone and everything', I speak instinctively now and then, sometimes even contradicting myself. But of course, we learn better that way. And yes. As far as this one is concerned, it's for every individual to weigh the positives and the negatives and to decide accordingly.

Durga said...

this has nothing to do with the subject of this post (hence i have a feeling that u'll delete this comment- and i'm totally ok with that)...
anyway, i've listened to most of your pods - the ramblings....
and I like you. I like your perspectives, your voice (laugh included) and I envy the way you can express yourself so perfectly in Tamil. If you don't mind, I was wondering if can burn your pods onto a CD for my mother to listen to. what do u reckon?

Durga&Michael said...

Hey Suresh,
I head your podcast on "you can run but u can't hide".
I'm a member of the Mormon church, so I'm sorry if the young missionaries were offensive to you. I'm sure they didn't mean to do so. Next time they approach you feel free to say you are not interested straight away, they will leave you alone.

Suresh said...

Hi Durga,

wow! I’m surprised. I'm sure I'm not the first one to say that your name is very unusual for a Mormon. Well, what's in a name? (except that your name means the Hindu goddess of justice and wrath :p).

No the guys were pretty cool. They were very polite and didn't take too much of my time. They can't possibly be nicer. But I find the very act of religious conversion appalling, offensive and degrading; especially when it comes from a monotheistic religion. And of course the podcast was a reflection of what I've felt about mass conversions in India, nothing to do with the Mormons per se. The idea of claiming that one god is better than the other when there's no tangible evidence to support the existence of any god (Hindu gods included) is the most successfully perpetrated farce. Well, it's always a ongoing to debate between rationality and faith that supposedly helps.

I hope the podcast didn't offend you or anything, it's all meant to be fun. Thanks for the comment.

Post a Comment

©2009 english-tamil