The young women adopting the niqab in Britain may be religious fanatics but they’re more like punks than nuns or hermits.
What Jack Straw did, one way or the other, was move the debate on – get the debate started, in fact. I think that’s interesting. We really can’t be afraid to talk about the behaviour of one community relative to others. There’s no doubt that in Britain, we’ve developed a reluctance, collectively, to talk about important intercommunal issues like this but it really is important. Can we comfortably approach and talk to our neighbours, customers, colleagues? Can we live with difference at the heart of our communities? Can we understand, even identify with, the unease our traditions cause in others? Can we be open to sharply different worldviews up close? Can we work with people whose faces we cannot see?
One thing I find interesting is that the debate turns on clothing. Are these orthodox Muslim women like punks – their veils like the mohicans and bondage trousers that wound the old gits up thirty years ago? Or are they like out gay men, promenading in Soho in their finery? Something the uptight part of the population feels uncomfortable with but will probably get used to? Or are these observant young women making a different kind of statement? Are they rejecting the modern? Embracing the ancient and revered? Are they defying the deathly conformism of their parents and contemporaries – the ones who go round in suits and ties and jeans and nice dresses?
Are they standing against the cowardice and compromise of their elders or simply professing their faith? Or are they telling the rest of the world to fuck off and leave them alone?