The niqab makes social solidarity harder to achieve. Is that a bad thing?
Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam would say that the veil is a source of ‘bonding capital’ – the kind of social capital that strengthens connections within a community – but that it erodes ‘bridging capital’ – the kind that hooks communities together. So the veil benefits the community of observant Muslims who wear and advocate it but, probably, limits solidarity with other groups. Social Capital fans (among whom we should count the New Labour bigwigs who’ve waded in on veils lately) would probably suggest we draw up a balance sheet, setting off the benefit to one community of its bonding capital against the damage done to wider social solidarity by its resistance to integration.
This kind of thinking says we need to develop and strengthen bridging institutions in order to counter the damage social apartness can do. Including Muslim women (veiled or otherwise) in existing institutions is a given. What we’re doing now, though, is stengthening the walls between communities – both rhetorically and literally, reducing the likelihood of compromise. The long term task must be to reassert connection between communities, to find the solidarity we’ve lost. Who has the key to this solidarity? Is it shared institutions like schools and hospitals? Volunteer groups and charities? Or is it membership bodies like Trade Unions and housing co-ops whose historic mission is collective empowerment?
Although I think Straw et al are trying to advance an explicit Social Capital agenda by getting us talking, the effect, on the ground, of their increasingly beligerent interventions is to put the boot in to already isolated and vulnerable young women from (mostly) poor neighbourhoods. That can’t be a good thing.