Sunday, October 08, 2006

Veiled Criticism

There is a paradox involved when a powerful politician attempts to speak on behalf of the powerless. Jack Straw is appealing for Moslem women to remove their veils, so that unveiled people are not disadvantaged talking to them [source BBC News].

Perhaps some Moslem women (A) feel liberated and empowered by wearing the veil. And perhaps their non-veiled interlocutors (B) may sometimes feel at a disadvantage, particularly if they are accustomed to interpreting the underlying meaning of someone's words by watching their faces. Jack Straw, the man who notoriously failed to recognize President Mugabe even when he wasn't wearing a veil [source: BBC News], is obviously speaking for the latter (B rather than A).

But as a senior representative of the British Government, Jack Straw is not an ordinary Jack. He is a man with considerable power. Some constituents may be on first-name terms with him but this is a superficial gesture towards equality, and a meeting between a Privy Councillor and his constituents is unlikely to be a genuine meeting of equals.

Jack Straw says that all the women removed their veils at his request. Yes, well they wanted something from you didn't they Jack? People don't go see their MP for a nice cuppa and a chat, they go to beg for his attention. So you use your power to get Moslem women to remove their veils do you Jack? That tells us more about Jack Straw than about the substance of the veil/no-veil debate.

Jack Straw has frequently met with some of the most powerful and intimidating women in the world - the Queen, Condoleeza Rice, Cherie Booth. So how can he feel uncomfortable in the presence of a woman with a veil? What is going on? Has he got a dual identity or something?

There is a sense in which all politicians have a dual identity - one for the corridors of power, and one for the public. Harold Wilson smoked cigars in private, but in public he pretended to smoke a pipe.

When a senior politician makes a statement on such a controversial issue, it is surely fair to assume that he or she has considered the likely effects of this statement. Jack Straw's statement is not about the protocol of meetings between the MP for Blackburn and his many Moslem constituents, its purpose is to stimulate a wider debate about the perceived clash between religious adherence and the norms of a secular society.

Or is there some other purpose? What is Jack Straw really up to this time?

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