Straw Women Unveiled (Victorian Style)

Today the Blackburn MP Jack Straw, ex-foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, has stated that the veil is a “visible statement of separation and of difference” and he is asking Muslim women visiting his surgery ‘”to consider removing it.’” He then argued, writing an article in the Lancashire Evening, that “wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult”.

Mr Straw’s manly comments certainly do not help in resolving the continuous crescendo of tensions within the Muslim community, in particular those growing up in a society that overwhelmingly sees them as “other”. Ironically, MP Jack Straw’s comments may inspire more Muslim girls to adopt the full niqab, and obscure their lips and eyes to the naive voyeuristic view of the Blackburn MP more than before.

But, is Mr Straw really concerned that the dress style of some of his female constituency members can have ‘implications for community relations?’ The ‘veil’ as any other religious symbol and dressing style can mark a difference and at the same time emphasize group identification. Indeed, other religious groups, such as the Orthodox Hassidic Jews, have their peculiar dressing style which today we can still appreciate while walking in London and so have, for instance, the Hari Krishna.

Indeed, there are many other, less religious, styles (all available near MP Jack Straw’s surgery) which can equally make ‘positive relations between the communities more difficult.’ I will provide some examples below for the more voyeuristic-inclined readers of this commentary:


MP Jack Straw’s comments are not really referring to Muslim women’s dress style per se, or to the fact that a dressing style can emphasize one’s affiliation with an imagined ‘community’. Rather Straw is indirectly suggesting that the niqab is an extreme religious symbol, possibly a ‘terrorist’ symbol, or at least a terrorizing one. But why is he so quick to make such an assumption given the wide variety of ways Britons parade themselves daily in public? I strongly believe that everybody has the right to express herself or himself through dress styles. Normally the problem is when a woman takes too much off rather than puts too much on, so Mr Straw is in effect creating a “straw woman” argument by saying a specific mode of dress is disruptive of social harmony because it does not show off enough flesh. During my research in Muslim communities, I know that some women, in particular converts, decide to adopt this style as a moral statement and not simply because they are forced to by what Mr Straw appears to think is an extreme religious position. The reasons behind their decisions are multiple and cannot be reduced to one simplistic political view, as Jack Straw ’s comments imply.

Being an anthropologists, I have seen all sort of dress styles within the Muslim world, and while lecturing young students within an UK university I have learned to appreciate and tolerate the most incredible imaginative styles of covering (and of course uncovering) the human body. When the religious-symbolic values of dress style are denigrated or challenged by media-savy politicians, there is a high risk of increasing the division between ‘communities’, facilitating discrimination, and creating victimization. We do not lack recent tragic historical precedents.

The symbolic values of the dress style of Orthodox Hassidic Jews are meant to distinguish the ‘authentic Jew’, the person who respects the Torah in all its aspects, from both gentiles and, from an orthodox prospective, the not-so-authentic Jews. It is a symbol of separation and difference, but also a self-referential sense of superiority. This was very well understood by Nazi MPs. Instead of kindly asking to remove their hat and hiding their long, uncut sideburns (as Straw might ask some Muslim ladies vesting his surgery to remove their veils and niqabs) , the Nazi politicians started to organise a free haircut service which then progressed to fully body depilation and finally included a sauna with Zyklon B fragrance. So, the Jewish ‘visible statement of separation and of difference’, unacceptable to Nazi ideology, was finally resolved in a society that demanded conformity by making six millions ghosts.

I can understand that Mr Jack Straw is a very sensitive man, and that he must care about the different concerns that his constituency may have. Yet I cannot image that he will ask any of his constituency female members to visit his surgery only if they have full underwear under their jeans, or their skirts are not too short, or the cleavage is all too visible. It hardly needs to be noted that showing off too much flesh or going totally nude can have more serious ‘implications for community relations.’ Ordinary men (and women, if we are all honest about the magnetic pull of sexual impulses) can be dangerously distracted from their everyday duties (think of the potential disaster for a bus driver!); some old Blackburn grandpas could suffer heart attacks from the shock of an unexpected rise of their testosterone levels and add yet more costs to the virtually bankrupt and inefficient NHS.

Mr Jack Straw, the paladin of the unveiled women, surely could have done better to avoid this polemical tempest. But since he saw no need to exercise caution, allow me to suggest for Mr Jack Straw the perfect solution for his future constituency visits. Not only, dear MP, is my solution discriminatory-free but also very British. Mr Straw, you can add a note to the door of your snuggery stating ‘Female visitor will be only admitted if Victorian dressed’. Let the renowned MP make the Queen proud, Queen Victoria of course.

Gabriele Marranci

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