FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Veil and the British Male Elite

In line with the feminist bumper sticker “Well-behaved women do not make history,” Aishah Azmi, a Muslim woman born in Cardiff and raised in Birmingham, is determined to disobey the British male elite and make history. Azmi fully veils her face in the public, including at the school where she taught young girls and boys. No parents or female colleagues at the school objected to her choice of dress. Over the complaint of a British male colleague, however, Azmi was suspended from the job. As the controversy grew, some parents joined the opposition to the veil, complaining that students could not hear Azmi speaking behind the veil. Azmi offered to drop the veil while teaching if no male colleagues were present. The school declined the offer. As a woman of will and determination, Azmi too has refused to give up her identity in public spaces. She is in the process of defending her rights through the British legal system. Though she has lost her case in the first administrative hearing, she intends to appeal to the higher courts.

Politicization of Veil

Instead of allowing the system to freely and fairly process Azmi’s legal claim, the British male elite wasted no time in condemning the veil as a profound violation of the British culture. The debate is no more narrow or legal. It is racial and religious.

All over the world, the law permits employers to impose reasonable grooming standards on employees. For example, the police officers may be prohibited from donning hippie hair and the schoolteachers may not be permitted to wear short skirts. Azmi will have a weak legal claim if the school can show a factual linkage between veil and teaching inefficacy. But that is not the point the British male elite, though known for their love of legal formalisms, is making. Their argument goes beyond the grooming standards at workplace. They wish to assimilate immigrant women into a prototypical woman who caters for male sensibilities and makes men feel comfortable.

 

British Male Attacks

Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (who loves to cook puddings in free time) cast the first stone when he requested that Muslim women drop the veil. Straw attempted to intellectualize his request by a louche admission that he watches the facial expressions of women when he engages in conversations with them. The veil prevents him, says Straw, from fully understanding what Muslim women are saying—not because he cannot hear them but because he cannot see their faces. (I wonder if Straw listens to the radio or ever talks on the phone.)

While Straw flirted with unconvincing logic, Mr. Phil Woolas, a local government minister, came down on the veil with a hard hammer. Mr. Woolas minced no words in issuing a forceful fatwa that the veil provokes “fear and resentment” among the British people. Woolas tried to influence the legal debate as well by openly suggesting that Azmi “can’t do her job” wearing a face veil.

While the case was still pending before the tribunal, Prime Minister Tony Blair also entered the furor, smearing the veil as a “mark of separation.” Wearing his familiar postiche smile, Blair argued that the veil “makes other people uncomfortable.” Fully exploiting the office of the Prime Minister, Blair supported the school ‘s decision in suspending Azmi from the job. Another male from the British ruling elite, higher education minister Bill Rammell, added prejudicial perspective to his colleagues’ crusade by reminding the forgetful British public that Imperial College in London had already banned face veils in class.

In this perfervid air of British xenophobia, one important voice arose to protest. Trevor Philipps, the head of the Commission of Racial Equality and a man of African descent, warned that the debate over the veil had “turned ugly” and could spark violence. What is needed, said Mr. Philips, is a gentle and refined discussion. His warning came true within hours when racially charged hoodlums attacked male worshippers at a mosque in Greater Manchester.

Undeterred by these attacks, the British elite continues to trash the cultural identity of a fellow citizen from Cardiff. Meanwhile, history with its inexhaustible ironies offers additional insights into the British resentment against the Islamic veil.

 

Common Law Coverture

For centuries, the British male elite has served as hysterical vigilantes against assertive women who, like Aishah Azmi, wish to maintain their self-identity in public spaces. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone defines coverture as follows: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended or consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.” The law of coverture, though wrapped in the romance of a delightful marriage (for man), drew its vicious logic from colonization as the British male elite fictionalized the household in terms of a small colony under the husband’s viceroyalty, a colony in which the wife’s property came to be vested in husband and in which she was disqualified from entering into separate contracts. These female disabilities were considered necessary to promote the “superior” British culture at home and abroad. Women who refused to get married for fear of losing personal and property rights were regarded as “redundant women.”

The common law coverture gradually lost its grip over the British women. The British male elite is now resurrecting coverture to subjugate immigrant women. The new coverture turns the old coverture on its head. The old coverture coerced white women to promote the Victorian vision of separate spheres—homes for women and markets for men. The new coverture compels immigrant women from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to abandon their unique identities in public spaces. For white women, the old coverture created and enforced the separation of gender spheres; for immigrant women, the coverture imposes the fusion of gender spheres. In each case, some women must lose their identity. In all cases, coverture forces women, white or black, to constantly adjust their identities to make the British men feel comfortable.

 

Obtuse Logic

There is yet another irony in the veil controversy. In 1991, Fatima Mernissi’s book Le Harem Politique (1987) was translated into English with a more descriptive title, The Veil and the Male Elite. Analyzing sociological roots of the Islamic veil, Mernissi contends that the Arab male elite of the first few decades of Islam concocted the sacred sources to impose a controlling and oppressive headgear on women. The Prophet was egalitarian, says Mernissii, but his men were not. His men first solicited gender discrimination from the Prophet; and after his death, they fell back into the pre-Islamic days of ignorance and fabricated the Prophet’s sayings to perpetuate gender inequality and the veiling of women. True Islam, Mernissi seems to conclude, would let Muslim women choose whether they want to wear the veil.

Few scholars in the Muslim world agree with Mernissi’s theological or sociological theses, even though the face veil (niqab) is far from a universal value in Muslim countries. Ironically, the British male elite will also hesitate to embrace Mernissi’s book. Mernissi is a feminist who wishes to expand the choices women may exercise in public spaces. Mernissi criticizes the “oppressive veil” as a male imposition. She would nonetheless allow women the freedom to wear the veil.

In condemning the veil, however, the British male elite is not making the freedom argument. They are not quarrelling that women like Azmi are oppressed and that they must have a choice. In fact, these men spurn the choice argument. They are advocating gender integration for personal convenience. Immigrant women must not wear the veil in public, they say, because the veil is a mark of separation, the veil makes British men feel uncomfortable, and the veil does not allow British Jacks and Joes to watch Muslim women’s facial expressions. No self-respecting woman will accept this obtuse logic.

It appears that the British male elite is determined to direct and dictate women according to their personal preferences. They perhaps do not realize that their forced unveiling of Muslim women is no different from their forced domestication of Victorian women.

ALI KHAN is a professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. Send comments to ali.khan@washburn.edu.

 

 

More articles by:
July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-Holds Are Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail