Participation on equal terms

Polly Toynbee says a secular state would be a good idea.

Here is a conflict between two principles – respect for a religious minority and respect for women’s equality…The veil turns women into things. It was shocking to find on the streets of Kabul that invisible women behind burkas are not treated with special respect. On the contrary, they are pushed and shoved off pavements by men, jostled aside as if almost subhuman without the face-to-face contact that recognises common humanity.

She’s right you know. That’s how it works. You can’t have the one without the other – you can’t have the concealment without the reification – the concealment is reification. That is essentially what it’s all about: erasure of every recognizable attribute of the human, leaving only anonymous amorphous colourless interchangeable blocks of fabric that look more like upended sofas or nonfunctional lampshades than like people. Well big surprise that they’re treated with contempt and hostility instead of respect. People who have to be buried in yards of upholstery so that they can’t be seen are, pretty obviously, objects of some form of loathing and suspicion, not of admiration and respect. Why else do we hate the things so much? Why do you think? It’s because they’re such an obvious, blatant, hyper-visible sign of intense ineradicable unappeasable loathing.

The veil is profoundly divisive – and deliberately designed to be. No one need be a Muslim to understand the ideology of the veil, because covering and controlling women has been a near-universal practice in Christian societies and in most cultures and religions the world over.

Of course the veil is divisive and designed to be. Dividing is what it does. It’s a portable form of gender segregation; segregation is, obviously, divisive. It’s only relatively recently that women haven’t been formally and informally segregated in ‘the West’ too; it’s only relatively recently that we’ve been allowed to mix with the world at large. We understand what segregation is, and most of us don’t want it reimposed, formally or informally.

No citizen’s face can be indecent because of gender…It was left to Harriet Harman to make the unequivocal case for women’s rights: “If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it,” she said. “The veil is an obstacle to women’s participation on equal terms in society.”

Just so; because that’s what it’s for; that’s the point of portable segregation. It’s not just a neutral religious symbol, it’s not just a sign of devoutness, it’s not just a ‘choice,’ it’s a barrier between women and the wider world. That’s why sensitive liberals need to give up pretending otherwise.

Harman is astute about the way choice is culturally determined: do women really choose the female roles societies assign them? She is not alone in meeting Muslim woman who are appalled that their own daughters might adopt the veil as a political gesture. It’s a danger to other women’s “choice” if all “good” Muslims are forced to prove their faith by submission.

By submission to the imperative to be things. Don’t do it. Be people.

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