Veil hang-ups may pass

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Jack Straw's discomfort is challenging our society from the top down, writes Huw Thomas

For years I worked in a school where a number of memorable parents wore the niqab, a full veil. These women taught me a lot about Islam. They also challenged my understanding of inclusion. However strange I felt in our first encounters, I now remember their faces with fondness. Aisha Azmi's tribunal, coming in the wake of Jack Straw's discomfort over veil-wearing, challenges our society from the top down.

When government minister Phil Woolas calls for her sacking, saying she "can't do her job", I have to ask whether he's taken any time out of publicity-seeking to explore alternatives. If not, can I call for his sacking?

When Mr Straw clumsily complains that veils make him "uncomfortable", I can't help but wonder if the key to community relations really is to keep men like him comfy. Would he like us to fetch his slippers as well? He needs to guard against turning a preference for facial contact into a need.

And when the Prime Minister refers to the veil as "a mark of separation", I have to point out that he usually wears a tie. If ever a silly piece of clothing reinforced separatism it's that absurd, class-bound strip of silk.

Surely these hang-ups are in the eyes of the beholders. I can't help but think that if Ms Azmi's face-covering was the result of some form of facial scarring, then these ministers and her local council would bend over backwards to accommodate her. The real issue is that this case tests our society. It begs the question: rather than remove the veil around Ms Azmi's eyes, can we confront the blinkers around our own?

Inclusion starts with the assumption that Ms Azmi should be free to wear a veil. I'm sick of non-Muslim commentators pontificating about how the Koran doesn't require the wearing of the veil. Like any faith, Islam has varieties within it. The fact is, for Ms Azmi's variety this is a matter of conviction. Let us also dispense with the assumption that wearing the niqab is inevitably an act of submission to dominant males. We should start from the assumption that the veil is here to stay, then calmly look at how Ms Azmi can keep her job.

Her choice does raise issues. I would want to investigate the wearing of a veil while teaching phonics, where the mouth may need to be uncovered, but I would also urge a look at adapting classrooms or timetabling to enable this to happen. In my previous school, I needed to cough loudly to let veil-wearers know that I was entering their coffee morning.

Such working together recognises that our schools should be showcases of inclusion. We would also work better together if, instead of asking women to remove the veil, we asked them why they wear it? I can honestly say such conversations shifted my perception of the whole matter. Personally, I still don't think women need to wear them, but I understand why they do.

I hope the sort of change I'm arguing for is the stuff of our future.

According to a recent poll, only 31 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds share Mr Straw's discomfiture, compared with 65 per cent of over-65s. Given the right example, the generation coming through will one day ask why there was ever a debate. Nobody these days questions the licence with which we permit married women to teach, something forbidden prior to 1945. Given time, we'll get used to it, and so will the kids in our classrooms.

I think of the excellent Emmaus Catholic and Church of England primary in Liverpool, an ecumenical school in a city where the uniting of faith traditions has been a hot potato. I once asked the head and governors what the key lesson was for working together. Their answer was that, as they began to collaborate, they found that the Catholics had to look out not for their own tradition but that of their Anglican partners. And their Anglican friends did likewise.

Similarly, could it be that inclusion requires us to look out not for ourselves but for those we include? Anyone can re-hash the well-established practices of multiculturalism, but the real measure of inclusion isn't what you embrace already. It's about how much wider your arms can reach.

Huw Thomas is head of Emmaus Catholic and Church of England school, Sheffield. His latest book, Steps in Leadership, is published by David Fulton

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