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Veils, the Cross & Mini Skirts

Matt Trevallion, Sub Editor – World Affairs


I recall many years ago staying in a Birmingham hotel when a posse of models from, I think, Mary Quant arrived and caused something of a stir.

At breakfast the next day one of these beauties arrived in the dining room wearing a mini skirt.  Mini’s were new and the effect was such that the young lady, alone at that point and clearly shy in a room full of men, chose to ask me - for some reason I never understood - if she could sit with me.

For me then, as now, it was about appropriateness.  I had grown up believing that there was a ‘right’ way and ‘wrong’ way to do almost everything.  Something was either appropriate or not.  Strangely, the thought of a young woman having choice and the confidence to decide for herself was something of an unknown factor to my generation, as we – men and women – were largely governed by our parents and conventions established over many years.  In truth of course it was only in part her decision; she was actually wearing something she had been asked to model and it was being modelled for fashion - in effect money.

Moving to the issues of today.  In my view we must be very careful to be clear what it is that we object to, if we object, in the matters of the veil, wearing the cross or any other religious symbol.  At a time when friend Dawkins is being – shall we say – forceful with his views about God and religion, and when some in society are in danger of forgetting that nice word – tolerance - perhaps it is time to look at the employment issues that are being raised?

Recent wars have changed things that we hoped we had moved away from as a part of the process of evolution and civilisation. We (mankind) now routinely bomb civilian buildings because there are “targets” using them and we accept the consequent death of innocents as regrettable but necessary ‘collateral’.  We move fighters into hospitals so that when they are hit back in return we can “win” the propaganda war by showing civilian bodies blown apart.  We strap explosives to our bodies and set out to destroy at random because “our brothers” are being massacred by third parties.  Airliners, trains, undergrounds, public buildings are no longer entirely safe.

I accept that most of this barbarity is not new – there are too many tales of piling up the heads of the murdered occupants of a conquered city and other such atrocities to make it a new phenomenon. Nonetheless, much as Grannies fear being mugged in their homes when they are, statistically, more likely to win the lottery, we feel threatened by terror and, sadly, increasingly by all things different including Islam. Safety therefore has become an issue, rightly or wrongly, to which practical concerns attach themselves.

First the facts as I believe them to be.  Very rarely in any religion is there a requirement for a dress code that goes beyond modesty.  True there are difficulties in defining modesty in a way that is acceptable to all but, in the UK and Europe, we have spent 1500 years reaching a point where we do not need a written constitution about dress in order to manage our affairs.  It is normally sufficient for the local civilian authorities to set out any particular standards such as for nudist beaches in Brighton and Hove or St Tropez.

Some Sikhs wear turbans and grow their hair whilst members of other religions shave their heads and don saffron robes.  True also that legislation has been passed to exempt the wearers of turbans from wearing safety helmets.  However, the corollary to that is that people who chose to make use of the exemption are also required to limit claims if they are injured (or defence if they cause injury) and to otherwise moderate their behaviour in the event of an accident.  The situation is that, given the Punjabi diaspora, some Sikhs chose to maintain the form of identification that in different times set them apart as they evolved into a political/warrior sect. Others – in the Punjab and abroad - accepted modernity, cut their hair and dropped the turban. In short they made a choice for which there were consequences and benefits on both sides.  The exemption for Sikhs is then proof of my point rather than the opposite.

The simple fact is that if an item of clothing or jewellery is worn as a fashion statement, then wearing it becomes a matter only of practicality and appropriateness, or otherwise.

In a world such as ours has become there can be no real objection if a dentist or a doctor or a policeman asked someone to remove an item that posed a security threat or made their task impossible.  Equally if, as with Mr Straw, it was a respectful request - respectfully made - where the offence and what harm done so long as there is an opportunity for the request to be refused (as was, I think, the case)?

Likewise, choosing to display a cross may be a symbol of a belief but it is not a requirement of that religion unless wearing the cross is a requirement of a uniform – a nun or a monk for example.  Again, membership of such orders is a matter of choice with a plus (and presumably) a downside also.

As in most things throughout history, there are sometimes costs associated with beliefs and choices – Thomas Moore to Bobby Sands.  If a woman wishes to cover herself in a way that, in the opinion of those who are authorised to make such decisions, prevents her from doing her job or interacting with the rest of the team or their customers then she has a choice; adjust her dress or seek other work.  I for one would not want my nurse to have her faced hidden - nor my policeman or my judge or my teacher - and surely I, along with the rest of my fellow citizens have rights also?

If the rule is: no jewellery, then that is the rule that you accept when you join up and sign your contract.  We had such rules at school and certainly it was a requirement on all us kids not only that we challenged the rule on a daily basis but also that even when not challenging it directly we plotted on a daily basis to bend it as far as it would possibly go.  But it was a rule and it existed for a purpose.  (Fifty years later I have just remembered how that b*****d Bunny Bowring used to cut a loop off the tassel off my School Captain’s Cap every time I ruled against him or snogged Judith, the Head Girl)!).  Back to my subject.

Suppose for example I wanted to wear a three-foot cross with flashing lights that played a recorded message. It might be my way of showing my faith but it would remain my choice and not a requirement of my religion. Not, I imagine, is there some definition of a requirement for such an artifact in any book of Christian religion. (A dangerous claim since the time Christianity reached Texas!)

Modesty is fine and, where the law allows an exemption, that is fine too, because in a democracy that is what we, the people, choose.  In a Caliphate we would not have that option - but anyway it is, I suggest, unreasonable to expect that one can choose a mode of dress or go about wearing jewellery that is intended to separate one from the rest of society - and yet also expect that society to allow you free and unrestrained access to all its benefits and activities.

I lived in Saudi Arabia where the women wear the full veil - or where crosses were worn the wearer was discrete.  The truth is that in Arabia many women would wear the veil for cultural reasons whether or not it was required by the authorities as is the case. However, in the Kingdom the situation is set up to accommodate “the rules”.  There women are educated separately, medical treatment is separate, few male doctors see women patients, women are not permitted to drive (but they have drivers), jobs for women are limited and they cannot go out to public places unless fully veiled and accompanied by a male relative.

As it happens women in Saudi Arabia have little choice in the matter. Religious police, the family and a strong history ensure universal compliance. But the women in the UK do not have that limitation.  Or rather, in our culture, our freedom of choice determines that there is no mechanism by which their choice can, or should, be restricted in such ways.  That said it is clear that in some areas of the country, amongst some groups, these supposed choices are in practice so limited as to not exist.

Let us be clear about one thing. There is simply no requirement in the Koran for a woman to be fully veiled. Men and women should both be modestly dressed yes - but women faces veiled, no.  In many cases the veil is imposed on a woman by her husband or family for cultural reasons that are inspired by a belief system - but it is not a religious obligation in the true sense of the word.

Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that some young women are choosing the veil as something of a protest - a supposed affirmation of their culture and right to choose - much as my generation wore jeans and long hair to better annoy the adults.  In so doing we believed we were serving an important principle - just as the women who choose the veil may believe today.  (In the late 70’s I remember meeting a beautiful young Kuwaiti mother who was distraught that her teenage daughter could not wait to adopt the veil that her mother had rejected and fought not to wear years earlier).


The point is that, as citizens (subjects, actually, but the point remains) families in the UK are required to bring up their children and give them an education that will help them to make informed choices at the proper time – religion, way of life, sexuality, marriage partner or otherwise.

Meanwhile, if some families and some women here want to be separate then it is incumbent upon them to accept the consequences of their choices. On these grounds a small group cannot set out to be separate and at the same time expect the rest of society to make radical adaptations to their buildings and behaviour in order to accommodate that choice. They have the option, of course, of setting out their arguments for society to accept and pay for separation or exemptions - as we did for the Sikhs and turbans.

Without legislation following the presentation of a successful case to the contrary, school playgrounds, cinemas, libraries and other public buildings and/or the way we all use them cannot, and should not, be adapted so that a few people can choose a mode of dress and a conduct that imposes itself on everyone else. For example, what do we do in sports?  Must we impose Muslim women only sessions at every swimming baths and ensure that at those sessions every member of staff and every visitor to the building must be a woman?

Of course there are cases where society adapts to the needs of a minority. We willingly adapted transport and public and private buildings to the needs of those with physical disabilities - but our aim in so doing was to enable that group to participate on equal terms with the rest of us.  I happen to believe that we would not willingly do the same for a few people who are making choices that are essentially a rejection by nature - and a fashion or cultural statement - the aim of which is simply to separate themselves from the rest of us – or non participation.

In Saudi restaurants there are rooms set aside for women and family only. Are we as a society prepared to allow geographic areas in which separate communities are allowed to develop and to live separately?  Certainly some restaurants and facilities in some areas might make a choice to operate a particular dress code which might work informally, but would we allow a legal basis to this kind of discrimination?

The English strove to integrate the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish cultures by any and every means possible. For decades in these islands we murdered and fought over religion – from which bloody development evolved what we call ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of choice’.  Are we ready in the second millennium to accept developments that are wholly opposed to most of the accepted norms of our culture and community and for which our ancestors and we fought so long and so hard?

I suspect that whatever the answers may be “faith schools” are not a part of it.  Every single school – faith based or otherwise – should, in my view, be bound to deliver a curriculum, enforceable by Law, that teaches and imbibes the accepted cultures of this country as they has evolved.  Freedom of speech extending to the freedom to debate mock and satirize, freedom of religion, freedom of information about other religions and equal opportunities for men and women.  The freedom to give ‘offence’ is an important freedom.  As important as the restriction on ‘incitement to violence’.

At a time when we see DVDs of men with scarves over their faces, mouthing complaints about ‘their Muslim brothers’ being murdered by ‘infidels’ – but ignoring that most Muslim brothers are killed by other Muslim brothers.  It is an interesting development that we have some of the extremists being sentenced for carrying banners that incite beheading, murder and blood in the streets.  And Abu Hamza’s Appeal against his sentence is dismissed against the evidence of hundreds of tapes and videos inciting hatred.

How will it help to have 25% or 30% of places in a “faith school” reserved for children from families outside the faith - unless and until parents can be assured that their young one will be taught the fundamentals of a “British” education?  This week I read a report that one faith school – Muslim I think - has said that non Muslim girls could attend - but they would be required to wear a head scarf!

My wife, a Sikh, was taught by Catholic nuns in a school in south India.  She has developed wonderfully as a committed Sikh but with an abiding love of her nuns and a fondness for her school in which Hindus, Parsees, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs lived and learned together.  The common factors were the acceptance of discipline and language – English.

There was every encouragement for students to take extra lessons – Hindi or French, religious topics, dance, music etc but all were required to attend core lessons and assembly.  If parents could not commit to those core principles that was fine but they were advised in a kindly way to put their kids somewhere else!

For myself, a man who has looked hard all his life for a religion that I could live up to and respect but without success, I confess I like the French way – a complete separation of religion from State.  But it has to be complete – no symbols at all not just a ban of the wearing of crosses whilst allowing scarves and/or turbans or yarmulkes.  Similarly, language is not an option. English it should - and must - be and attendance at sports and assembly appropriately dressed for worship or sports required for all.

At the heart of these issues we have to have justice.  For that to happen we have to look at everything we have tolerated over the years, sometimes without thinking too much, about what we accept or condemn - or why – for example, if we refuse circumcision for women why do we allow it for young boys except on medical grounds?

Yes, for some scientists the concept of intelligent creation is an insult to the mind - but why cannot it be offered as an alternative if the opposite view is taught also with equal vigour?  Surely, what we want is less of the certainty from which intolerance flows all too easily and more of the ability to think and, when appropriate, to make choices.

Jon Snow hosted a debate recently about freedom of speech, but it missed the point.  It is not what freedom of speech is used for or against that matters but freedom of speech itself.  If the Koran truly says that the penalty for blasphemy is death - then how can the principle of accepting free speech be supported by any Muslim?  If the penalty for a convert from Islam is death - then where is the freedom of choice or the freedom of religion? If the Koran imposes a responsibility on good Muslims to carry out these punishments - then where is the Law?  If these beliefs are part of Islam and the Koran, is the word of God then how can any Muslim live here in good faith and as a good Muslim unless it is hoped that we will change?

If the young lady, whose shyness I recall after 40 years, was truly able to choose she would know that wearing a mini-skirt would, in those days when men knew no better, get her stared at;  in which case she might be able to adjust accordingly.  Of course I accept also that in some cases our ignorance needed to be challenged and we needed to be educated – the concept of a woman “asking for it” for instance.

On balance there is no great need for wailing and gnashing of teeth if our community decides that wearing a veil is incompatible with modern needs in employment or security and can be worn but not in situations where wearing it is detrimental to the public good or the good workings of society or the performance of a job.

In those circumstances if young women wish to cover themselves completely – then at the very least they know that if they do they are making a choice which means in effect that cannot partake freely of the benefits of a society not set up to accommodate their choice.

Moreover, those who educate, guide and influence these young people should now ask themselves what is more important to them as a family – to live in Britain as a British Citizen or whether their beliefs are so important as to suggest that, on balance, they would in the words of WC Fields – “… rather be in Philadelphia”.

In terms of employment the issue is one of discrimination or otherwise. Do we allow men to wear turbans and women to wear the head scarf but stop others from displaying their cross? Surely that depends – Sikhs made a case and won – many of us think that was wrong then and is wrong now but it was a case made and won using the Law which we accept. /font>

I personally am offended by the implicit comment that a stranger wearing a veil in my presence makes about me – essentially that I am not in control of my reactions and the woman is therefore responsible for ensuring that my passions are not inflamed, blame for which can be laid upon her – “uncovered meat” and all that. But in practical terms a headscarf or a turban can be adapted to a uniform and incorporated in a dress code – la French woman’s Hermes can be an essential part of who she is and lots of blokes wear odd headgear when butchering pheasants or other wildlife. A cross can be an unequivocal statement that some find very important or it can equally be a piece of jewellery. Which ever it is in the context of employment, it cannot be incorporated in a dress code without also making provision for any and all other religious symbols. As its wearing remains a matter of choice it is surely right that it cannot therefore be displayed – worn but not put on show.

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