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Religious Conflict: Resolution in Sight?

By Allie D'Amanda

           An article entitled, “Uproar over veiled women in Britain” featured in a newspaper for Saturday October 7th 2006, focuses on women who wear veils in Britain.  Former foreign secretary Jack Straw instigated a backlash from the Muslim community when he wrote in his daily column that he has observed more women wearing full veils on the street, which has made him have “considerable concerns about this being a rather visible demonstration of separateness.”  He goes on to say that, “this is a country built on freedoms. I defend absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf, but wearing the full veil is bound to make better, positive relations between the two parallel communities more difficult.”

            In writing this, Jack Straw appears to be suggesting that wearing the full veil asserts the identity of Muslim women and in turn acts as a venue emphasizing separateness in the community.  When I think about what makes a strong community, I imagine a dense network of individuals all depending on each other to strengthen ties of culture and interconnectedness.  It would be silly of me to believe that this is possible in all communities, since there has been such a strong move toward individualism in the past few decades.  Yet, I still hold a glimmer of hope for a time and place when different cultures, under the same state or even the same world, can coexist in such a parallel manner as Straw mentions. 

            We have been traveling to some countries with a significant Muslim population, and I could not help but notice the women in full veils.  I would be dishonest if I said I was not nervous around these women, and this concerns me.  I do not want to have these feelings just because I tend, embarrassingly enough, to equate their look with terms such as gender inequality, oppression, and violence.  I walked around Istanbul and saw many women wearing full veils and I begun to feel more different from these people than in any other country.  I began to over-think every outfit I wore and whether it was modest enough or could be taken as offensive in any way.  I am positive that these feelings of anxiety have a great deal to do with how the “Western” media portrays Muslim women, in combination with my own personal ignorance of the Islamic religion and the significance of the veil. I couldn’t help but think about my experiences in the other countries and how I began to rearrange my perspective in order to learn more about the people I met.

            Thus, I can see why Mr. Straw had the reaction he did, but in openly expressing his views, I believe he has made the “separateness” issue more prevalent than not.  He has labeled these women and the Muslim community as “different,” “wrong,” and “unparallel,” and in turn, separates them from what he believes are a consensus of ethics and obligations to society.  His statement encourages the British Muslims to create a misunderstood subculture, further separating them from the broader community rather than attempting to integrate without stigmatization; in effect, he shames their core religious values and rights.

            Yet, after reading Farha Ghannam’s essay in her book Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in Modern Cairo, on her feelings of separateness among fellow Muslims in Cairo, Egypt, I am beginning to see how the situation Straw purports should be a topic of discussion.  Ghannam writes that once she started to wear a head veil, her interactions with Christians were restricted and “superficial” (7).  Yet, the backlash Straw got is a sure sign of more resistance to come from the Muslim community, and I am not certain as to how we might begin to deal with this issue of separateness between Muslims and Christians.  

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