It is very interesting to see how the media have jumped at Jack Straw’s comment on the wearing of the veil. There has been relative little speculation about Jack Straw making a pitch for deputy leadership and why he chose this topic. Some journalists condemned the veil as being oppressive, some defended it and some found it ! The problem is that they all seem to believe that it is something to do with religion. The choice of dress expresses how one interacts with the outside world. It has always been about status and power. It is highly symbolical and identifies societal codes with regards to relations with others. As such, strictly speaking, it is not a custom, but a symbol and convention. Even today an Armani suit sends out a different message from jeans and T-shirt. Dress codes belong to all societies; they identify what is required at a specific occasion. We are not free to wear what we want and in some cases there are consequences. If an event has a ‘black tie’ code, you will not be allowed in with trainers.
Women’s status has been inferior in pretty much all societies throughout history. As dress symbolises power and status, it follows that women’s dress encapsulates their position in society. In the 1920’s and 1930’s when women gained more freedom, the corset went, so did the long skirts, the impossible hair styles and so on. It’s depressing to notice that the corset is back, that women starve themselves and 1950’s style clothes are fashionable. The idealised image of womanhood from the 1950’s was extremely oppressive. Women were mothers and wives, beautiful and powerless. Strangely enough I haven’t come across any comment on the corset.
It’s obviously easier to condemn what neighbours do. Of course, multiculturalism poses challenges. Not so long ago, all religious signifiers were banned in French schools. In Italy, the veil in schools is allowed provided that the pupils are recognisable. However, the religious or political significance of dress is not the whole story. Some are uneasy at reports of a terror suspect wearing the burka to evade arrest, á la John Simpson! However, only good intelligence can tackle terrorism. Dress is really none of the law’s business. So, who cares? Given that Muslims didn’t respond much to Jack Straw’s comments, one wonders why it is a particular section of journalists and commentators who are so interested in it. I suppose this controversy sells more papers than the crisis in Somalia.