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Islam: Europe Grapples With The Veil

(epa) PRAGUE, October 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Debate continues to rage in Great Britain over the wearing of the face veil by some Muslim women, with Prime Minister Tony Blair on October 17 calling the veil "a mark of separation." Britain is just the latest European country to grapple with the issue -- and there have even been moves in some places to ban the most conservative forms of Islamic women's dress.

Rahmanara Chowdhury began wearing the niqab, or face veil, in her last year at university. Most people were understanding, she says, and it's never been a problem in her job teaching at a university in Loughborough in central England.

"The veil is a physical reminder that I am a Muslim and I need to uphold the best of manners and character at all times," she says. "Also, it reminded me to remember God more often and be more spiritual in that sense. With regard to the modesty aspect, I was already wearing the hijab [head scarf], but it was more on the spiritual side of improving myself as a person [that I decided to adopt it], to be honest."

Public Issue

Now women like Chowdhury, who make up a small part of Britain's Muslim community, are in the spotlight like never before.

It all began earlier this month, when Cabinet Minister Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, said that he'd started asking Muslim women at constituency meetings to remove their veils, so he could communicate better with them "face to face."

The ensuing debate was then heightened by another government minister's calls for a veiled teaching assistant to be sacked on the grounds that she couldn't do her job properly.

The assistant, Aishah Azmi, had refused to remove her veil in front of male colleagues. But her appeals for understanding were met with little public sympathy.

A mark of separation? (epa file photo)

"We have to open up and accept each other and when we can accept each other we are going to realize, you know, there are people in the community who dress like this, not only one person, there's a whole...there are loads of Muslim women that wear it," she said.

Many Issues Involved

The debate has touched on many different, or interrelated issues, including religious freedom.

Then there's the position of women. Is the veil, as some suggest, a barrier to women's full participation in society? Then again, as one newspaper commentator put it, "How can we insist on freedom for women, and then demand that they behave in a certain way?"

And then there's perhaps the hottest topic of all -- the broader question of integration of Britain's minority communities, in particular Muslims.

Britain has for years prided itself on its multiculturalism, where different cultures and faiths can thrive alongside one another. But now, increasingly, that approach is being questioned. Has it led, some ask, to the separation of communities?

Critics say the wearing of the veil creates divisions. At the least, they say-- in a society that values facial expression as a vital part of communication -- it is a barrier to understanding one other.

"I think we do need, as I was saying earlier, to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly with our society," Prime Minister Blair said. "And all the evidence is that when people do integrate more, they achieve more as well. I mean there is a reason why minority communities that have integrated well then end up doing better, achieving more, attaining more."

Europe-Wide Reaction

The controversy over the Islamic veil follows an earlier debate in Europe on the hijab. Then, Britain was seen as more tolerant than other countries such as France, which banned the Muslim head scarf, along with other ostentatious religious symbols, in its public schools.

The face veil has become an issue, too, in other European countries. On October 17, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said Muslim women should not "hide behind" full veils.

The Netherlands has been mulling a ban on burqa-type garments that cover the whole body and face, after parliament last year supported such a proposal.

So far, there's no indication Britain will introduce restrictions on Islamic dress. But some Muslims say the row is just the latest example of how they are being increasingly stigmatized.

There's also a political shift going on that has made some uneasy. Formerly, many of multiculturalism's critics came from the far right. Now more of those critical voices are coming from the political center.

Chowdhury, for one, says she now feels less confident going outside. It's Jack Straw, not veiled women, who's creating divisions, she says.

(Reuters contributed to this report)

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