Good people do not use their power as belonging to the dominant group in society to make those who are minorities -- because of their race or their gender, their religion or their ethnicity -- feel lesser.
Simple, right? Multiculturalism preaches tolerance, and this is a very good first step. But critical multiculturalism teaches tolerance plus the need to be honest with ourselves and others about who in any relationship or interaction has power. Simple, right? Well, not really. One of the striking things about the responses to Straw was that while many of his critics chastised (or excoriated) him for siding with Western values against the values of his Muslim constituents, some of those who supported him praised him for siding with Western values (such as freedom and self-autonomy) against patriarchy and sexism. When he said that veils were not a good thing for a society that includes Muslim women, was he perhaps speaking in defense of those women?
Not So Simple: Who Speaks for Whom?
As noted above, as Bennett (1998) writes, one of the key mistakes that can be made when examining culture is to assume that all of the members of that culture agree with each other. This is certainly never the case. Cultures become defined by those who have the most power. And the cultural rules that are established are therefore almost always those that benefit those with the most power. This makes perfect sense: Anyone who knows anything about human nature will find this to be exactly what one would expect. But while it is perfectly predictable, it is also potentially highly problematic in any number of situations. And the relationship between Muslim immigrants and others in their host countries is precisely the kind of situation where differences in power among subgroups within a culture are likely to cause fractures (Parekh, 2000).
Straw was truthful when he said that Muslim women who wear veils create a sense of separation between themselves and other Britons. (Other groups also set themselves apart -- Jewish men by the hair, for example.) and it was clear by his remarks that he disapproved of such separation not simply because he personally felt uncomfortable but because he believes that in a modern democracy such as Great Britain women should be treated as equals. And he believed that veiled women are not treated as equals by definition.
That was the truth in his statement that caused so much of the sound and fury: Women veil because they are oppressed. His critics immediately argued that this was bigotry, a refutation of all that good citizens in a Western democracy should believe in. If Muslim women want to veil themselves, then it's no one else's business and anyone who even questions it is a racist. And an Islamophobe. Simple, right? Except that, of course, it's not.
If women in Muslim communities, including the immigrant communities in Great Britain had equal power with the men in their communities -- and with other groups in British society -- and they chose to veil, then how could anyone object? But this is not the case. Muslim women do not have the same power as do men in their communities. Women as a group never have the same power as men in their own communities, so it should hardly be an actionable statement to say that Muslim women do not have equal rights. Nor should it be considered a radical question to ask if community requirements that women veil is a sign of that oppression?
It is certainly possible, and indeed closer to probable, that part of what made Straw uncomfortable at being in the presence of women whose entire face is covered is that he saw such veiling as a reminder of the ways in which women are oppressed by Islam. But who is he, his critics would (and did) respond is he to say that women are being oppressed? Isn't such criticism simply the worst and most shallow kind of multiculturalism. Straw could pretend to be tolerant and accepting by acting as if he cared about Muslim women while actually using his greater political and economic power to criticize, even demonize, all of Islam. The fact that Straw had no right to talk about veiling is underscored by the fact that many Muslim women believe that the practice is deeply respectful of their femininity and that wearing a veil is a statement that they will not be subsumed by a still imperialistic West.
It is true that many Muslim women do support veiling. Some do so on their own, others because they are pressured by family to do so. Most do so for complicated reasons that were only briefly touched on in the debate. The complexity of those reasons define Muslim women as complex human beings, as complex as everyone else, defined by living in a world in which there are scores of different cultural values and standards. People from different cultures will disagree with each other, and they should be allowed to do so. This is what democracy is for, to allow for debate.
And that debate -- which flared up after Straw's opinion piece -- must acknowledge that while there is no one best culture, each culture gives a bigger megaphone to some people than others.
Bennett, D. (Ed.) (1998). Multicultural states. London: Routledge.
Calhoun, C. (Ed.) (1994). Social theory and the politics of identity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dallmayr, F. (1966) 'Democracy and Multiculturalism' in S. Benhabib (Ed.) Democracy and difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.