Column this week
Britain’s Race and Faith Minister Phil Woolas has recently called for a Muslim teaching assistant to be fired for refusing to remove her veil while at work. The twenty four year old has already been suspended from her post at Headfield Church of England Junior School. The decision to suspend her was made after she refused to remove her niqab (the veil) when in front her male colleagues. The minister has stepped into the fracas, explaining his stance by saying, “She cannot teach children wearing a veil. You cannot have a teacher who wears a veil simply because there are men around.”
This comes fast on the heels of the controversy that’s still raging over another perceived insult to England’s Muslim community. Commons leader Jack Straw earlier this month revealed that he asks Muslim women to remove their veils when they visit his Blackburn constituency surgeries and stated that the veil negatively affected community relations. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis has lent his support by saying that Muslim leaders are currently risking a ‘voluntary apartheid’ in Britain.
This is a country that once used to boast that the sun never set on its empire. And every one of those countries that helped it laid claim to that boast – and a great many more – has bled its people, its products and its culture into their former Mother Country. England has a reputation in Europe for multiculturalism and, to a lesser extent, tolerance.
It has long believed that its approach is superior to that of France, where the notion of multiculturalism is absorption into mainstream French culture and disapproval for any actions that seeks to separate or may be seen as separation. The wearing of headscarves and crucifixes has long been banned from schools and workplaces and the notion of “when in France do as the French” is strong. London, however, is seen as a Mecca not only for obvious would be immigrants like nationals of the former Soviet Republic, but even those from the more affluent countries such as Japan and Germany. But after 9/11 and certainly after the July 7th bombings in London, a large and growing sector of the Muslim community here has been feeling that this notion of multiculturalism and tolerance no longer extends to them.
For many Trinidadians living here, the notion of multiculturalism in this country is a bit perplexing. There are certainly a greater number of nationalities and cultures concentrated in London than perhaps anywhere else in the world. You ride the bus or the train and conversations are being carried on around you in four or five different languages in a sort of horizontal Tower of Babel. There are many different types of food and varying festivals are celebrated by each community. But there isn’t really a sense of integration, at least, not in the way many of us know it.
There are areas in London associated with certain countries. There are parts of the city where it’s quite possible to feel as though one is in another country, as everyone around you speaks to each other in their own language, operating by their own social codes that are different from the norm. The Indian man who runs the post office on my street barely speaks English. His wife and his friends speak to each other in the same language. When he speaks to his customers he is angry, constrained. When speaking with those from his own inner circle he is relaxed, laughing, the hands moving freely as an aid to conversation. The only time I’ve ever seen him outside is when he has to bring his “Buy your Travel Cards here” sign inside the shop.
Speaking to my co-workers about Carnival one of them asked me what it is in celebration of and what sector of society it is associated with. Born and raised in Britain, with it sharp delineations of class, he couldn’t get the idea of it being a national festival, one that all were free to participate in regardless of race, gender, religion or social standing. When I try explaining the notion of a national culture I’m met with open minded attention but obvious disbelief.
The notion of multiculturalism up here is not born out of a sense of national culture. I speak about missing the lighting up for Divali and wishing I could have been at my friend’s prayers on Sunday. I know about soaking deyas and how to place the wicks and light them. I have Muslim friends, both wearers and non wearers of the hijab and have found that a piece of cloth is not a barrier to friendship. After all, all you really need is to be able to look someone in the eyes anyway. Britain in now wondering if France was right all along, that instead of tolerating the differences that others brought into the country, they should hasten the integration into mainstream society by demanding conformity.
Most of us Trinidadians just wonder why the word “tolerate – a word that suggests a minimum willingness to endure something that’s unpleasant or unwanted” should be used in the first place.