Monday, 4 May 2009

Masked Identity 1: Beyond the Mask

Jack, So Simple

Jack Straw once created a ripple of controversy when he kicked up a fuss about not being able to see the people he was talking to. This is a familiar frustration when people are speaking on the phone, but Jack Straw was not talking about that. He wasn't talking about the quality of his eye-glasses or even about the lighting in his office. He was, as we all know now, speaking about trying to get behind the what he felt was a communication barrier that stood between him and a particular group of female constituents - that is, behind the veil of his Muslim audience. To get behind the mask - so to speak.

Straw had no time for mystery. His solution? Drop the veil to make it easier for him to see who he was speaking to.

He would probably have a difficult time here in the Khaleej where in the heart of the Muslim world, black veils are aplenty and face coverings are fairly normal. How would he read the signals? Yes - no - excuse me - sorry, ahem - a mixture of awkwardness, embarassment and irritation.

A Mask of Mystery

The debate around the extent to which the veil should be applied continues though what I will say is that, overall, these things don't really bother me, in the way they do Mr Straw. One is either conditioned or they get used to it, so no surprises. I was recently working at a senior level in a school with an all-female staff here in the UAE. All wore the customary Abaya and I was concious that the face-veil was observed by some because of my presence. Often, when I had a meeting with the staff, they would adjust their sheilas when they heard me approaching. My duty was to stand back, knock and then wait to be invited in to their offices or classrooms.

It isn't necessarily easy for somebody in my shoes, but I accept that essentially, we are talking about real people in real situations - my emergent Arabic, the cultural norms (that included the socially accepted gender divide here in the Muslim world) and face veils have never really gotten in way - if you want to be understood, if you try to understand, if there is the will - you can often find a way.

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