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Veil-wearing and name-calling

20 September 2013

TWO old cultural disputes have arisen this week - perhaps because it is the party-conference season: the wearing of the niqab or burqa, and the name adopted by Tottenham Hotspur supporters. Media pundits, social networkers, even leader-writers, have been expressing their considered views, conscious of the cultural and religious sensibilities of those being discussed; but the real debate is taking place in bars and on internet forums at a much more visceral level. Unmoderated websites give an insight into a depressingly low standard of thought and expression.

These views need to be taken into account, none the less. The strong antagonism to the niqab has its roots in the alienation felt when encountering someone whose face is covered. It is this that moves the debate away from the wearing of religious symbols such as crosses. There is also the suggestion that there is something wrong with a woman's showing her face to any man but her husband, not a view shared even by the majority of Muslims. If she has not been coerced, it is right to allow an individual to wear whatever she pleases. The difficulty is judging how close cultural and communal pressure come to coercion. But a society in which young women are under constant pressure to wear fewer clothes is not a good place in which to criticise other women for wearing too many.

As for the "Yid Army", both the Football Association and, this week, the Prime Minister have recognised the difficulty of discouraging a name that has been adopted so enthusiastically by a core of Tottenham supporters. There is something laudable about the appropriation by the fans, by no means all Jewish, of a term that is usually used offensively. In the same way, a section of the gay community has worked to redeem the word "queer". Many, though, especially in an older generation, have strong memories of repression and insult, and cannot be easy when the language of the oppressor is adopted, however willingly and confidently.

Language and dress are in a constant state of flux. Parents who send their children off on cold mornings wrapped in balaclavas know that there is nothing inherently wrong with face-covering; neither is there anything bad about being identified with the Yiddish language, however inaccurately. Intention is all. But language that has been used to discriminate against those of different races or creeds or those with a disability, and the repression of gender, are splinters in the nation's flesh. They can be dug out, with some pain; or, with patience, they can be left to work their way out. The present debate, despite the regrettable tone of many contributions to it, can be recognised as part of that process.

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