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.