Ostensibly Neutral Standards

Stentor occasionally writes about how ostensibly neutral standards are used to justify inequality. For example, the fact that men tend to have more upper-body strength than women is used to exclude women from physical work they’re perfectly capable of doing.

Now the British government is demonstrating that principle beautifully, as a government minister called for the sacking of a veiled teacher.

The minister responsible for race and faith called on Sunday for a Muslim teaching assistant suspended for wearing a veil to be sacked, entering a growing row over integration.

Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion Phil Woolas told the Sunday Mirror that 24-year-old Aishah Azmi’s decision to wear a veil while teaching made it impossible for her to perform her duties.

The main issue seems to be hearing. Former foreign secretary Jack Straw complained about veiled women on the grounds that he was partly deaf and needed to rely on lip-reading to fully understand people. Woolas then decided to generalize from that and assume that every veiled woman had a problem with deaf people.

It’s entirely legitimate to say that teachers should make themselves understood. If a student complains that a veiled teacher makes it hard for him to understand her, it’s valid. There have in facts been complaints, largely on account of Azmi’s teaching non-native speakers, but that’s not grounds for firing, unless there is a reasonable alternative – for example, teaching at a school with a predominantly native-speaking student body, or even at a single-sex school, if there is any in the area).

But the accompanying arguments for firing Azmi make it clear that the use of ostensibly neutral standards doesn’t end there. Woolas claims that since Azmi is only required by her religion to wear the veil in the presence of men, she’s discriminating against them. That’s preposterous, since it implies every man who’s comfortable using urinals only when no women are present must be a sexist.

The commenters on both Feministing and Feministe don’t fail to offer other ONSes. Commenters on both blogs bring up visual cues such as smiling; it’s again legitimate to prefer teachers who smile at their students and give other facial cues, but until teachers get fired for not smiling, it’s pointless to fire teachers for wearing garbs that prevent them from smiling.

Other people talk about the misogynistic symbolism of veiling. The response to that unfortunately takes the form of ranting about how it’s just as misogynistic to ban veiling. It is, but it’s not entirely relevant here; what is relevant is that other misogynistic symbols, like Christian crosses or the modest dress required by Judaism, are permitted.

A more productive avenue here would be to talk about how to encourage integration without requiring wholesale assimilation (incidentally, that policy tends to be a lot better at causing assimilation than telling people they have to act like locals).

For a good example, I once read of a problem the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was facing with Sikhs. Sikh men are religiously required to wear turbans, and also tend to work at the police wherever they live; the RCMP’s uniform then clashed with the turbans. Eventually Canada came up with an optional RCMP turban, which the Sikhs could then wear as part of the uniform.

Jill puts the general principle better than I can here:

[Link] A bar on headscarfs in public doesn’t have the effect of women leaving their scarves at home — it means that women who believe they have a religious duty to be covered will not participate in the public sphere. It means they won’t go to school. They won’t run for public office. They won’t work.

One Response to Ostensibly Neutral Standards

  1. Bushbaptist says:

    A few points to discuss:
    Firstly Jack Straw didn’t “complain”! He simply asked the those Muslim women who visited his Electorial Office to remove their veil whilst there so he could communicate more effectly.

    Secondly the Azmi case is somewhat strange because when she had her job interview, she didn’t wear a veil or head scarf. Nor did she for the first few weeks of work regardless of whether her students and fellow staff were male or female. Then she suddenly did. I suspect a certain ammount of politicking going on there.
    One of the problems I see in all of this started with Bush’s dichotomy, ‘Them and us’.
    It has created a divide where there was little earlier.
    The US has an issue with people swimming the river or jumping the fence from the south. Europe has a problem with people crossing the Med.
    The difference is that those from Mexico are Christians where-as those from Africa are not.

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