Rowan Williams defends veil

The Archbishop of Canterbury believes that British Muslim women can “help assert themselves” by wearing a veil. Speaking at The Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford, Rowan Williams questioned the view that women hid behind veils and warned against “what we sometimes think of wrongly as stereotypes”.

His comments contrast with the views espoused by many, including Jack Straw, the former home secretary, who argued in 2006 that the use of veils could make fostering good community relations more difficult. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, also courted controversy when he said he could see “nothing in Islam that prescribes the wearing of the full-face veil”, adding: “In the supermarket those at the cash till need to be recognised.”

Last year it was made illegal for women to wear full-face veils in public in France.

Williams said his views had been influenced last week by a teenage Muslim pupil at a Church of Wales school. “She told me how she would wear her veil and yet take part, too, in some of the school’s Christian lessons. It gave her an understanding of Christianity and yet wearing her veil was also very important for her to assert herself and her religion.”

He insisted that there was often “an imagined divide” between Christians and Muslims, adding: “It creates tensions. Yes, we have some deeply held ideological differences, yet we have a grammar between us when it comes to talking about human beings.”

He also spoke of a “false split” between so-called radicals and moderate Islam. “It is really not helpful to speak this way. It is dangerous.”

Williams, who will step down as archbishop at the end of this year, was criticised in 2008 when he said the adoption of certain aspects of Islamic law in the UK “seems inevitable” and argued that it could aid social cohesion.

He told The Sunday Times that religion “empowers women” in the Third World, particularly in Africa, adding that “they have a crucial role in investing in the next generation and in setting up new forms of agriculture” and in helping after conflicts.

Sunday Times, 1 April 2012

Writing in the Daily Mail, Janet Street-Porter objects: “I can’t see how covering your entire body in a hot, shapeless piece of cloth is any step forward for womankind.