THE BLOG

Nudes and Niqabs: Drawing the Line

29/01/2016 19:22 GMT | Updated 29/01/2017 10:12 GMT

So, President Rouhani of Iran, how did you like those big white boxes they showed you on your visit this week to Rome's Capitoline Museum?

You knew, of course, that they had been put there to spare your blushes, to hide the - gasp! - nude statues on display. But did you realise how much harm those boxes did to the cause of fostering better relations between Iran and the West?

Some idiot official in Rome seems to have decided that it was essential to ensure that you were not offended by the statues (the Italian press have identified a protocol official in the prime minister's office). In doing so, however, the Italians managed to offend just about everyone else, by giving the impression that there is something shameful, or embarrassing, about some of Europe's greatest artistic treasures.

Look, I understand that diplomacy requires compromise, especially if there's the smell of billions of dollars of new trade contracts in the air. If you prefer to attend State banquets at which no alcohol is served, OK, fine. I can live with it, although I much prefer the French approach. No wine? No banquet. Your choice.

In Rome, officials could so easily have found a way round the issue of whether or not you should risk walking past marble statues showing their bulges and dangly bits. They could have asked. Is it a problem? If so, we'll find somewhere else for you to visit, somewhere with no statues.

What they did instead was provide Islamophobes with yet more ammunition with which to deepen the gulf of misunderstanding between two cultural traditions. Look at these Muslims: they even force us to cover up our own works of art. Talk about an own goal ...

The essence of freedom is choice. You can choose not to admire nude statues; I can choose the opposite. But no freedom is absolute, so there are lines to be drawn, lines that define basic, universal human rights that transcend different cultures. That is why there is a universal declaration of human rights, to which all cultures can subscribe: everyone is born free and equal, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin; no one has the right to enslave or torture; everyone has the right to a fair trial.

So choices do have to be limited. I cannot choose to drive at 100 miles per hour along a crowded city street, nor can I choose to mutilate my daughters or force them to marry someone against their will. Societies draw up rules to enable them to function as a cohesive whole, and those rules reflect the consensus view of the society's members, agreed over time.

In which case, what do we make of what looks like the entirely unnecessary intervention by the chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw about the wearing of the niqab, or full face veil, in English schools? He's agin it, and so am I, but given that only an infinitesimal number of Muslim schoolgirls do wear a niqab, it's hard to see why he felt the need to issue an edict about it and threaten to punish schools that disagree. It was yet another own goal, again deepening the gulf between Muslims, including those who wouldn't dream of wearing a niqab, and non-Muslims.

(Glossary of terms: a niqab is a piece of black cloth that covers the entire face with the exception of the eyes; a hijab is a headscarf, designed to cover a woman's hair; a burqa is a full length gown, often pale blue, which includes a full face veil, mainly worn in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and India.)

I last wrote about the niqab 16 months ago -- and what I said then was that, with some exceptions, what people choose to wear is nothing to do with anyone else. In a school it's different, because even schools that don't insist on a uniform still have dress codes. Boob tubes are out, and hoodies are verboten, as are face piercings and brightly coloured dyed hair.

Let's be clear: wearing a niqab is not regarded as a religious requirement by the vast majority of Muslims. Even in President Rouhani's Iran, women do not cover their faces. It is a cultural tradition with its origins in the Arabian peninsula, exported by preachers who follow the teachings of wahhabism. If a girl attending a British school, or her family, insist that her face must be covered, they can be politely advised that the school's dress code requires otherwise and that if they find that unacceptable, they are free to look for another school.

To show respect for someone else's beliefs or traditions is not the same as to capitulate to them. The officials at the Capitoline Museum in Rome were wrong to hide their nude statues, and if there are any teachers in England who allow girls to hide their faces in the classroom - which I very much doubt - they're wrong too.