Joan Smith: The ghastly values that link masked Muslim women to ministers obsessed by ID cards

In a democracy, there must be a balance between what we reveal to the state and what we keep private
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Am I showing too much? Or not enough? Those of the Channel 4 persuasion, who watched approvingly as an anonymous veiled woman delivered the channel's Christmas message two days ago, may feel that the picture accompanying this column is a damned sight too revealing. I mean, you can see my nose, for God's sake! On the other hand, I am half expecting a visit from Dr John Reid, who has just revealed that even dead people will have to make sure he is kept fully informed of all their personal details when his exciting new identity card scheme becomes compulsory in 2010.

Obviously, in the spirit of the new legislation, I should have a bar code tattooed on my forehead in my by-line photograph, enabling the Home Secretary to pass a scanner over this page and ascertain my date of birth, current address and favourite colour - blue, as it happens, and I'm certainly not going to change it and risk a fine of £1,000 in a couple of years' time for not keeping the government's database fully informed. Ministers have just admitted that grieving relatives will have to avoid falling foul of the government's 'guidance on death registration', which will require them to return ID cards of deceased people within a specified period or face fines; Tony Blair's government wants to know exactly where everyone is at all times, even if they're dead.

Both of these positions - the demand from radical Muslims that they should be allowed and indeed encouraged to conceal their identity under opaque black cloth, and the Government's obsession with ID cards and registers - seem to me mad, bad and extreme. The great majority of us, I imagine, occupy the middle ground in the sense that we don't mind identifying ourselves to the police in an emergency or if we're suspected of committing a crime, but don't see why we should have to carry ID cards and feel uneasy with the idea of people who insist on going round with everything but their eyes concealed.

That is how a Muslim convert identified only as Khadijah appeared on Channel 4 on Christmas day, condemning Jack Straw for making a polite request that women should lift their face-veils while talking to him in his constituency surgery. She is not to be confused, by the way, with another woman called Khadija (different spelling), who was originally scheduled to make the broadcast but pulled out, though I'm not sure how anyone would know the difference. I don't always agree with Mr Straw, but at least I know what he looks like.

ID cards haven't prevented terrorist attacks in a long list of countries, including France, Turkey and Spain - where a friend of mine makes a point of always making up a bogus ID number on official forms and hasn't been rumbled yet. They will be expensive (a lot more so than the Government estimates, judging by various disastrous schemes it's come up with in the past), intrusive and an all-round nuisance, and that's without even beginning to address philosophical questions such as the inversion of the existing relationship between individuals and the state.

Identity is at the heart of both these debates. In a democratic society, there must be a balance between public and private, between what we reveal to each other and the state and what we are entitled to keep to ourselves. For most of my life, there was broad agreement on these questions, which have become a contentious issue under a government which seems to exist in a permanent state of identity crisis: socialists in disguise or Thatcher-lite?

I never believed it was a coincidence that David Blunkett, our unlamented Home Secretary but two, was obsessed with identity, once making an extraordinary speech in the House of Commons about the importance of knowing who you are. I know perfectly well who I am, thank you very much, and the Government already holds as much information as it needs on me and any other law- abiding citizen.

Neither Blunkett's personal anxieties - I used to worry that he'd suddenly decide he wanted us all micro-chipped, like Daniel Craig in the new James Bond movie - nor the Government's obsession with security provide good reasons for this ridiculous and unnecessary scheme. The Blair government is stuffed with control freaks, but there's plenty of evidence that they're not very good at it.

As if that wasn't bad enough, we now have a growing minority of the population demanding the right to go about their everyday business in masks, which is what the word "niqab" means in Arabic. This, I think, is where a lot of people discover the limits of tolerance on the other side of the argument, rightly perceiving that the face-covering is not so much an obligatory religious requirement as a challenge to the values of our largely secular society.

Muslims can and do argue about whether the Koran tells women to cover their hair and faces - most of my Muslim friends insist it doesn't - but it's clear that most of the women who wear the niqab in this country, including Channel 4's Khadijah, adopted it fairly recently.

Of course it upsets people in an open society where we're used to seeing each other's faces; our identity is expressed in facial expressions, which ease everyday transactions by indicating whether someone is happy, sad, pleased to see us or lying - an important issue when so many of our dealing with strangers are based on trust. In that sense, it can't be read as anything other than an assertion of not belonging, of separation from the majority population, a political position some Muslims have begun to take to absurd lengths.

I recently listened to a surreal conversation between two veiled women, one of whom was about to give birth and worried about removing her hijab during the delivery. Her friend, who wears the niqab, assured the pregnant woman she had nothing to worry about; she had had a caesarean without removing her veil, she said, when her last child was born. A theology which allows a woman to reveal her vagina to her doctor but not her face - on second thoughts, let's not even go there.

Adopting the veil may be a sign of resisting globalisation - the spread of "Western" values around the world - and the Iraq war, but it's undeniably linked with the most reactionary religious practices. In that sense, wearing the niqab in this country seems to me both attention-seeking and self-indulgent, a form of protest that's relatively cost-free while failing to acknowledge the courageous struggle of women in Baghdad or Helmand province who daily risk death for the right not to wear it.

It's the worst sort of identity politics, importing ghastly patriarchal values into a country where we already have enough problems with a male political class which believes it knows what's best for us, including ID cards. If there's one thing I long for in the new year, it's seeing both a masked and a surveillance society consigned to the dustbin of history.