For the right to choose

Respect gave over the Saturday afternoon session of its annual conference to a public rally on islamophobia. Anne Mc Shane reports

About 500 attended, including three women brought in by Chris Nineham halfway through the proceedings - one dressed in a burqa, the other two wearing the niqab. Everyone did their best to treat this as a normal occurrence.

Chair Linda Smith said that the leadership wanted to put the time aside for this question in view of its importance. We want to "involve as wide a section of the public as possible and to show that we are serious about having this debate". Of course, there was no actual "debate", but a rally in which the usual suspects queued up to repeat the same line.

Although strong and valid points were made against Jack Straw and his supporters, the position of the leadership is extremely one-sided. While it is vital to defend the right of women to choose to wear the niqab, the right not to wear it must equally be defended. And it is disingenuous, to say the least, to imply - as did every speaker with the exception of Salma Yaqoob - that all women who wear it do so freely, without, for example, coming under any pressure to comply.

Oliur Rahman was the first to the podium. He was incensed at the islamophobia stirred up by Straw's comments: "It is not for politicians to lecture us on how to dress and we will not take lectures from racists." Like other speakers, he denied that the niqab might pose any practical problems or act as a hindrance to women's full social participation.

For him the attacks on Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq were all a result of international islamophobia. He called on muslim heads of state (to applause from Socialist Workers Party comrades) to "wake up and defend your people and stop being a puppet of the US and UK governments". This must surely be an appeal to reactionary client states of the US like Saudi Arabia, where of course the niqab is worn - forcibly and as a matter of law. And where women are treated as no more than chattels of men.

Next to follow was Lindsey German, introduced as "an authority on women's issues". But comrade German also prefers not to raise the question of muslim women being separated off from the rest of society. Instead she railed against the "cultural imperialism of middle class women telling others how to dress". While quite rightly she defended the right to wear the veil and stood against any calls for a ban, she never put the other side of the argument - the notion that it is not actually desirable that women be secluded in this way. Nor did she mention the very real pressures on women to cover up within certain muslim communities. On the contrary she said that in her experience women had always chosen voluntarily to wear the niqab.

For her the "main form of oppression is not whether we wear the veil or not, but the structural way women are treated in this society". Having read the writings of this "authority", I know that by this she means the inequality in wages, access to promotion and childcare, etc. She blithely ignores the fact that the niqab actually highlights the additional oppression of muslim women who wear it - many of whom are unable to work or associate outside of the home. They are walled off from the rest of the working class and cannot even begin to fight for the sort of demands that she believes we should focus on.

She argued that feminists who are offended when they see the veil should just "get over it". This call was also taken up by the remaining speakers, who insisted that the only ones with a problem were so-called liberals who had shown their true narrow-mindedness. Liberals who had encouraged and given voice to intolerance and racism within society.

Salma Yaqoob made the best points of the rally. She indicated that there were stresses on muslim women coming from two directions: "Since 9/11 there are pressures from wider society" not to wear islamic dress. But this "did not mean that patriarchal pressures do not exist. They do and we also need to deal with them". Women who are in education and in work should not be forced back to the home because of a ban on the hijab or the veil. This "does not help women to be empowered". She was the only speaker to argue that she "defended the right of women not to wear forms of dress as well as the right to wear them".

John Rees spoke of the danger that this issue will escalate and gave the example of the British Airways worker who was sent home for wearing a crucifix at work. Both he and George Galloway opposed this latest move. Comrade Rees argued that "most muslims are both poor and black and that is why islamophobia is a racist category". He did not suggest how a ban on a christian symbol should be categorised. Unity is key, he said - "there is not a socialist-only solution to this problem "¦ it is only by standing together that we will win". He stressed he wanted no part of Blair's Britain and refused to 'integrate' into it.

While it is right to criticise the top-down, anti-democratic attempts at integration being made by the capitalist state, we do need to stress positive integration from below. Rees and German are in favour of multiculturalism - the previous anti-democratic policy of the establishment. While it might seem more tolerant, multiculturalism, through the celebration of difference, actually cements disunity and has led to the current situation where attacks on muslims are made easier.

George Galloway rounded off the rally with his usual fiery performance. He warned of other attacks on democratic rights if the right to wear the veil is not defended. He ridiculed Straw and other government ministers like Ruth Kelly for their hypocrisy - she is a member of the extremist, self-flagellating Opus Dei cult.

But he also praised separateness and thanked god for the Hassidic Jews of North London for their distinctive dress and way of life: "Let 1,000 flowers bloom" was his call, as he too extolled the virtues of multiculturalism. Again we must ask the question, is it actually a good thing that Hassidic Jews are almost completely cut off from the wider society?

For Galloway, "It has not been my experience that the wearing of the veil was because of patriarchal pressure. But even if it was, how can it help for liberals who hate islam to tell women to take it off?" Again a correct point against the current bans and pressure on muslim women. But it bears repeating: women should not only be free to wear the niqab, or any other form of religious dress, but also free not to wear it. He and his allies in the SWP disgracefully fail to make this point.

While it is our duty to stand four-square for the rights of the oppressed muslim minority, and therefore ensure that the double oppression of muslim women is dealt with sensitively, it is wrong to cover for patriarchy and the subservience of women within sections of that same minority.