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A radical imbalance of power

‘Melanie Phillips’ vs the veil

I know I shouldn’t, but I’ve been reading more of the blog by the satirical personage dubbed “Melanie Phillips”. One post quotes a Muslim writing with pride about how the English city of Oxford has several mosques and halal restaurants, and many Muslim scholars wandering the quads of the university. “Melanie” responds:

Thus the triumphalism of someone who understands better than the dhimmi dummies of Oxford university the magnitude of the cultural pass they have so recklessly sold.

I am having trouble reading this as saying anything other than that the University of Oxford should not hire Muslim academics. If so, it is lamentably crude as comic writing. But another post is more subtle. In this one, “Melanie” relates how, on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, “she” and the other panellists interviewed a woman “who wore the niqab or full-face veil”:

Talking to her brought something else home to me: the radical imbalance of power in the encounter, due to the fact that while she could see my face I could not see hers.

There are many interesting facets to this. The first is that, of course, a niqab is not exactly a “full-face veil”, because it does not cover the eyes, useful to see out of, as well as to communicate with. To call it a “full-face veil” nonetheless is cleverly to invoke an image of scarily featureless aliens. Second, the idea that being able to see someone’s whole face, not just the eyes (already Unspoken by “full-face veil”) is a source of “power” is an interesting one. Where might this power lie? I am wholly confident that even for “Melanie Phillips”, the source of frustration cannot be that there is insufficient skin on display to be able to tell at once if one is talking to a Caucasian or someone of browner complexion. Leaving that delicate question unanswered, we notice thirdly how interesting it is that “Melanie Phillips” does not identify the “radical imbalance of power” as working in exactly the opposite direction to the one claimed. You might suppose that the real “radical imbalance of power” is that between the ordinary woman and the handsomely remunerated newspaper and radio “personality” (or rather, “her” anonymous puppeteer) who is aggressively interrogating the ordinary woman for the public’s broadcast edutainment.

Lastly, “Melanie Phillips” does not identify the “radical imbalance of power” that most grieves me personally. This imbalance consists in the fact that, when I accidentally tune in to The Moral Maze, I can hear “Melanie Phillips” talking, but she cannot hear me shouting: “Shut the fuck up, you depressingly plausible impersonation of a smarmy, vicious bigot!” And so I am reduced to writing a blog post instead.

  1. 1  dsquared  October 20, 2006, 8:05 am 

    I see that our Minister for Social Exclusion has opined that the teaching assistant who was wearing a veil was “rendered incapable of taking part in normal society”, and proved it by sacking her.

    btw, can we get a linguistic stylebook ruling on the use of Arabic words for Muslim garments (“niqab”, “hijab” etc) by non-Arabic speakers writing in English? It seems slightly pretentious to me, sort of implicitly claiming that one knows all about these things.

  2. 2  Steven  October 20, 2006, 10:43 am 

    I agree it may seem dubious, perhaps depending on what place it has in the set of Arabic words the speaker exploits, and how restricted that set is. “Melanie” of course screeches a lot about “the jihad”, and the attempt at humour with “dhimmi dummies” above is lamentable. There is an interesting article by US military analysts, by contrast, Loosely Interpreted Arabic Terms Can Promote Enemy Ideology, which suggests swapping out common Arabic loan-words used in belligerent conversation with others that deny legitimacy to violence.

    The whole veil row I find curiously reminiscent of rows about anti-social yoof wearing hooded sweatshirts or baseball caps, supposedly to evade recognition on CCTV. The a priori assumption is that the person is dangerous; this can only be overturned if he or she is compelled to show his or her face at all times.

  3. 3  'The Prof'  October 20, 2006, 3:13 pm 

    We have a ‘hug-a-hoody’ policy in my neighbourhood and I was trying it out the other day in the High Street to some effect. That is until the Police started to take a more than ordinary interest in my activities.

  4. 4  Sohail  October 20, 2006, 4:27 pm 

    Hello Steve

    Good post. As it happens, I heard the programme the other day. You can hear it online at The only imbalance I detected was that Na’ima Robert (the niqabee) was simply far more articulate. She has a very interesting book out, and from the little I’ve read online, she writes pretty well. See

    I think your point about skin pigmentation is accurate. It sounds like Melanie Phillips was expecting a “dumb immigrant” lady who could barely speak English let alone someone with the confidence to pull off an admirable performance on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze.

    A few supplementary points:

    (1) Niqabs also come in full-faced versions too though your point still has some validity. The material that covers the eyes to permit vision is thinner though not noticeable to an onlooker.

    (2) I always thought “Caucasian” meant anyone of Indo-European origin – so brown people too. I’m aware of course that white people have hijacked and claimed “Caucasian” for themselves.

    (3) What precisely do you mean by “of browner complexion”? Why do you use a comparative adjective here?


  5. 5  Steven  October 20, 2006, 5:11 pm 

    Hello Sohail,
    You are right, the concept of “Caucasian” is dubious, and I probably should not have used it even as an attribution to “Melanie Phillips”.

    “Browner”? More dermal melanin. Of course the comparison might be trickier if one or other party has a suntan.

  6. 6  Steven  October 20, 2006, 5:25 pm 

    PS thanks for the extra info on niqabs, too. It would be interesting to know which kind Robert was wearing when she encountered “Melanie”.

  7. 7  Sohail  October 20, 2006, 5:59 pm 

    Hello Steve

    The idea of merely having more “dermal melanin” or having a sun-tan significantly weakens your argument. Why don’t you just admit that it’s clumsy usage? I mean, let’s face it: I’m sure Melanie Phillips can tell the difference between a sun-tanned white person and say a brown South Asian. It seems to me that what you simply wanted to say is if Phillips was able to discern whether the veiled person happened to be a white or non-white person in order to then make pre-judgements about Naima Robert’s social background, education, culture etc.


  8. 8  Steven  October 20, 2006, 6:19 pm 

    Of course, “white” and “non-white”, qua descriptions of skin colour, are categories artificially imposed upon continuous variations in dermal melanin.

  9. 9  Sohail  October 20, 2006, 6:34 pm 

    No, Steve. Being white and non-white is not simply about skin pigmentation. I’ve seen South Asians that are far whiter than you (in your side-bar photo). I agree these are nebulous terms but there’s no denying that they have deep and widespread currency. “White” generally means of white European origin. Ever fill in one of those British government forms on ethnic origin?

    And, please let’s not forget that white racists don’t go obsessing about levels of dermal melanin.

    I mean does anyone really think Michael Jackson is a now a “white man”. There’s of course far more involved here, please.

  10. 10  the uncool dude  October 20, 2006, 8:09 pm 

    Speaking personally I refuse in any way whatsoever to discuss ‘the veil’.

    It’s a matter of principle. This non-issue is clearly a Government agenda-setting ploy aimed at further stoking the ‘Muslim integration’ debate and deflecting the public gaze firmly back to the proverbial ‘navel-contemplation’. That the media took the bait, hook ‘n all, is lamentable but not surprising.

    I think it’s important that we bloggers in particular rise above such manipulation. And so I say again, emphatically if I may, we will not be putty in their hands.

    Stand firm, bloggers.


    Probably all these identity difference problems could be overcome if we just realised that we are all hairy on the inside. A simple point that can be illustrated by the fact that missionaries in the Melanesian Islands banned surfing and all forms of copulation except where the man was in the dominant position. Surfing did eventually return to those isles again but the natives by that time were too busy in the plantations to take much advantage of this felicitous development.

    By the way can’t I start a thread for a change?

  11. 11  Sohail  October 20, 2006, 10:47 pm 

    Hi Uncool Dude

    I don’t think they are necessarily “problems”. No identity label can of course ever be accurate but simply ignoring massive labels like “white” or “black” doesn’t mean they will simply disappear. Unfortunately, they are part of the everyday language we use and live by with all its fuzziness and imperfections. Ultimately, what matters is how we use such constructs, how they are generally understood and how meanings are negotiated.

    As Wittgenstein once put it “language is use”.


    It just occurred to me that the most conspicuous instance of Unspeak in the wake of the veil attacks was the idea that the whole episode had triggered a much needed “debate”.

    My understanding of a debate is that of some sort of formal ongoing discussion involving divergent views on some matter, issue or policy. All that’s happened so far is Jack Straw expressed his discomfort in face-to-face interactions with niqab-clad constituents. Subsequently, some Muslims told him to mind his own business. End of discussion. What else is there to discuss?

    I mean if I say pink shoelaces cause me great discomfort, that’s surely not a debate, or is it?

  12. 12  'the uncool dude' aka 'The Prof' aka 'Paul Ward'  October 21, 2006, 1:25 am 


    I think dude may have something here. Consider.

    Straw made his controversial statement on the veil. Prescott said whooah just a minute the veil is fine with me. Then the media pick it up and run.. Then someone else within the Government supports Straw. And so on. But the trick to controlling a debate is to set the agenda. That is the point. Straw framed the debate by setting off the appropriate firecracker. I doubt he thought of it himself. More likely it was an inspiration of the back-room boys. No other explanation warrants credibility. It is recklessly irresponsible of course since it offers latent racists a chance for ‘legitimate’ victimisation. After all who is to say that the Head Teacher of the school had not reluctantly accepted the Teaching Assistant in the first place for fear of appearing racist. Now the climate has changed and hey ho…

    A similar situation prevailed in 1930s Germany when the persecution of a minority group suddenly came into vogue. Habitually afterwards we exculpate ourselves in ceremonial blood-letting as in the Nuremburg Trials. The premise – we are good they are evil. Evil means ‘not-us’. It’s a way of distancing ourselves from its awfulness. NAZI Germany was all too human. We need to understand that we are all capable of this before we start doing it all over again.

    A brief note on Steven.

    Steven is your typical intellectual. To him everything is a problem often enough a linguistic puzzle to be analysed endlessly poured over and if possible resolved. In a sense there is a chunk of his humanity missing. This is a blokey thing. Think of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. For some reason women seem to complement blokes – give ’em a chunk of humanity that their missing. For such blokes people seem less important even unnecessary. The life of the intellect is all. This could not be more delusional. And this is why they desparately need a woman – you might say it balances them. Without that they would probably turn into a sort of Dr Mengler.

  13. 13  Petrit  October 21, 2006, 2:19 pm 

    Am I alone in finding the fictionsuit known variously as Paul Ward, the Prof and the uncool dude vacuous, specious and now vicious?

    “In a sense there is a chunk of his humanity missing”? I’m assuming you’ve never met the man, but you feel free to make a rather feeble attempt at theorising based on his professional persona.

    By the way, given that you also appear to a one-man Godwin’s Law catalyst, could you at least attempt to get the names of the Nazis right? It’s Mengele, not Mengler.

  14. 14  Paul Ward  October 21, 2006, 9:22 pm 

    I like vacuous and vicious but specious is going too far. Of course, Petrit, for all you know I could be Steven. That is unless it is… Petrit aka Steven aka Mr Poole. The only Nazis I can really remember and spell right are Globocnik & Kaltenbrunner.

  15. 15  Steven  October 22, 2006, 1:52 am 

    Petrit, you are surely not alone. I love the word “fictionsuit”, by the way.

  16. 16  paul aka the Prof  October 22, 2006, 11:35 am 

    Petrit’s remarks have a certain authenticity which it is hard to argue with.

    I note with interest that the TM has disappeared from the Unspeak title. Has Unspeak ceased trading or are there other considerations at work here?

    By the time WE are finished the only universal truth left will be the modern’s self-obssessed pursuit of the individual life-project. The fictionsuit project is merely indicative of the modern’s failure to find authenticity or meaning. The purpose of Unspeak is not to uncover truth or enhance understanding or to add to the sum good of humanity.

    The purpose of unspeak is unspeak.

  17. 17  Petrit  October 22, 2006, 2:11 pm 

    The “fictionsuit project” (in)appropriated the phrase fictionsuit from the work of Grant Morrison on The Invisibles. The phrase refers to the identity or identities that you wear when you enter a story.

    Paul Ward, the prof and the uncool dude are refractions, one person’s means of negotiating a troubled world. Appeals to “authenticity” are therefore rarely enlightening.

    And incidentally, I think you may have confused Unspeak the phenomenon with Unspeak the book. And you clearly haven’t grasped what either of them are about.

  18. 18  Petrit  October 22, 2006, 2:15 pm 

    Incidentally, the fictionsuit concept is relevant to this blog post because Steven clearly believes that “Melanie Phillips” is also a fictionsuit, a theory which I can’t find any evidence to refute.

    And yes, Petrit is also a fictionsuit; but not one of Steven’s.

  19. 19  Jon Elliott  October 24, 2006, 3:41 pm 

    Could “the radical imbalance of power” assumed by “Melanie” be understood as “the radical imbalance” of effective communication? Given that in a conversation the message is passed from one person to the other through three channels:

    Words – the actual words spoken

    Tone – the way the words are spoken

    Body Language – the stance, gestures and expressions etc

    The receiver gains the meaning of a message as follows, in percentage terms:

    Words : 7%

    Tone : 38%

    Body Language : 55%

    The vieled person has the opportunity to access all 3 channels but denies the others in the conversation some or all of her Body Language (55% of effective communication). That seems imbalanced to me?

    For example, I get more information – by accessing all 3 channels of communiction – from a televised programme such as Question Time or PMQ’s than I do from their radio alternatives, when I am denied body language.

    However, if body language is to be denied for whatever reason, then the “listener” has, I think, a responsibilty to ensure that they listen critcally and check understanding, until such times as they are clear and certain what has been transmitted.

    That means people like Jack Straw and Melanie should be prepared to listen more, critically and patiently – a skill set they probably need to refresh.

    If they did more “listening” they might do less thinking about asking females to undress or wondering where the power lies, imbalanced or otherwise. But then, maybe they don’t want to communicate effectively or even honestly?


  20. 20  Steven  October 24, 2006, 4:37 pm 

    Jon, I often see percentage breakdowns of how “communication” or “information” is imparted such as the one you offer, and I must admit to some scepticism. Maybe it’s because I work as a writer, and so am generally more word-oriented than the 7% figure would suggest. Or maybe that 7% figure is just pulled out of someone’s arse. But I could well be wrong. Is there a rigorous source for this stuff?

    Even accepting it, I’m not sure how much of the 55% “body language” is negated by a mere veil. But in any case, your point about needing to listen more carefully is a good one, and I don’t think it really depends on any set of figures.

  21. 21  Jon Elliott  October 25, 2006, 12:43 pm 

    The percentage figures come from the Communication & Conflict Management syllabus, which is Part 2 of the National Open College Network’s award for Door Supervision.

    The Security Industry Authority (the regulator) specified the syllabus, suggesting it meets the rigour of National Occupational Standards?

    That said, I did ask the SIA where the figures came from, was it established research, if so could they point me at the source? I am still waiting for a response.

    However, I do think body language does form an important part of the communication process, particularly in a “face-to-face” conversation or debate.

    You are a very effective communicator. You use “words” elegantly and make your points clearly. That is uncommon, most people struggle particularly with explaining concepts such as faith, for example.

    That is why the “Unspeak” project is so important. Anyone comming to the project for the first time will be enlightened. Or to put it another way, suppose the 7% is accurate and based on vigourous research. The implication is that it is the weakest part of the communication process. The question begs, what if anything can you do to improve that figure so as to avoid potential misunderstandings?

    Part of the answer is to listen carefully and critically, and “Unspeak” empowers you to do just that. For example, I watched William Hague being interviewed over the weekend. The interviewer repetedly asked him about “tax cuts”. Hague’s response was to talk about “tax reduction” that may occur if the “economy remains stable”. The first time he used the phrase “tax reduction” he visibly flinched. That phrase I would suggest is “Unspeak” and his body language implied he knowing attempted to shift emphasis. Is a “reduction” less than a “cut”? Prior to reading “Unspeak” I would have missed the shift.

    I agree with you that “sets of figures” can be dubious or just short-hand when attempting to explain something or other. But, if such figures cause you to think, then that can’t be all bad, can it? Even if the thought is “these figures have been pulled from someone’s arse”

    The down side is that people like Straw, imply the veil is, arguably, a block to effective “face-to-face” communication. His point may be valid, but the block can be removed without the lowering of the veil, provided you really do want to communicate, to understand and then respond accordingly. In other words, such people are content to leave the block in place. That way it provides a form of excuse or so they probably think.


  22. 22  Steven  October 25, 2006, 1:39 pm 

    Hi Jon,
    Thanks for the info. Perhaps the ratios break down differently according to different situations. I can see that tone and body language would be the really critical things to concentrate on for a door supervisor. (Interesting phrase: do they really keep a close eye on doors, in case the doors misbehave?)

    I agree that of course body language etc is important generally (hence the gestural coaching of politicians). Your last paragraph to me seems very well put: the veil or any such thing is only a barrier to communication if you want a barrier to be there.

  23. 23  Cardinal Ratzinger  October 25, 2006, 5:39 pm 

    I think you are in danger of unspeaking yourself there, Steven. The veil, surely, is a barrier to communication. It does not prevent it, but it does it make it more challenging, as you would know if you had tried talking to somebody wearing the niqab. Even the well intentioned, can find themselves at a loss if they can’t read somebody’s facial gestures. It is the reverse situation: but I can’t stand talking to people wearing sunglasses. Particularly if they are teachers.

    I would certainly agree, that the coverage of this debate and Islam more generally is frighteningly one-sided and culturally illiterate, though

    The sooner “Melanie” is taken off the air and given appropriate medical attention the better. The Moral Maze affects me so badly that it may be ruining my life. These people call themselves intellectuals: most of them couldn’t think their way out of a brightly lit room with an open door at one far end with a big sign saying, “This way for something more intelligent.”

  24. 24  Steven  October 25, 2006, 9:47 pm 

    But if, as you say, it does not prevent communication, I’m not at all sure that “barrier” is the right word. Still, we have had enough talk of barriers elsewhere, so I will accept your chastisement.

    I wonder if Jack Straw avoids using the telephone for similar reasons?

  25. 25  Jasper Milvain  October 26, 2006, 11:26 pm 

    Jack Straw’s deaf in one ear. To judge by the partially deaf people I know, he may well watch lips to fill in the words his hearing misses in noisy situations – a busy constituency surgery, say. So for him a veil over the mouth could affect verbal communication, never mind body language. Telephone conversations are different, if only because you can press the speaker to your ear.

    On the original subject: You’re right that the Moral Maze has a built-in radical imbalance of power against its guests. That’s what makes me, too, want to scream at it.

    But the problem isn’t that Melanie and gang are professionals and the ‘witnesses’ are amateurs. It’s that each witness faces four presenters, or five if something’s piqued Michael Buerk, and that the presenters are there to build a case over the course of the programme rather than to listen to anybody else.

    They all build their cases through long leading questions, determined not to be distracted by the replies. They can all carry on an attack against one witness through their questioning of the next, and the next. And they all get time at the end to re-insult anyone who steps out of line.

    The facts and ideas the witnesses bring in scarcely ever affect the course of the discussion. Sometimes I think the only reason they’re there is to save the presenters from having to talk to each other.

  26. 26  Steven  October 26, 2006, 11:40 pm 

    I’ve signed a couple of reviews “Jasper Milvain” in my time. If only New Grub Street were not still so true…

    Now, fascinating that you bring up the watching of lips. This of course would be an entirely rational reason to be unenamoured of veils – as well as, I suppose, particularly refulgent moustaches, or the little nose-and-mouth masks often worn in public by Japanese people with colds. But talk of marks of separation or radical imbalances of power makes of a practical difficulty an ideological complaint.

  27. 27  Sohail  October 27, 2006, 10:12 am 


    I don’t normally do this (so apologies if inappropriate) but may I suggest a blogger here who I think gives a very interesting take on these sorts of issues. He’s “Suspect Paki” at

    I recommend two of his latest posts:

    – United KKKingdom, and
    – Taking the Veil.

    Also worth noting is his writing style; it’s got a very lively raw feel to it which can be a nice change from the standard lifeless prose that pedagogues drum into many of us from early school days.

  28. 28  Jasper Milvain  October 27, 2006, 12:16 pm 

    But talk of marks of separation or radical imbalances of power makes of a practical difficulty an ideological complaint.

    Oh, agreed, agreed. You are right to go after them. But the practical difficulty could be real, at least for Jack Straw, which leaves me less angry at him than I would otherwise be.

  29. 29  Sohail  October 27, 2006, 12:37 pm 


    Jack Straw is simply employing what I (and all intelligent people like me;)) see as the age-old tactic of plausible deniability. There’s of course no hard proof that his concerns were of an ideological nature. That’s the whole point of it. It’s set up in order for him to plausibly deny charges of Islamophobia by hiding behind a concern with “practical realities”.

    Surely, any seasoned politician knows fully well that such comments have real consequences in the current political climate where sometimes it seems all a Muslim has to do is blow his nose to be headline news. So stuff like “I’m awfully sorry. I had no idea this would snowball out of control. I was merely drawing attention to something in my local constituency; that’s all” works wonderfully if you’re up to mischief as I fear Jack Straw was.

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