Veils, turbans and "rivers of blood"
Controversy about the how other cultures and religions dress is centuries old – stretching at least as far back as ancient Roman anxieties about the flamboyantly coloured costume of the eastern priests of the goddess Cybele (also known as “the Great Mother”). It’s odd that most of those who have recently huffed and puffed on either side of the Jack Straw “veil debate” seem to have forgotten the almost equally fierce arguments in the 1960s about a quite different article of religious clothing: Sikh turbans.
When I was a child, growing up in the West Midlands, one of the big issues of multiculturalism (though we didn’t yet call it that) was whether local Sikh bus drivers and conductors should be allowed to work with long beards and their traditional headdress. It provoked national debate and banner headlines no less doom-laden than what we have seen and heard over the last week. Panic intensified after one Wolverhampton Sikh threatened to burn himself to death unless the prohibition was relaxed. There were rumoured to be many more prepared to follow his suicidal example.
Opinions were, of course, divided. Many Sikhs felt that their religion was being insulted by a prohibition on turbans. Others were uneasy about the hardline stance, worrying about the “worsening of community harmony” that it might cause. But the problem was resolved when in 1969 the Wolverhampton Transport Authority gave in to the pressure. I cannot now remember what had caused their opposition in the first place.But, apart from the old-fashioned assumption that men on the buses would not be the same without peaked caps, I imagine it came down to some version of (in Straw’s words) ‘separation’ and ‘difference’.
Forty years on Sikhs are still threatened by the endemic racism that even now affects the lives of anyone in this country who is not ‘safely’ white. And, since 9/11, there has been some unease in the New York transport department about traditional Sikh dress. But no-one in Britain, apart from the lunatic fringe of the BNP, would surely think anything odd about a bus-driver wearing a turban (and most of would be only too delighted to have conductors back, whatever they were wearing).
It is hard at the distance of almost 40 years to recollect the intensity of feeling generated by this particular controversy. But it lay directly behind Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, delivered in Birmingham in 1968. Towards the end of this, he quoted the words of the then Labour MP and government minister, John Stonehouse decrying the stance of the local Sikhs and their campaign for the right to wear the turban:
“The Sikh communities' campaign,” said Stonehouse, in tones no better than Powell’s, “to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain is much to be regretted. Working in Britain, particularly in the public services, they should be prepared to accept the terms and conditions of their employment. To claim special communal rights (or should one say rites?) leads to a dangerous fragmentation within society. This communalism is a canker: whether practised by one colour or another it is to be strongly condemned.”
This was no straightforward party political issue.
Looking back at the full text of Powell’s speech, you will find it springs a number of surprises. Not least, Powell never used the phrase “Rivers of blood”. He actually quoted a line from the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. “I see the river Tiber foaming with much blood” ("Et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno”, line 86). These are the words of the prophetic Sibyl, uttered to Aeneas, the refugee from Troy and ancestor of the Romans, on his way to re-establish his ancestral line on Italian soil.
Uncharacteristically, Powell seems to have overlooked the way the quotation might contradict his own arguments. True, the Sibyl was referring to the bloodshed that would result from Aeneas’ attempt to found his new city in Latin territory, integrating his own line into that of the native population. But that bloodshed would lead to a strong and proudly mixed community of Trojans and Latins. And Aeneas’ Rome in due course would become the most successful multi-cultural society of the ancient world – granting full citizenship to the inhabitants of its imperial territories, and eventually seeing Spaniards, Africans and others on the Roman imperial throne.
Sikh turbans or not, Powell should have thought a bit harder about the implications of his clever classical allusion.