Busybodies on niqab (2)

It’s still open season on niqabis, as the Independent prints four letters in response to Deborah Borr’s attack on them in Saturday’s edition. The letters can be read here in the left-hand column (not paywalled). The first letter conveys feminist outrage, the second concerns about “trust” and “security”, while the third and fourth are basically defensive.

Nicole Ivanoff, a Labour candidate for what looks like a safe Tory council seat in Lancashire in June 2004 (you can read a brief biography here; this letter from the Lancashire Evening Telegraph claims that Ivanoff praised the French government’s “integration” policy), claims that it makes her blood boil to see “women who cover their hair with scarves, their faces with veils, their bodies in shapeless garments for so-called religious reasons”:

If the leaders of British Muslim communities fail to grasp how sad and angry most of us women in this country feel when we think about the way a large proportion of Muslim women are treated by their men, they will never understand why it is so hard for us to remain tolerant or respectful of their religion and way of life.

I suspect that, like Deborah Orr from last Saturday, Ivanoff has not bothered to ask women who cover their face why they do it and on whose instigation. It does happen that some women do it under pressure from male (and female) family members, but others do it on their own instigation against the wishes of their family. I have had personal correspondence with Muslim women of various backgrounds who veil their faces and whose mothers and sisters do not.

Not only does she make assumptions about Muslim women; she also makes a few about her own kind. “Us women”? How many have you asked, outside your own cosy little Labour party circle, Nicole?

No doubt a minority of Muslim women do defend their decision to hide face and body in the name of their faith. But there are hundreds of different interpretations of the Koran. There are hundreds of different ways Muslim women express their faith and live their lives. Millions across the world wear modern clothes and go about the business of building a life as independent, free women.

And millions also lead independent professional lives dressed as Muslim women, in the west and in the Muslim world. It is only a barrier to women doing this when secularists who hate the sight of a Muslim woman (or religious extremists) decide to make it an obstruction, as they have in France and Turkey. There may be hundreds of ways a devious person can twist the words of the Qur’an and the Hadeeth (yes, there is another source of Islam), but the words say one thing and there are only a handful of valid interpretations - that is, there are only so many ways an honest person can interpret their meaning. An honest person cannot interpret them to mean a woman can wear what she likes, the direction people like Ivanoff want to take us.

By being “understanding”, “respectful” or “tolerant” of any woman who hides her hair, covers her face or wraps her body in black because that is what the men in her life or her religious leaders demand of her, are we not saying to our Muslim sisters, “We don’t care about you, your liberation is not our business, you are no sister of mine, go back to your own country”?

How is it that tolerating someone’s way of life in this country amounts to telling them to go back where they came from? Does she not realise that their own country is in many cases this one? This woman’s capacity for logical thought has clearly deserted her on this issue. Perhaps a Muslim woman or two should write back to the Independent and tell this woman exactly what she needs to hear: that they don’t care what she thinks, that their “liberation” is none of her business, that they are no sister of hers, and that she should go back to Russia or Ukraine or wherever her ancestors came from? (I’m not best placed to say this, as a man, and don’t feel under any pressure, ladies …)

I can’t find anything reliable on MJ Adderley, the author of the second letter; Adderley seems a common name in his part of the north-west and the only returns on “MJ Adderley” are from a single genealogy site. He, or she, brings up the old saw about trust and security, calling the garment “the most sinister garment since the IRA balaclava”. The niqab, in one form or another, pre-dates the IRA, never mind their balaclavas, by millenia. What a ridiculous statement! “Unless I can see someone full-face I cannot begin to trust them and I will not speak to them,” Adderley opines. Well, women who cover their faces are allowed to uncover them when carrying out business which requires recognition, although a lot probably don’t realise this. If Adderley is a woman, then according to most authorities a woman need not cover her face in all-female company.

It is ridiculous also because the IRA wore balaclavas for disguise and were criminals and terrorists, which most women in niqab are not. Despite the well-known issue of the identity disguise provided by “hoodies”, which is less than that provided by niqab, the controversy has never extended to niqab because women in niqab are not associated with crime or trouble. They are associated with religious women minding their own business, which is why people interested in security hardly ever make an issue of it. It is not deemed a security risk in the countries where is is customary, even though these are often security-obsessed dictatorial or near-dictatorial régimes with secret police forces. So the people who “play the security card” do so out of ignorance or malice (a case in point being the Pakistani apostate blogger with whom I had a brief argument on the issue a few months back, who insisted that it was still a security risk even after I told him it had never been associated with terrorism in this country, and where I did know of it being an issue - in Kenya - it was to do with crime, not terrorism).

Adderley continues:

I think of all those British women who suffered for women’s rights over the past century and I grieve that we have made so little impact on these younger women who appear to live in their own time zone, in a foreign state, and certainly not ours. These are not Britons.

Again, tired stereotypes and false connections. Actually, the number who “suffered for women’s rights” are not that many and mostly campaigned for the right to vote - and a lot of those who cover their faces do vote (though some don’t, but then, the same is true of those who don’t veil their faces as well). A fair percentage of these women were born here, speak English as a first and possibly sole language and received their Islamic education, including perhaps the impetus to wear niqab, in English. They may have a Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity, but they would not fit in in either of these countries. Their culture may be different in most respects from (most) white Britons, but they have no country on this earth other than this one.

Before I finish, I should point out that a lot of the women who dress this way do not wear shapeless or sack-like clothes at all; usually their garments roughly describe their figure. I’ve seen plenty of slim women whose figures are not greatly disguised, even if they wear the black coat/scarf/niqab kit (which, by the way, a lot actually don’t). If she looks big, it’s not a disguised figure caused by wearing voluminous garments: she probably is big. Some women are, you know. It is depressing that stereotypes of “oppressed veiled women” are still being peddled in supposedly respectable broadsheets after all these years, when a lot of the worst oppression takes place in families which lack education either religious or secular, and in which women don’t wear the headscarf, let alone the niqab.

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