Khadija Ravat and the niqab’s good name

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The contrived controversy over the Channel 4 “Alternative Christmas Message” dragged on today, with the Daily Mirror featuring an interview with the lady in which she told the interviewer that she, being a patriotic British citizen, will be watching the Queen rather than her own message. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, however, comes out with the usual attack on the niqab, alleging that Channel 4 “has decided to glamorise and validate the veil, showing cool indifference to the meanings of one of the most violently contested symbols in the world today”. Ravat, she says, is “a nice lady” whom she met on a TV programme and found to be “warm and non-judgmental”, and “gives the niqab a good name”. The article appeared in the Evening Standard, which does not generally publish its opinion pieces online (but Islamophobia Watch reproduced it).

As ever, Alibhai-Brown pushes her “progressive Muslim” agenda (that is, aggressive liberalism with a brown face) with the usual shoddy arguing which, no doubt, won’t seem so shoddy to people reading it on the 5:35 from Waterloo after a long work day. To begin with, she compares the niqab to the two Somali mothers she claims to know “who support their own genital mutilation and will subject to the ‘purification’”. I have known a large number of Somali women, having approached them for marriage purposes, who told me that the practice was dying out in their community; some of them had not had it done, some had had it done in a reduced form and saw it as no big deal, two in particular were the last in their family to have it done, and none of them planned to repeat it on their own daughters. However, the fact remains that the niqab is not painful, does not involve the cutting of sensitive parts of the body with dirty instruments and, I’m sure some of the wearers can tell Alibhai-Brown, does not reduce anyone’s sexual pleasure.

She then raises the old saw about some of the women possibly not having made a “free and fair choice”, but in our society, they do. If the liberals are so concerned about getting women out of the “intolerable” situation of having to wear a veil because family members insist even though one would rather not, they might establish a way out rather than interfere with the right of women to dress the way they want to dress. As for the poor six-year-olds who wear hijab, if their folks tell them that they look beautiful and their mamas and aunties and big sisters dress that way, perhaps they really do like it even if they are “independent little misses”.

She alleges that “what some claim as their preferred attire is a cruel prison for others”, citing an incident related to her by Lesley Abdela, “the legendary gender-rights expert”, in which a Baghdad university professor “had a corpse of a young female delivered to him”, the young female having been raped, tortured and murdered for having uncovered her face and hair. “Acid is thrown at the faces of such women; many are beaten and raped all across the Arab countries, in Iran, in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, she alleges. This is a huge generalisation, particularly since niqab is not the norm “all across the Arab countries” and acid attacks, beatings and rape are not always linked to niqab, or a woman’s refusal to wear it. They are often linked to (un-Islamic) dowry demands, particularly in Pakistan, and sometimes to other marital conflict. The fact is that people who advocate niqab usually do not defend throwing acid at anyone’s face. I defy her to find one.

She tells us that she has also been followed home by a veiled woman who had been “subjected to the most horrifying domestic violence, all signs well covered by the unholy sheet”. I’m sure the sheet would be vastly less unholy if it covered scars, burn damage or deformities of some other kind, protecting the wearer from ridicule by children and ignorant adults - and no, I’m not suggesting that everyone with such issues just covers their face, but the fact is that Muslim women have the ability to avoid such pressures by wearing the niqab and others - of either sex and whatever religion - don’t. It has nothing to do with domestic violence; if she needs to seek treatment for whatever damage is done, or get the perpetrator prosecuted, she is quite within her rights to show the damage to whoever needs to see it. She alleges that “sanctimonious British niqabis (with beautifully made-up eyes)” are siding not with female victims of violence, but “with their foes”. How? If we are talking about the sort of educated woman who often takes up the niqab nowadays, I’d be very surprised if they supported or condoned this sort of behaviour.

She runs through the things you can’t do in niqab: swim in the sea, smile at one’s baby in the park, feel the sun on one’s skin. I’m sure some would say: so what? I’m sure these women smile at their babies at home, and talk to the baby in a soothing way when necessary outside (or find somewhere there is nobody around to see you, and then remove the veil), and anyway, a lot of babies’ pushchairs are forward-facing now anyway, so that the child looks away from, rather than at, his or her mother or carer. It would not matter much whether she had her face covered or not. And depending on which hemisphere you live in, not being able to expose your skin to the sun might not be a bad thing.

Alibhai-Brown uses a couple of spurious and irrelevant historical “evidences” to support her position. “The First Lady of Rebellion was Sakina, who got a pre-nup agreement from her husband. He was to be faithful and let her keep her will and liberty. When he went to a concubine she publicly humiliated him in court in Medina.” I was unable to find any reference for this Sakina; I was only able to find the daughter of Imam Hussain (radhi Allahu ‘anhu), who died while imprisoned with her family after the latter’s rebellion against Yazid, in which they were infamously let down by their supposed supporters in Iraq. She was only four years old when she died. As for A’isha, Umm al-Mu’mineen (radhi Allahu ‘anha), whether or not Alibhai-Brown’s quote from her (“I will not veil. No one can force me to do anything”) is authentic, the historical fact is that she did veil.

She alleges that the niqab’s growing popularity “represents the terrifying march of Wahhabism, which aims to expunge the female Muslim presence from the public space”. Much as I oppose Wahhabism, the veil was around well before Wahhabism appeared and by no means all the women who wear it belong to the movement or any of its mutually hostile sub-groups; in fact, by no means all female adherents of the sect wear niqab. “Veils affirm the pernicious idea of women as carriers of original sin,” she claims. The fact is that we do not believe in original sin, which is why we do not baptise children.

Towards the end, she claims that the British media “lurches drunknly between pandering to Muslim separatists and maligning us all as the aliens within”. “It is hard to be a Muslim today. And it becomes harder still when some choose deliberately to act and dress as aliens.” The fact is that it’s hard mostly because the press routinely prints scare stories about us in order to sell papers, and because deviant sectarians like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and those with other agendas, bad-mouth orthodox, practising believers, particularly women, to the same tabloids. I’m sure the same newspapers would not carry articles from liberal Jews condemning the practices of the observant of Stamford Hill, ridiculing their dress and denouncing them all as misogynists because of (for example) the well-known Jewish divorce issue; there would be an uproar, and rightly so. The fact remains that the niqab is a choice for many women, a tradition for others; it has no connection with domestic abuse, and it has been politicised mostly from outside the community rather than from within.

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