Muslim women driving, and contrasts on niqab

I didn’t watch the Muslim Driving School programme, which was on BBC2 last Tuesday (at the right time to clash with Defamation, which I reviewed in my last entry), but I finally got round to seeing it just now, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was all shown in the north of England around Manchester, so it reflected a certain type of British Islam, but there were a variety of ages of women and they were not all Asian. There was one lady who was said to have immigrated as a newlywed at the age of 13 (13? To the UK?) and now had to learn to drive because her former taxi-driver husband was increasingly ill and unable to work, a Mum in her late 30s who had to take her kids to school, and a convert in niqab who was competing with her husband as to who’d learn to drive first. One of the instructors was an Asian male local imam (Deenporters tell us that he is with Minhaj-ul-Qur’an) and the other was an Asian niqabi in her 30s. In the UK, you can see it until Tuesday on iPlayer.

I must admit that I groaned when I heard of the whole concept behind this programme. In Islam itself, there is no issue with women driving, and it is legal in almost all the Muslim world even if fewer women drive than men. Speaking as a convert, I wouldn’t even think of stopping any wife or daughter of mine from driving or learning to drive; particularly if we have a long drive, or there’s an emergency, it makes sense to have more than one driver in the family. However, there are some very conservative men who think they should drive and women shouldn’t, and perhaps this stopped many women learning in the more conservative communities in the north. The male instructor said that the proportion of female customers had risen dramatically in the last decade or so.

There were a few seconds of footage of the imam/instructor frantically instructing one of the ladies on what pedal to push, but the most interesting part was the story of Aisha, formerly Stacey, who had converted a week after meeting the niqabi instructor, after working with the latter’s husband on a car wash. She eventually went to Pakistan and brought back husband Naseem, with whom they had a son. Her father was unruffled by her choice of dress although she was afraid to show it to her mother, who disliked her conversion entirely. Both women wore it of their own choice for religious piety, but Aisha also wanted to distance herself from her old friends, who would encourage her back to her old life of drink and drugs. I hope we see more of these ladies’ progress in part two, not only in the driving but also in Aisha’s reunion with her mother.

One irksome thing I saw in this programme was Imam Ramazan telling the camera that there was “nothing in the Qur’an” that says women can’t learn to drive. That was actually the second time today I’d heard that line, because Nigel Farage of UKIP, which has proposed to ban the niqab, used the same excuse on Salma Yaqoob on the Politics Show this afternoon, repeatedly demanding that she answer, “is it in the Qur’an”. And it’s not, but the fact is that the Qur’an is not the only source of Islamic law, so “it’s not in the Qur’an” is not a valid argument. The Qur’an is not the Bible and isn’t some sort of encyclopaedic, quick-reference lawbook. It is a source of guidance to the ordinary Muslim but not a ready source of law.

Farage and Salma Yaqoob were interviewed after a clip of a very well-spoken and pleasant lady in what looked like east London in niqab (and not with a long black abaya but with a colourful scarf and very western-looking other clothes) explaining why she wore the veil (you can watch the programme on iPlayer if you are in the UK). She said that, if security is the issue, women already remove their veils in such circumstances. Farage compared the covering of the face to wearing balaclavas on the District Line or motorcycle helmets in a bank. Of course, such helmets have to be removed because they are the favourite disguise of bank robbers, but that does not prevent anyone wearing them in the street. Niqabs are not currently banned in banks because robberies by niqabis are currently not known to be a problem in this country.

Farage’s reasoning was typical of this kind of bigotry, jumping from argument to argument and drawing connections where there are none:

What we are saying is, this is a symbol. It is a symbol of something that is used to oppress women, it is a symbol of an increasingly divided Britain, and the real worry, and it isn’t just about what people wear; the real worry is we’re heading towards a situation where many of our cities are ghettoised, and there’s even talk of Shari’ah law becoming part of British culture. That’s a real worry.

How many red herrings can you squeeze into a single sentence? My own experience is that, outside places like the Edgware Road where there are a lot of Arab ex-pats, niqabis are more likely to be young, and modern in their outlook, than many Asian women who wear a loose head-wrap (or none) and shalwar-kameez. They are more likely to speak English, for one thing. He has thrown out an assumption that the niqab is oppressive to women without considering the opinions of women who wear it in this country, which is what is relevant, as opposed to the supposed oppressed masses in Saudi, Yemen etc., who are forced to wear it against their will. The places in this country which are ghettoised have been for years, and it predates the popularity of niqaab by many decades, but even so, that is no bad thing in my opinion; it provides a safe space for Muslims (or any other minority) to be themselves and see people like them every day, which is what suburban whites like myself enjoy all the time. As for Shari’ah law, that is an utter falsehood, and irrelevant to the matter of niqaab.

He also claimed that it would be difficult to identify who the woman in the clip they showed was. In my opinion, that was a very distinctive way of wearing the niqab as long black abayas are much more common. She would stick out a mile in a crowd of women wearing every other type of recognisably Muslim dress.

This is pretty typical of UKIP’s nasty politics: they are trying to appeal to a slightly higher class of voters than those who would otherwise vote BNP, but are just as bigoted as they are. People who claim “niqaab oppresses women”, and for that matter those who say the same about the plain headscarf, repeat this claim without bothering to listen to the women who wear it, and tirelessly call it the “burka”, a term Muslims in the UK never use anyway, and talk of Muslim women wearing “sackcloth” and other untruths. They feign concern for Muslim women, but conveniently forget about women like Stacey/Aisha, for whom niqab works (at least, in places where it’s common) as a way of cutting herself off from “friends” who only want to share drugs with her. While it’s true that some Muslims do isolate themselves from others, such groups are usually no more threatening than Haredi Jews or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and for all people talk to each other while out and about, particularly in London, we might as well all wear niqab. Niqab is not a real issue; it’s something that causes some people momentary annoyance, and that is no reason to ban it.

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