Niqaab and rickets in the UK

Today I found a post at the blog The Answer’s 42 alleging that the so-called burqa was to blame for the increased incidence of vitamin D deficiency in Asian women in the UK and resulting rickets in their children. The author linked a discussion between Nigel Farage and Salma Yaqoob on the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour in which women’s health was not even discussed (I didn’t hear it, but if previous form is anything to go by, it hinged on social interaction and security). The theory is pretty simple: covering your whole body keeps the sun off it, which means you don’t get as much vitamin D as you need. However, the reality may not be quite as simple.

The author, Margaret Nelson, linked a number of articles, one of them a study of rickets in South Asia which indicated that it was very common in northern Pakistan, where women tend to spend most of their time in homes which are “almost closed to sunlight” and go out only in a burqa, and an article from the Lancashire Telegraph, issued in October 2007, which reported that 56 cases of the condition had been identified in the Blackburn with Darwen district, almost all among Asian families (and those that were not had some kind of underlying condition). The local primary care trust (PCT) was to introduce Vitamin D supplements, as was already being done in other parts of east Lancashire. The local director of public health, Dr Ellis Freedman, said that the cases were “caused by a combination of skin colouration, diet and dress, not poverty”, and that it wasn’t happening in deprived white communities. It is worth noting that vitamin D supplements are targeted at the Asian community generally, not just those who wear the niqaab.

I don’t dispute that lifestyle factors contribute to this problem, but niqaab alone cannot be blamed for it. The report doesn’t mention whether all the mothers of the children concerned wore the niqaab, for example. If the mothers are spending most of their time indoors, in a poorly-lit house or flat, they are surely more likely to be deficient than anyone with an active lifestyle. It is worth pointing out that many women who wear niqaab in the UK, at least, spend a lot of their time outside the home as they study or work, and that their veils do actually leave some flesh exposed (and their veils are usually not quite opaque, so some light will get through to the rest of their faces over time). There was a report (published here on the National Secular Society website) which noted a similar problem in “some minority ethnic communities” in Birmingham, but even that stipulated that “confinement in the home, diet, mal-absorption syndromes and liver or kidney disease” may also contribute.

The incidence mentioned in the report on Blackburn is fairly low, anyway — 56 cases, in a community of many thousands. Rickets seems to be a common weapon used by anti-religious activists, but if it were that common in Muslim countries, this would surely be well-known. Still, traditionally, houses in many Muslim countries had courtyards, which would mean that women would get plenty of sunlight even if they left the house fully covered, and the roofs were considered the women’s domain (and still are, even in the smaller blocks of flats in some Arab cities today). So a lifestyle that was healthy enough in 19th-century Morocco might not be so suited to modern northern England.

Still, I don’t believe that in the current political climate, a “full scale, in your face campaign to persuade Muslims to abandon the burqa” will have the desired effect; it will feed tabloid hysteria and far-right hostility and make Muslims feel more oppressed than they already do (consider the dawn raids on Muslim families after a few bottles and other missiles were thrown at a protest outside the Israeli embassy, and the draconian “deterrent” sentences handed down subsequently — [1], [2]). Far more effective would be to quietly encourage more active lifestyles among these women, to encourage uptake of vitamin supplements (freely provided or otherwise) and to stress the importance of getting at least some exposure to sunlight.

(More by sister Ayah on YouTube.)

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