Nessie allows bigoted ‘debate’ about niqaab

This morning Vanessa Feltz, the host of the BBC London morning phone-in show, had among her topics the question of whether the so-called burqa should be banned (you can listen to it, if you’re in the UK, here until next Monday). She had a couple of other topics, but it seems the phone was buzzing with people just desperate to hold forth on the matter of niqaab that all the other topics had to be abandoned. I tuned in some time before 11am to hear some Sikh woman saying that her sister, who had married a Moroccan, had been disowned by her family (including, it seems, the caller) and she was convinced that her sister was being pressured by her husband. Others came out with stories about women in niqaab who didn’t communicate, including one who went on a school trip, was assigned a little girl to help and never said a word to her (or even to her own son) during the whole trip and a neighbour who never returned a hello in six years.

There are some very familiar “security” arguments, which I have dealt with in previous posts ([1], [2]). Quite simply, there have not been many serious incidents involving women in niqaab in the whole of the twenty or so years that women have been wearing them. True, there was the stabbing attack on the MP, Stephen Timms, but that woman was caught, so her “disguise” did not help her. I don’t think these arguments hold water. One person said she got off a bus at the next stop every time a woman with her face covered got on, and there were dire predictions of “black widow” suicide bomb attacks, but since nothing like this has ever happened in the UK, the fears (or claimed fears) are somewhat premature.

There were, however, two breathless callers (one male, one female) some time after 11am who came out with a “this is Britain, do things our way” type of attitude. Steve from Twickenham, who came on after 2:14, was particularly aggressive, saying that it was only a matter of time before the “black widows of Chechnya” appear on the London Underground unless “we deal with this cancer”, insisting that this was “England, not an Islamic country” and that women who want to wear the “burqa” should “go back” to Pakistan or some other Islamic country because “we don’t want it”. Emma in Kilburn, who was on about 15 minutes later, suggested that their main attraction for coming to live in this country was the benefits system and the health service. Whether someone came on after I switched off (which was during Emma’s call) and put them right I don’t know, but it was Vanessa’s job to do so, and she chose not to.

The fact is, the majority of women who wear niqaab in this country did not choose to come here, and not all even have an escape route to Pakistan or any other Muslim country. They started wearing the niqaab of their own accord in the 1990s, and some have put it on since and stopped wearing it since, but most of them did not arrive here already wearing it, but if they did, they probably came because their families came, not because they chose to come by themselves. The whole argument “if you don’t like our ways, go home” is racist and factually wrong, and Feltz chose not to challenge it. A subsequent caller did challenge the whole argument that the niqaab is “un-British”, saying that most British people have no real idea what British culture was (and that he had, in fact, had conversations with veiled women in Regent’s Park).

I often get the impression that the most aggressive callers, like Steve from Twickenham, are actually people from the Far Right who are calling up anonymously, which is a known Far Right tactic. They sound like they have a political statement to make and that this is their platform to say it while pretending to be an ordinary Joe saying what the “man in the street” really thinks. Steve had an opinion poll on his side, which “revealed” that two-thirds of the British public support a ban, but no doubt the poll had a fairly small sample of the same people that polling organisation usually contacts. In any case, this country isn’t run by opinion polls and the whole point of representative democracy is to take power away from the mob. Even with some of the calmer callers, one never know if the stories they tell are real or made-up; could a woman really have got away with going on a school trip and saying literally nothing all day when in charge of children?

I think Damian Green’s comments over the weekend, that “telling people what they can and can’t wear, if they’re just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do” are pretty much spot-on (although it should be emphasised that Green is the immigration minister; most of the women who wear the niqaab are not immigrants). He also said that France has an aggressively secular state which bans crucifixes in schools, while Britain has schools explicitly run by religious organisations. Those by Caroline Spelman (also here), the environment minister, in today’s Telegraph are somewhat less relevant:

One of the things we pride ourselves on in this country is being free, and being free to choose what you wear is a part of that, so banning the burka is absolutely contrary I think to what this country is all about.

I’ve been out to Afghanistan and I think I understand much better as a result … why a lot of Muslim women want to wear the burka.

For them, the burka confers dignity, it’s their choice, they choose to go out dressed in a burka. I understand that it is a different culture from mine but the fact is in this country women want to be free to choose … whether or not to go out in the morning wearing a burka.

However, the Afghan burqa has no relevance to the situation here because almost nobody wears that type of garment; what women wear here can be removed bit by bit, and usually reveals the eyes. It’s also true that not all women who wore the burqa in Afghanistan were forced to by the Taliban, but an awful lot were. Still, that is not really relevant as the Taliban never have ruled here; but also, whatever other problems women have in places where the burqa is found can’t necessarily be connected to it, because they are also found in places where they aren’t, Muslim or otherwise. I have always held that calling the “burqa” a symbol of oppression, much as has been said about the hijaab itself (and about traditionally female clothing in the West also), not only because what may be a symbol of oppression in one country might not be so somewhere else but also because doing away with the symbol does nothing about the oppression.

People have also imputed to Spelman the suggestion that wearing the burqa itself is empowering, which actually is not what she said:

We are a free country, we attach importance to people being free and for a woman it is empowering to be able to choose each morning when you wake up what you wear.

So, the freedom to choose is empowering, not the burqa itself, so the whole debate as to whether the burqa empowers women and whether that’s a really ridiculous thing to say (which I think it would be, if she had actually said it) looks rather pointless. In any case, women would not choose to wear the niqaab in the West if it was anything like as cumbersome and awkward (and ridiculous-looking) as the Afghan one, and I don’t think they all wear it in search of empowerment anyway. They do so because they believe their religion tells them to, because they want to practise it as much as they can rather than the bare minimum. What this is about is the right of women to practise their religion as they see fit as long as they do not harm anyone else, and the evidence over the past 20 years is that neither the garment, nor most of those who wear it, harm anyone.

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