This is an article about a Muslim mother who was barred from parents’ evening at her son’s school because the staff insisted on her removing her face-covering for “security” reasons. This follows a string of incidents of bans on niqab in various public buildings in the UK that started after Jack Straw told a newspaper that he asked constituents to remove their face-coverings in his surgery in 2006, sparking a series of sensational anti-niqab stories in low-rent tabloid rags.
I work as a delivery driver and recently ended a job delivering cleaning supplies to a lot of large premises, including schools. Since starting this work, I have been struck by the excessive and sometimes oppressive level of security that now exists in many commercial and public premises, including schools. When I was at college in south London in the mid-1990s, you could walk in off the street, straight into any classroom or almost any other room. Schools were a bit stricter, but there were no intercoms or gates that had to be unlocked remotely. Today, you cannot get out of many buildings without a pass, or getting someone in the office to press a button for you, and this includes a lot of secondary schools. There are considerably more security guards around as well, and they can detain people in the street without any good reason, as happened to a man seen with a camera outside a Sainsbury’s shop in Brighton yesterday.
I am not sure whether this all started with 9/11 — the pass cards to get into some London colleges, for example, were in place before then. We have a substantial security industry with products to sell and probably quite a sizeable advertising budget, and a population put on edge by media reports about crime and terrorism. There is a financial incentive also, with extra security bringing reduced insurance costs.
The preoccupation with security offers a convenient excuse to those Jack Straw brought out of the woodwork in 2006 who were encouraged to state publicly that they just did not like the niqab and that it was one facet of “immigrant” culture that could be legitimately suppressed. In reality, there is no legitimate concern as the women concerned did not actively bother anyone and committed little or no crime. They were minding their own business and trying to secure an education for themselves or their children. The “new security situation” affects airports and a few other major public buildings, not schools and colleges in suburbs and provincial towns.
Niqab has been part of the landscape and the local culture in parts of the north-west, and indeed many other parts of the UK, for many years (it is regarded as compulsory by one of the influential groups of Muslim scholars, although not everyone who follows them, or attends the mosques they run, follow that ruling) and their choice of dress is little indication of how much power they have in the home, whether they work (many different, in fact), whether it is their choice individually (it often is, sometimes against their family’s wishes) or any other aspect of their lifestyle. Muslim women should not be paying in large numbers for the misdeeds of a small minority of Muslim men. They have been around for years, were not harming anyone and should be left to dress as they wish.
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