No basis for attack on niqaab

The front page of the Sun from tomorrow, calling for so-called vital reforms on niqabMy veil epiphany | Victoria Coren Mitchell | Comment is free | The Observer

Last Thursday a major further education college in Birmingham, the Birmingham Metropolitan College, backed down on a decision to ban face-coverings, including the niqaab worn by some Muslim women, after protests from the NUS Black students’ organisation and from a Muslim women’s group which called the ban “disproportionate” given the supposedly few wearers (there are actually a great many wearers in Birmingham, as well as other parts of the Midlands). I received a number of appeals to sign a petition opposing the ban, both from Muslim friends and others (particularly feminists); the petition gathered 8,000 signatures and a protest was planned for Friday, by which time the policy had already been reversed. This week, a judge also allowed a Muslim woman to appear in court without removing her veil (she showed her face to a female police officer who then affirmed her identity). Her barrister argued that there is no law in the UK on the niqaab and no rules prohibiting wearing it in court. It is she who is on trial for intimidating a witness, but her name has no far not been revealed.

The reason for this was ostensibly security, but as ever a whole host of other reasons to ban it were raised, the most common being that it prevents integration and that it’s a way of controlling women and that it’s mostly “imposed on Muslim girls”, this claim being raised by the Liberal Democrat minister Jeremy Browne, with support from a number of Tories, along with the familiar refrain “there needs to be a debate” without any serious explanation of why. Of course, this debate was had six years ago after Jack Straw told the media that he asked women to uncover their faces in his constituency surgeries, and it was mostly conducted over the front pages of hostile, sensationalist newspapers. Debate over the niqaab is heavily influenced by perceptions of hostility; there is an oft-recycled picture of some women in niqaab giving a V-sign to some journalists, which is reproduced on the front of one edition of Melanie Phillips’s book Londonistan; library pictures of such women are commonly attached to reports on unrest among Muslims, regardless of whether women in niqaab, or indeed any women, are involved.

To deal with the security excuse: they need to provide evidence that niqaab is commonly used in thefts or other crime or that women who wear it habitually are heavily represented among thieves. There have been a few heavily-reported isolated incidents (often the wearers were men), but no evidence that I have ever come across of a trend for people who wear niqaab to commit crime that could be in any way prevented by prohibiting the niqaab. It’s true that there is a lot of technology which is easier to steal in colleges now, like tablets (traditional desktop computers were too heavy for the opportunist thief), but it is possible to use electronic tags to stop people taking them out of the building without permission, much as shops use to protect stock. Other places, like some shopping centres, have banned hoodies because they are associated with theft or crime, but have not banned niqaab because it is worn by perfectly law-abiding, paying customers.

The “integration” argument is a pretty thin one also. Colleges principally exist to offer academic courses, and the only mandatory parts of being at college are that you attend your classes and do the work set. Sports and social activities are not mandatory and never have been; neither is eating in the canteen and talking with other students about work or anything else, or maintaining friendships with other students outside college, regardless of whether they are of the same religion as you or another, or none. As nobody is suggesting that women who attend further or higher education in niqaab do not take part in seminars or other course-related discussion or attend lectures, it cannot be demonstrated that it prevents women doing what they are at college to do, i.e. study. Anything else is extra, and can be achieved outside college just as much as inside.

This leaves the argument that it is a “means of controlling women”, as claimed by Browne and others, including the Tory MP Sarah Wollaston (for Totnes, an area not known for its high Muslim population), who posted a series of tweets earlier today, several of them featuring the hashtag “#nofacenovoice” (simply not true), among them one which compared niqaab to female foeticide, as well as this one:

Quite a ludicrous comparison in itself, but it typifies assumptions people make about niqaab and even hijab, such as that someone must be controlling the woman wearing it because nobody would wear it for any other reason than that a man told them to. Stories are circulated that many girls are forced to wear it by fathers, uncles, even brothers or just local “Muslim gangs”, and the voices of those who chose to wear it of their own accord, even against the wishes of their parents, are conveniently ignored. Even where someone wears it because someone told them to, so what? Different families have different rules and it may just reflect the family’s religious tradition, much as schools often have uniforms which reflect their history or their values, and not liking it is not generally accepted as a reason not to wear it. The fact that a girl is allowed to go to college (let alone university) at all shows that the family appreciates the value of education for girls and women.

The Victoria Coren-Mitchell article above recycles another well-worn stereotype, that of the veiled wife next to a husband in western clothes (in her case in a casino, of all places). In fact, in traditional Muslim communities in England, men wear south Asian clothing such as shalwar-kameez or long robes, and hats and turbans. A trip to any Muslim district, like Small Heath in Birmingham or Highfields in Leicester, will verify this. Even if men wear less concealing or distinctive clothing, again, so what? In any British town centre, it’s common to see women in knee-length dresses while men wear full-length trousers, particularly on a sunny day, and what is acceptable as “business dress” for women is considerably less restrictive than what is open to men, yet when the situation is reversed, it’s a scandal.

There is simply no valid assumption that can be made about women who wear niqaab. They don’t all come from conservative Muslim families; they aren’t all Wahhabis or “salafis”; they don’t all do it because they’re told to, or because it’s a family tradition; they don’t all intend to be housewives and many (if not most) will choose who they marry; they don’t all wear it all the time or every time they go out, they won’t all wear it for the rest of their lives - most will stop wearing it when they start work or not wear it at work (although some can wear it at work, even in a company or organisation that’s not Muslim-owned). In the years that I’ve been Muslim I’ve known women who wore the niqaab sometimes or all the time, who were members of a almost every religious tradition in Islam, who started wearing for a number of reasons and at different ages (and some of whom stopped for various reasons). These assumptions persist because the views of actual wearers are not sought when “debates” are had about Muslim dress; several, if not all, British newspapers of left and right, as well as the BBC, covered this story today without asking any (Kira Cochrane sought the views of some religious Muslim women for a piece in the Guardian here, but none of them wear niqaab). (Note: Huffington Post has published an interview with some women in niqaab since.) The Muslim whose opinion the Guardian sought was Shaista Gohir who claimed that only a few Muslim women wear it (and thus it’s not really an issue and people shouldn’t make such a fuss). This logic has not succeeded in preventing niqaab bans in other countries, but in any case is the wrong approach: it makes it sound as if only a few people will be inconvenienced by banning the veil. It will not persuade the general public that banning niqaab is a serious bit of discriminatory legislation that attacks a large number of people. Muslim observers note that the number wearing it outside the Muslim “strongholds” like Whitechapel, Small Heath and Highfields have declined, because of other people’s threatening behaviour since the 2006 made-up niqaab controversy.

The matter of a woman who normally wears niqaab keeping it on while giving evidence in court is an entirely separate one: it is quite acceptable to require her to take it off in order that she be identified, particularly to witnesses, the judge and the jury. That the issue rarely arises, as demonstrated by the fact that this has only become news now after women have been wearing niqaab in this country for decades, demonstrates that, as far as common crime is concerned, religious Muslims in the UK are generally law-abiding. The “debate” will always be about theories, about what people think it represents, about why people assume women wear it, and never about why they actually wear it (because wearers’ opinions won’t be sought), and not about any problems with the behaviour of Muslim women who wear the niqaab, because there really are none, and have been none in the twenty or more years that Muslim women have been wearing the veil in public places and places of adult education (girls wearing it in mainstream secondary schools is extremely rare in the UK). The majority of women who wear niqaab are placid people who mind their own business, get on with their course or their work, and harm nobody; attacking them is just pointless, cowardly bullying. The bottom line is that a vocal group in society, emboldened by the post-9/11 and post-2005 culture of hostility, simply does not like it. That’s no reason to ban anything. They have to prove harm, and so far they have hardly even tried.

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