I wrote this letter last Thursday after seeing a series of very hostile letters in the Guardian following Kira Cochrane’s article in which she interviewed women who wear the niqaab (who had been conspicuously absent from the discussion up until then) which was published last Tuesday. They included a particularly ludicrous letter (last Wednesday) which compared wearing niqaab in the UK to sitting at a cafe in Saudi Arabia dressed in “full crusader regalia”, the equivalence of female civilian clothing with male military uniform demonstrating a clear refusal to distinguish ordinary Muslims from terrorists:
I have been a Muslim since 1998 and have known a number of Muslim women who wore the niqaab. My first encounter with one was at sixth form college in south London in 1993, and the girl who wore it participated fully in her classes and was accepted as part of the college community. There were no complaints and although a few people murmured disapproval, it caused no fuss or disruption whatsoever.
All the women I have met who wore it did so by choice, in some cases against family custom. Many of them attended college and some worked (though not in customer-facing roles) wearing it. A number have since removed it; the climate has become greatly more hostile (including people’s behaviour in the streets) since the “controversy” following Jack Straw’s remarks in 2006. These are generally placid women who do not trouble other people with their behaviour. It is difficult to comprehend the level of hostility in your letters page yesterday. It is ridiculous to compare niqaab, which is civilian female clothing, with “crusader regalia”, which is male military uniform.
I have also noticed that the opinions of the few feminists with access to the mainstream media is out of step with grassroots feminist opinion. Many feminist activists I know regard this as an example of body policing and a misguided act that will deprive women of education and empowerment. There is a lot of talk about what the niqaab “symbolises”, but in most cases what it symbolises is the worst stereotypes of a culture the people saying this neither understand nor much care to understand. The voices of wearers were absent from the start of the debate, and when finally brought in (Kira Cochrane, Tuesday), it provoked a storm of ill-informed hostility.
Matthew J Smith
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