Niqab in Camden: where are the Muslim voices?

Picture of a white woman wearing a white headscarf and separate face-covering, with an embroidered 'border' under the eyes.The niqab is not just a fashion statement | @guardianletters | World news | The Guardian

These two letters appeared in today’s Guardian in response to an article in yesterday’s edition by Gaby Hinsliff, a former politics editor at the Observer, which argued that people who wear unusual or disapproved-of clothing, including niqaab, should not be denied an education even if banning niqaab could be justified in other contexts. The second letter raises the issue that the veil could make it difficult for deaf fellow students or teachers to interact with this girl; the first is just the standard, uninformed white woman’s opinion about what the niqab ‘represents’:

However, she wilfully ignores what it means to cover schoolgirls’ faces: the face-veil is no more just “a scrap of fabric” than a gag is, it is an iconic manifestation of an ideology which holds that women’s faces are analogous to their genitals as a source of shame which must be hidden from all men other than their husbands.

If it is a fashion choice, it is that of Isis, the Taliban, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, who – along with our Saudi allies – brutally enforce this particular deletion of women from public life. Tolerating misogyny is one thing, but it is depressing that a certain patronising mindset seems to cover its own liberal face so it cannot see and challenge it.

Neither of the names below these letters are Muslim ones. It appears that when it comes to discussing a young Muslim woman’s education, their voices should not be heard. It is the same every time this ‘controversy’ arises, and when there is purportedly a Muslim woman’s opinion offered, it is almost always a secular one, often a “Muslim in name only” (e.g. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown). Experiences of niqab are often by women who “tried it on” for a few weeks and reported that it was a hellish experience, particularly because they experienced more public hostility than they usually do (the connection between this and attempts to ban it, and the erasure of Muslim women’s voices from the discussion, is never made). A few years ago, the Guardian printed interviews ([1], [2]) with a teacher in Loughborough, Rahmanara Chowdhury, who wore niqab (and taught “interpersonal skills, teamwork, personal development” to teenagers), but such opportunities for real Muslim women to speak are rare. A few years ago I published an interview with a young woman I knew who had worn niqab to school in Canada from age 17 (although she has since stopped wearing the niqab); you can find that here. I personally knew a young woman who wore niqab at my sixth form college in the early 1990s; she attended some of the same classes as me and was in my tutor group. Her attire did not cause any trouble or inconvenience to anyone and it did not seem to hinder her from participating in classroom discussions, etc.

The niqab has nothing to do with any ‘ideology’; it has to do with Islam, and forms of it have been found in Muslim societies since the beginning, although the niqab worn today was probably invented more recently (and is a lot more practical than wrapping a large head-wrap around one’s face). Calling something an ‘ideology’, of course, makes it sound less legitimate and more threatening, a practice popularised by the likes of Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz. It does not “hold that women’s faces are analagous to their genitals”; even according to the opinion that holds that women covering their faces in public is mandatory, women can show their faces to other women and to close family members. (Others hold that they can actually show their faces to other men, but not show them in public mixed situations.) Neither men nor women are allowed to show their genitals to anyone except their spouses, or to medical staff when necessary.

The comparison with ISIS etc is also ridiculous. The Taliban, as is well-known, enforced the Afghan burqa, which bears no resemblance to the niqab and which is almost unknown among Muslim women anywhere beyond Afghanistan and neighbouring parts of Pakistan. Boko Haram kidnap girls and kill boys; ISIS murder peaceful people so as to provoke a war. The vast majority of women who wear the niqab in the UK and elsewhere are in no way connected to any of these groups. In fact, not all the jihadist preachers who have been active in the UK have said that niqab is compulsory, while some who opposed al-Qa’ida and related violence have said it is. Women in many countries where niqab is normal go to school and college, work, run businesses, drive and vote (with the obvious exception of Saudi Arabia).

As for the concern for deaf students or teachers in the college, it is not known whether there are any deaf people in her classes and if there are, it is possible that she may agree to take it off if they cannot communicate with her any other way. (The same was the reason why Jack Straw asked a woman to take her niqab off during a constituency surgery, but this detail got lost in the controversy which led to an explosion of hostility against women who wear the niqab; it has since become quite rare outside a couple of ‘safe’ Muslim areas such as Whitechapel. I have not seen one in Kingston for years; it was common among Muslim students when I briefly studied there in the early 2000s.) It is a red herring which has been raised as an excuse, and I have not heard of campaigners for deaf people’s rights, or disability campaigners in general, make any issue of this. If you are not deaf, you can still hear what she is saying — you just have to listen. It is disappointing that a newspaper which is aimed at educated and intelligent people, with a cover price to match, prints ill-informed and prejudiced drivel like this and silences the people affected. Women should not be paying the price for acts of terrorism perpetrated by a minority of male Muslim extremists; the niqab has never been proven to be a factor in any terrorist incident here.

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