Yesterday, in one of Boris Johnson’s new columns for the Telegraph (which you may recall the paper made a big announcement of after he resigned as foreign secretary), he registered his half-hearted opposition to Denmark’s ban on the face-covering worn by some Muslim women, but then spent more time informing us of how much he disliked it, comparing the women’s appearance to those of letter-boxes and bank-robbers. The article was immediately condemned by Muslims and the Labour party; the condemnation from the Tories has taken rather longer to start appearing; Alistair Burt criticised it on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning and party chairman Brandon Lewis has now said he asked Johnson to apologise in a tweet posted after midday today. His comments have naturally received support from other Tories, including the bane of the posh boys Nadine Dorries, who tweeted that “any clothing a woman is forced to wear that hides both her beauty and her bruises should be banned and have no place in our liberal, progressive country”, joining between illiberalism and racism with the assumption that it generally hides bruises. Presumably she also thinks a stab victim should go topless and a rape victim should go naked.
As ever, there is the lazy insistence on calling the face veil women wear a “burka”. There are two different garments which are called this and neither of them are worn by women here; they tend to wear the niqaab which is a simple veil which ties round the back of the head and covers the face, and can be flipped up when necessary. What is generally thought of as a burka is only worn in Afghanistan and neighbouring regions of Pakistan, and is sometimes called the “shuttlecock” (even there) because of its appearance, and is an all-over garment with a grille for the eyes. To suggest anything Muslim women wear resembles the dress of bank robbers, who are usually men, is highly insulting as well as inaccurate; bank robbers wear motorcycle helmets or balaclavas which look nothing like the niqaab.
But Boris’s rant is not the point of this article. My focus is on the response of Nazir Afzal, who posted a tweet yesterday which claimed that “there is no religious reason for wearing Burka (it’s not allowed in Mecca pilgrimage … I don’t like it either” before adding the proviso that “it’s also wrong for me or politician (sic) to belittle whatever a woman chooses to wear”. Nazir Afzal is the media’s idea of a “good Muslim”, a clean-shaven man who made his name prosecuting Muslim child sex abusers. He is not a religious scholar and his comment shows his ignorance. What people wear on the Hajj is not a guide for what they should wear at any other time, and the rule that a woman should not wear a veil across the face does not apply at any other time. Besides, when did you ever see a man wear anything remotely resembling the ihraam, the rough two-piece white garment worn for Hajj, at any other time? Even in the Hajj, some scholars have allowed a woman to wear a veil over their face as long as it does not actually touch the face, and some have said it was compulsory.
As for wearing it at any other time, a large proportion of religiously observant women at most times in Muslim history before the colonial era covered their face, often by pulling their head covering around their face as is found in parts of East Africa and Indonesia today. The niqaab is a modern invention, but it serves the same purpose. This tradition dates back to the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and is not a Byzantine or Persian import as some academics insist; the majority of scholars have said that the commandment for women to cover their beauty applies to the face although there is a specific hadeeth that indicates that showing the face and hands is acceptable. In this day and age, when the majority of women do not even cover their hair and the niqaab is commonly (though wrongly) associated with extremism, I would not go round telling women that they must cover their faces if they do not feel safe doing so. Wearing the headscarf, which actually is compulsory in Islam, is enough of a struggle for many women, especially those new to Islam.
At times when Islam and the Muslims are being attacked by an open and public racist, half-hearted or partial criticisms from Muslim public figures attached to ill-informed opinions about what Islam says do not help; they in fact offer the enemy in the press, Parliament and the street ammunition, since they can tell Muslims that this or that famous Muslim in fact agrees with them and not with their fellow Muslims. You cannot slap a racist down by agreeing with his opinions but disagreeing with his tone; you condemn him absolutely, while saving discussions about the virtues of the niqaab or whatever for another day.
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