10 things we ought to be saying about the niqab!

Colleague and friend Julian Bond put together a piece on the niqab non-debate, that has been raging for the past week or so. With a little help from moi.

“The current debate over the niqab is another example of unwarranted attention being given to a Muslim issue simply because it is a ‘Muslim’ issue.

The current media debate over the wearing of the niqab (the full face-veil for Muslim women) is another example of unwarranted attention (much of it negative) being given to a Muslim issue, precisely (or only) because it is a Muslim issue. This is inevitably why I am writing, though I have consulted with my colleague Akeela Ahmed and why this article is in both of our names.

1. This is a free country

Unless people are committing a crime or outraging public decency they can wear what they like and choose how much they cover or reveal. It may be worth noting that a British politician was not allowed to wear a ‘No More Page 3’ T-shirt in the House of Commons. Other than that, no-one should be telling people what to wear or how to wear it. Difficulties arise where there are no precise rulings or new situations arise. Responses to these situations may not be accommodating of minority groups and legal action is sometimes necessary to achieve inclusion (rather than special treatment) of those who are different e.g. when the Sikh turban was eventually permitted instead of a motorcycle crash helmet in the 1970s.

2. It’s OK to wear the hijab

Whatever a Muslim, or Jewish, or Christian, or Sikh or Hindu, woman chooses to wear on her head or face is her own decision. Wearing a niqab harms no-one and does not, in itself, cause any problem. If there are security or identification issues there are usually procedures in place to address them. Muslim women have not suddenly appeared wearing the niqab in 2013! It has been suggested that the niqab (and perhaps hijab, the open head covering) is a sign of oppression and that women have been forced to wear it, with little or no evidence being offered in support of the argument. It is worth noting that:

A very small minority of women wear the niqab
Within close Muslim families the women will cover differently, from niqab (still a very small number) to hijab to entirely bare-headed
Families and friendship groups of women are usually very comfortable being with each other and this spectrum of hair-covering decisions
The niqab is an article of modest clothing
If we are worried about women being forced to wear the niqab then forcing them to not to wear it will not solve the problem

3. Why are we so keen to ban?

It seems that as soon as an issue like the niqab enters into the public arena there is no shortage of self-appointed commentators – usually those in a position to gain or create media attention – who begin to use the language of ‘banning’. This highlights both the sensationalism that accompanies what passes for discussion of public issues and the limited ways in which they are explored. It also shows an impatience to establish why a woman might be wearing the niqab in the first place and how this might be handled sensitively.

4. Are we talking to the women themselves?

Talking to women wearing the niqab is very important, I have not done so on this particular occasion but have done so when the Christian Muslim Forum has worked with professionally active women wearing niqab. We have been pleased to welcome them as presenters and participants at our events. The niqab has not prevented conversation, collaboration or cohesion! There is a real risk of largely white, non-Muslim men commenting on this issue and it has been encouraging to see female Muslim (mainly non-niqab wearing) commentators making positive contributions to the national discussion.

5. What does the law say?

Judge Murphy’s ruling on the wearing of a niqab in a Crown Court (rather than other types of court) acknowledges: ‘There is a pressing need for a court to provide a clear statement of law for trial judges who have to deal with cases in which a woman wearing the niqaab [sic] attends Court as a defendant. Given the ever-increasing diversity of society in England and Wales, this is a question which may be expected to arise more and more frequently, and to which an answer must be provided. I have found no authority directly on point in our domestic law. There are various extra-judicial sources which offer some guidance as a matter of general principle.’ (p.4) In a civilised and democratic society what is and is not allowed is a question that needs to be explored within a legal environment.

6. We’re not experts on Islam

I do not class myself as an expert on Islam, though I may well have a greater amount of knowledge of Islam and of Muslims than some. It is a feature of conversations on the niqab (and hijab) that non-Muslims will take the opportunity to state that Islam does not require a woman to cover herself. If we are committed to honest dialogue and conversation we need to hear Muslims speaking for themselves, though frequently there is not a commitment to dialogue. As non-Muslims; we need to work harder at listening, before deciding how we might solve a perceived ‘Muslim problem’.

7. This creates more negativity towards Muslims

There is no shortage of negativity towards Muslims, witness the recent attempt by the English Defence League to march through Whitechapel to object to the presence of the local Muslim population. There have also been a series of attacks against Islamic centres and individuals in the weeks following the appalling murder of Lee Rigby which, as the anti-hate monitoring organisation Tell MAMA has reported (and Metropolitan Police stats confirm), continue at a higher level than before the attack in Woolwich. Negative views of Muslims can also be seen in responses to the Christian Muslim Forum’s twitter feed (@chrismusforum). These are the more significant aspects of the negativity that has been reported in various surveys, including the 2010 Social Attitudes Survey which was the subject of a Forum discussion event. With the niqab issue, Muslims are again under the spotlight, seen as unwelcomely different and difficult and – as social observers say, ‘problematised’. The front page of The Sun on banning the niqab (screaming “Unveiled!”) is a good (or rather bad) example.

8. This creates more negativity towards Muslim women

Those who have a problem with Muslims have problems with Muslim women and what they wear. Some ‘anti-Muslim’ groups describe Islam as an oppressive religion which subjugates women. This inevitably – rather, bizarrely for those claiming to be protecting women’s rights – violence and attacks on Muslim women by non-Muslim extremists. For example, a significant number of attacks on Muslim women, and also online hate directed at them, have been linked to EDL members. Their apparent (though questionable) focus on women’s rights has not led to better regard for women but in fact the opposite, suggesting that they do not actually care for women, let alone Muslim women, but are motivated by hatred and misogyny.

9. Let’s make Muslims, and anyone else who is ‘different’, feel welcome

Niqab-wearing Muslim women are always welcome at our events. The challenge for our society is to become hospitable and welcoming, to be mature enough to cope with difference, rather than seeing the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that many niqab-wearing women in the UK were probably born here but it’s worth highlighting.

10. It’s time for some proper national conversations

The Christian Muslim Forum is ready to host and enable conversations on issues like this that are often characterised by conversations not taking place. Instead we have excessive negative interest in some media, sensationalising of people’s lives and the creation, or encouragement, of fear, hostility and prejudice. My colleague Anjum Anwar, one of the Forum’s Presidents, regularly grabs the nettle with both hands for public conversations on sensitive issues in lunchtime dialogue sessions at Blackburn Cathedral and also on her CommUNITY Platform show on Ummah TV. What is missing is for others in society to open up the conversation and encourage calm reflection, rather than over-heated negativity.”

5 Comments on “10 things we ought to be saying about the niqab!”

  1. Actually, no, the law is the law and the Judge made a fundamental error of judgement in this case. What people choose to wear in the street is their own affair, and I would not wish to dictate to them what they should and should not wear, but in court (and especially as a defendant) compliance with the law is, or should be mandatory. We have a long history in UK of the rule of law, that requires that the defendant is identified in open court. This woman should have been in no position to challenge that, yet was allowed to do so by a judge too frightened to uphold the law in his own court. How very sad!
    My wife and I have visited Iran, in whose language, Farsi, she is fluent. She may be a Farsi speaker, but she is an “English rose”. By your own logic above, she should be free to wear what she likes, but of course had to cover her head and wear a long sleeved shirt for fear of offending sensibilities. Had she not done so, she would have been arrested.
    I think the annoyance most native British feel with this issue is the complete absence of even handedness in it – on the one hand Islamic countries are so utterly intolerant of anyone else, yet in UK we try to allow people to do their own thing – but then they still push the boundaries. The young lady’s niqab should, in my view, have been forcibly removed in court – she was the accused, not a defendant! What she chooses to wear on the street is her own affair, but in court compliance with the law is required, not desired.

    On a related note, what is it with Muslim women needing to cover their hair anyway? As you say, and as I understand it, the Koran does not dictate it. The answer as I understand it is that Muslim women cover their hair because the sight of a woman’s hair to a Muslim man may sexually excite him and his urges may be uncontrollable. Given the high incidence of young Pakistani men committing rape against young white girls in the UK (as Baroness Warsi herself highlighted) those who wear any kind of head covering may have a point – but isn’t the fundamental point about the behaviour of men in Islamic society being ever so slightly ignored??

  2. I absolutely love this and I find it reprehensible that in a so-called ‘modern’ and ‘liberal’ society, we can’t even be liberal enough to let people wear what they like without feeling the need to place restrictions on it. All of the ‘feminists’ who think that they are liberating these women by advocating the ban should be ashamed of themselves.Forcing a woman not to wear something is just as bad as forcing her to wear something, and it is shocking how ignorant two thirds of British people have appeared in the survey about banning the burqa.

  3. If I wore a Nazi uniform around London I doubt you would be leaping to my defence of freedom of expression; likewise if 100 persons wearing KKK type sheets and hats strolled down the High Street. The public furore, not least from you defenders of the Niqab/Burqa would be deafening.
    I love the way the defenders of freedom expression defend it up to the point it offends their sensibilities – then all of a sudden it becomes a defence of liberalism as they oppose the very freedom they espouse.
    There are no circumstances in which the defendant in Judge Murphy’s court should have been allowed to flout the law of the land. She was a defendant – she has no right to place limitations on her behaviour in court.
    Judge Murphy should have had the guts to order the forcible removal of her burqa if she still refused to remove it. Freedom of religious expression, if indeed that is at the root of this debate, which I strongly doubt, must always be secondary to the law. If you don’t like it – leave to a country where the burqa is welcomed. Simple really.

    • Wearing a Nazi uniform, indicates you subscribe to an ideology that is fascist and xenophobic, whose believers massacred 6 million Jewish people. Wearing the niqab, indicates you are a Muslim and believe in Islam, (I personally do not believe niqab forms part of Islam), which is a religious faith, practised by millions of people around the globe who are not terrorists and do not commit acts of violence. There is a distinction here. I direct you to David Cameron’s recent speech: ” We still have a huge battle fighting prejudice in our country, and I think perhaps particularly Islamophobia – people telling lies about your religion – is one that we have to face up to particularly strongly in our country” ( https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/david-camerons-2013-eid-al-adha-reception-speech).

      I fear perhaps you are one of those people that tells lies about Islam, and seeks to create disingenuous, false and straw man parallels between Nazism and Islam.

      It is ironic, however that whilst you try to assert that all niqab wearing women are fascists, yourself display a mentality which at best is prejudiced against Muslims and at worst xenophobic. I have allowed your comments to show others who read this blog, what anti-Muslim prejudice and sentiments looks like. Thank you for demonstrating this so admirably.

    • And by the way, I shall not leave this country as it is my home and I am English. Perhaps you should find another way of dealing with your angst, against the wonderful diversity and multiculturalism of this country, which exists metaphorically, against the backdrop of green and beautiful hills. You clearly do not like Great Britain.

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