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.”