Can the niqab be both a mark of freedom and of subjection – or is the debate on its use a pretext for prejudice, asks Dani Garavelli
TO SOME it is a symbol of female oppression, to others the marker of a faith that places great emphasis on modesty and introspection. The niqab, a face veil with narrow slits for the eyes worn by some Muslim women, has long been a source of both fascination and scorn for westerners. Robbing the wearer of distinguishing features, while affording protection from prying eyes, it could be regarded as an invisibility cloak, except that, in the UK, putting on a niqab makes you stand out not fade into the background.
Farah Khan, a part-time niqab-wearer (Fridays, Ramadan and whenever else she feels on a spiritual high), sees covering up as a means of bringing herself closer to God and freeing herself from the pressure on women to look good. “After fasting, I was so happy and at peace I wanted to take my spirituality further so I decided to wear a niqab and it was great – I felt so peaceful and so safe,” she says. “Before I wore a veil, I used to worry about silly things like my weight and my skin and the length of my eyelashes and now I don’t worry about any of that – I’m so happy the way God made me. I am more comfortable and I accept myself more. I’ve been liberated from worrying about my image.”
Khan, 36, a housewife who volunteers at Glasgow Central Mosque and campaigns for the people of Palestine, says that, although she is one of the few people she knows who wears a niqab, she has found others very accepting of her decision. “I find people judge me on what I say and do, on my manners and my character. If I treat people kindly, they do the same back to me,” she says. “Sometimes I’m afraid it makes me less approachable – I tend to wear bright colours to try to counteract that. I think if people don’t understand something, they can feel worried by it, but mostly I’ve found Scotland a pretty tolerant place to be.”
Not everyone is broad-minded, of course, as events last week demonstrated. When Judge Peter Murphy ruled Muslim defendant Rebekah Dawson, who refused to take off her niqab must expose her face while giving evidence at Blackfriars Crown Court (albeit behind a screen to shield her from the general public) but could continue wearing it in the dock, he seemed to tap into a seam of unease about the place of the niqab in British society, causing it to gush to the surface. His judgment, though measured, prompted a flurry of questions about the wearing of the veil in public amenities such as airports, schools and hospitals, and led MP Jeremy Browne to call for a national debate over the desirability of an outright ban similar to those introduced in Belgium and France in 2011. Fuelling the controversy was the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to reverse an eight-year ban on students wearing niqabs and burqas in the wake of an 8,000-strong petition.
Those who support some degree of restriction on niqabs – a strange alliance of right-wingers, liberals and some feminists – claim they subjugate women while making westerners feel uncomfortable. Muslim leaders, on the other hand, have suggested that, with the number of niqab-wearers in the UK estimated at less than 1,000, there is more than a whiff of Islamophobia about the way the controversy is being ramped up.
In their tendency to present this as a black and white issue, both sides are guilty of contradictions: if niqab-wearers say they are motivated by modesty and a desire not to be judged, why do they choose a garment which guarantees they will be the centre of attention? At the same time, as commentator Dan Hodges has pointed out, it is intellectually unsustainable to oppose attempts to dictate what women should or should not wear by dictating what women should or shouldn’t wear.
Inconsistencies aside though, is it good to open up debate on an issue which, while niche, clearly troubles some people and has important implications for civil liberties? Or is the hysteria over the religious/cultural choice of around 0.001% of the population being deliberately exploited to foment cultural disharmony?
It may have taken the court case to push the niqab back into the headlines, but the issue has been simmering just under the surface ever since Jack Straw revealed in 2006 that he asked women attending his surgeries to remove their face veils because he preferred being able to make eye contact with them. Later that year, Aishah Azmi was dismissed from her job as classroom assistant at a Church of England faith school for refusing to take off her niqab in the classroom even though it was judged to be causing communication problems with the children, many of whose first language was not English.
Now, in the wake of a report which showed 17 hospitals have banned healthcare workers from covering their faces, the government has asked for a review of NHS guidelines on the niqab, with health minister Daniel Poulter insisting effective communication is essential for good patient care. Others have been more outspoken: in response to the Metropolitan College decision, Tory MP Sarah Wollaston said schools who allowed the niqab “colluded in making women invisible”, while writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said that if it was a provocation for the Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they could not be recognised, it was for Muslims too.
It is true that since 9/11 face veils have, on a handful of occasions, been used by terrorists and other criminals to commit crime or escape justice. In 2006, a terrorist suspect evaded capture by putting on a burqa, and men in niqabs are said to have been involved in several robberies including one in Selfridges and one in a jeweller’s shop in Glasgow.
But it seems unlikely there are huge numbers of niqab-wearing doctors in the NHS, and, in any case, most Muslims seem to take a pragmatic approach to face veils where security or the need for effective communication is concerned. “Juries are supposed to take into account the way witnesses behave when they are giving evidence,” says criminal lawyer Aamer Anwar of last week’s court ruling. “If all the jury can see of them is their eyes how can they assess them? Most Muslims I have spoken to agree the judgment is common sense. And the same would go for airport security – there are procedures for women who wear the niqab and the burqa to be checked just as there are in countries such as Pakistan where wearing the niqab is more common.”
Where the issue becomes more contentious is when politicians or activists start moralising about the burqa, portraying it as an instrument of subjugation or threaten to introduce a blanket ban. The perception of the veil as something that is imposed on women against their will has been reinforced by the emergence of a handful of educational establishments, including the Madani Girls School in Tower Hamlets, where wearing a burqa outside is obligatory. But it is also clear the majority of women in the UK who wear it are making a conscious choice, sometimes in defiance of their families.
“I know some very educated, very active, very articulate women who wear the niqab,” says Smina Akhtar, director of the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre in Glasgow. “These women are not weak and voiceless little creatures – they have to be strong. We’ve been brought up in a society where what you look like is the be-all and end-all – how hard must it be for them to reject all that pressure?”
Though Khan’s desire to wear the niqab is purely religious, others appear to have more complex motives. “A lot of the people wearing it today, some of whom are white converts to Islam, are wearing it even though their parents don’t – they have taken a political decision, or for some of them it’s almost like a fashion statement,” says Anwar. “Like wearing a cross, it becomes an assertion of their identity. Some people say doing so is un-British – I think it’s more un-British to tell people what they should and shouldn’t wear.”
Some niqab-wearers find it strange to be portrayed as oppressed when they see themselves as having escaped a world where women’s bodies are objectified in magazines and billboards. “People feel sorry for us and think we are suffering, but we look at women who have to chase their youth and get plastic surgery and boob jobs and feel sorry for them. We see that as a degradation – it’s such a shame they are not allowed to be loved for what they are,” Khan says.
It would be easy to argue that regarding your body as a treasure reserved for your husband is merely another form of objectification. But if Muslim women want to wear a face veil, then is it anyone else’s place to interfere? And even if some women are being coerced, how is imposing a ban going to improve their domestic situation?
“I agree there may be some women who are [being oppressed], as there are in any religion or section of society,” says writer and campaigner Talat Yaqoob. “We live in a patriarchal society with structural inequalities, and I would like us to focus on and change those structural inequalities. A ban would not do that. If anything, by keeping those women who are forced to wear the niqab at home, a ban would prevent them from participating as much as they currently do in society and they wouldn’t be able to come forward to take advantage of any support.”
In France, where fewer than 2,000 women wear the niqab, the introduction of a ban has already led to several riots, and a spike in violence against Muslim women. On occasion, the abuse has extended to those women who wear hijabs or head scarves, which are not illegal.
“People on public streets are taking the law into their own hands to tear off their veils or headscarves,” says Anwar. “These women feel imprisoned within their own homes – if people genuinely cared about them, the last thing they would want to do would be to ban them from public places – they’d want them be having dialogue and to be part of the community. Instead, they are banned from taking their children on school trips. What a terrible position to be in; to have children crying because their mothers have been turned away.”
One of the driving forces behind France’s law is the belief that it prevents integration; that those who wear it are making a deliberate attempt to detach themselves from those communities in which they live.
This is perhaps the hardest argument to counter, particularly since some of those who wear the niqab for religious reasons do describe it as a retreat from aspects of the secular world. Yet Khan could not be more enthusiastic about her homeland. “I am completely Scottish – I was born here and have lived here all my life – I am really proud of my country,” she says.
“If you had a very narrow view of what integration means, that it somehow depends on what people look like, I suppose you could make the case [that it is preventing integration],” says Yaqoob, “but I would say that’s a very wrong interpretation. There are veiled women who are working, picking up their children from school. They are part of their communities.” Mostly though, Yaqoob is frustrated that something which affects so few people is dominating the headlines and making Muslim women feel like outsiders in a supposedly multicultural society.
“Muslim women feel penalised; they don’t understand why they’ve been put in the spotlight for the way they express their faith,” she says. What this debate has done is to give oxygen for negative stereotypes to exist and become bigger and more deep-rooted, and that’s a real shame.”