….but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be banned.
I read an article in the Guardian today which asked the question, “Why are so many people obsessed with Muslim women’s clothes?”. In it, the author decried what she termed the ‘obsession’ some people have with policing Muslim women’s choice of clothing.
I think the answer to her question is probably simple on the surface, with a more complex underbelly. The simple answer is that in Western culture, the Muslim practice of wearing hijab (head covering) or niqab (where most of the face is covered), is simply a bit weird and for some of us frightening and disconcerting. The more complex answer is that for some, their aversion to the niqab is mixed with Islamophobia and racism, white feminists are concerned about what it signifies about women’s rights and some people are concerned about what they perceive to be the self-segregation of Muslims in Britain.
The debates over head covering, face covering and abayas, are actually signifiers of something deeper – the fact there is a problem with Islam in the UK. Not a problem with Muslims, or with Islam itself, but specifically a problem when Islam meets Britain. The face Islam in Britain is often a meshing a faith and culture – it doesn’t conjure up pictures of Nigerian schoolgirls in hijabs, but for many Britons, Asian men in traditional dress on the tube,heavily clad women packed inside shops in East Ham or angry crowds protesting down a main road.Somehow, Islam in the UK isn’t fitting very well – a little like a woman on a diet who squeezes herself into skinny jeans that just about fit, but make her somewhat uncomfortable. I think there are myriad reasons why, but that’s a bit of a tangent…
The niqab specifically, is a direct visual confrontation. To some it screams “I am different and I do not care.” Some may see it as aggressive, almost a type of sartorial violence directed at Western values, but I think that’s an oversimplification and probably a bit unfair. Only a small proportion of Muslim women wear the niqab and their wearing of the niqab probably has less to do with rejection of Western values, and more to do with preservation of their own cultural values, and an expression of their faith. Whether this is personal or imposed on them by their family, husbands or community is an important consideration, but to assume so is patronising.
Therefore, banning the niqab due to ‘cohesion’ reasons will probably serve to increase rather than decrease the tension between the Muslim community and wider society. Sure, niqabs make me a bit uncomfortable because in my cultural value system, seeing the face of the other person is important, and covering your face is perceived to be impolite. But the argument of ‘this makes me uncomfortable so you are the problem’, isn’t really good enough.
The question is, when someone of another culture enters the country, how much of British culture should they be required to adopt? Do indigenous British people do the same when they reside in other countries? I can tell you the simple answer to that – not necessarily. If they like the culture, they’ll adopt some of their norms, and if they don’t they’re quite happy to segregate and isolate themselves, refuse to learn the language, and set up a string of fish and chip shops. Do I think either side is right for doing this? No. probably not, but I don’t think you can force cultural groups to interact. People naturally form groups based on commonalities and as long as each group is given equal access and opportunity to resources and is respectful of each other, then perhaps that’s enough.
When Britain terms itself as a ‘tolerant’ society,what it actually means is that it will tolerate people from other countries as long as there is a level of assimilation that Britons feel comfortable with. Yes, Britain is vastly more tolerant than many Muslim countries but only to a point. What is termed ‘tolerance’ is often synonymous with ‘putting up with’ and very often a large dose of ignorance is associated with it. We cannot deny that the Muslim community does have a problem with self segregating, but cohesiveness isn’t a one way street. Non-muslim women wearing mini skirts isn’t exactly awesome for community cohesiveness either, but I wouldn’t say they should stop wearing them because of that. I personally don’t like seeing glimpses of other women’s buttocks on Catford High Street, and it certainly isn’t part of my value system, but I seem to find the strength to carry on with my day despite the affront to my eyes.
I think the main problem with the niqab isn’t one of cohesiveness or vague ideas about multiculturalism, but a simple security issue. It’s quite obvious that any garment which prevents the authorities from seeing your face poses a problem for national and local security. In the same way that hoodies are banned in some local shopping centres, I think it’s perfectly logical that the niqab should also be banned in those same places. It’s perfectly acceptable for a female examiner to ask a women wearing niqab to remove it for identification purposes before a university exam, if necessary. It’s perfectly acceptable for airport security to ask a woman to remove niqab when going through checks.If we’re going to ban niqab from all public places, then logically there would be a ban on balaclavas or simply anyone covering their face in public. If the conversation around niqab was one purely of security and not tainted by mild Islamophobia, I think it would be an easier one to have.
There need to be some difficult conversations about ‘multiculturalism’ in Britain, what that means, and whether or not it’s working. I really don’t think that policing how Muslim women dress in every public space is a good place to start though.
What do you guys think? Should the niqab be banned? Anyone who wears niqab care to comment?