The Great Niqab Debate

July 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Great Niqab Debate is back. Recently Belgium voted to ban the face veil in public, now it’s once again a hot topic in the French government’s debate chambers. It should be banned, the popular argument goes, because it singlehandedly demeans women, robs them of their dignity, offends secular, democratic values etc etc etc. Well, I don’t know about all that, but that piece of cloth certainly inspires a lot of talk and a lot of political gesturing.

Around 3 years ago, Jack Straw stated that he felt uncomfortable talking to niqab-wearing constituents and asked those who came to see him to remove their face covering. I have to say, I fully sympathised – and continue to sympathise – with the sentiment. It can sometimes be difficult, in a society where face-to-face interaction does suggest that one should be able to see the face of the person they’re talking to, to find yourself communicating with a voice behind a screen of cloth.

But, oddly enough, I found myself in the uneasy position of being asked if I would be willing to be interviewed on the subject for the student newspaper. Now – the whole thing was coincidental – I happened to be in the right (wrong?) place at the right (wrong?) time – leaving Edinburgh Central Mosque whilst a girl from the student newspaper was talking to the rather amazing woman who basically runs the mosque. Partly because I find it impossible to say no to that particular lady, and partly because of an unexpected sense of obligation, I agreed. It was not the easiest thing in the world.

Perhaps, for context, I should say a bit about myself. I am a woman. And, by birth and conviction, I am a Muslim. I have very strong – arguably “controversial” – ideas about what this means. I don’t cover my hair, let alone my face – I certainly don’t believe my faith can be reduced to such outward symbols. And I absolutely hate the fact that virtually every society in our world is obsessed with women’s bodies and they way they dress. Perhaps if not for this, I would at least embrace the hijab, the headscarf, simply for the comforting sense of belonging and identity it affords a Muslim woman in a non-Muslim society. On the other hand, I have full respect for any woman who exercises her basic right to choose what she wears and how she presents herself in public. And, at the same time, I am completely torn on the niqab.

On one level, it seems almost incomprehensible to me that a woman would choose to cover herself from head to toe, often in black, in clothing that seems entirely impractical for going about her day-to-day business. On the other, the concept of complete covering in a society which judges women almost without exception on their appearance might well be read as the most explicit of feminist statements.* But, then I have to ask – is any of this relevant?

In the debate over the niqab, is it feminism that’s at stake? Is it secularism? Is it religion? Ultimately, I think the answer is no. What IS at stake is far simpler than any overarching ideology – it is the basic concept of a woman’s right to choice – her right to choose how to express herself and her identity, how to dress, how to participate in society, how to be herself. Yet, in the climate we live in, the niqab has somehow become a key political symbol on all sides of the debate. For those who would try to ban it, the niqab is seen as dangerous not because it supposedly “robs” women of their dignity – but because it is perceived as a symbol of rebellion, non-conformism, a refusal to bow to so-called cultural norms. For those who would enforce it, here and abroad, it is a way of clinging to something that sets a group apart from those who would try to change your “identity”, reject your culture, impose their will – an outer expression of resistance or authority, if not both. Ultimately, it seems to have become little more than a symbol thrown about as the various parties attempt to reassert their control.

But when there are women who do choose to wear a niqab, for whatever reason, surely the issue is far simpler – it is about choice, about the right to decide, for yourself, how you want to live your life – as long as you are not infringing the basic rights of others. In every ‘free’ society, there has to be a balance between exercising your rights and respecting the rights of others. In this case, as far as I can see, women choosing to wear niqab are not harming anyone (we can hardly keep banning things just because they make others uncomfortable!), while banning it would be taking away their right to freedom of religion** and expression. It would be so obvious if the debate were really just about liberation…

* This is absolutely NOT intended to wash over the fact that, even in Europe, instances do exist in which women are forced to cover by various levels of familial/societal (often male) pressure. For the record, this is in my view a pretty strong reason against banning it in public – surely such a move would further isolate niqabi women from the public sphere?

** I know the vast majority of Muslim schools of thought say that the niqab is not an essential part of Islam, but something that predates it, and this is often used in support of a ban. However, I think the argument is irrelevant, as understanding and practice of faith are very personal matters…

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