The Niqab Ban – Rescuing the damsels behind the veil
The altercation surrounding the Niqab (face veil) has dominated front page news in the past couple of days. Home Office minister Jeremy Browne caused the uproar when he stated that a national debate on banning the veil was required to free the women upon which the Niqab is imposed. His comments follow a political row last week when a Birmingham College decided to ban the veil then backtracked after severe criticism. Dr Sarah Wollaston, Tory backbencher, supported his claims by arguing that the veils are “deeply offensive” and are “making women invisible.’
Personally, I had avoided this debate for as long as I could as I feel that this issue is given too much unnecessary attention. Attention that would be better placed and constructive elsewhere. We had the same debate when Jack Straw made his comments in 2006 and here we are again. In my opinion, it appears that some politicians relish this issue in that it automatically stokes up heated conversations around the country. It allows them to distract the public from the pressing matters at hand, have we forgotten that there are approximately 2 million people unemployed in the UK, that given the rise of the tuition fees many students have refrained from applying to university and those that have will complete their degrees with thousands of pounds of debt on their shoulders and the bleak prospect of employment. Have we forgotten that the same government that is calling for a debate on the face veil (which is worn by a tiny minority within the Muslim community) has made significant cuts within Social Care, to such an extent that 88% of social workers think that cuts are putting vulnerable children lives at risk. It appears that when ministers grow overwhelmed by the most urgent matters at hand, the face veil is a form of escapism for them.
So I approach this issue with hesitance and disdain because I have grown tired of discussing it. But I feel that it needs to be laid to bed once and for all. What has particularly incensed me when reading many of the articles written in the past week, is that many have been written by males and females who have either never spoken to a Niqaabi up until this point or who look upon the woman who chooses to wear one in pity. So I took it upon myself to speak to Niqaabi women in Bradford to hear what they had to say. It seems fair that we include the women which this debate truly affects. By speaking for them and assuming that they are oppressed are we not simply committing the same crime of the extremists who silence the women amongst them?
One woman told me she had been wearing a Niqaab for a year, her husband didn’t agree to her wearing it and her family constantly asked her to stop wearing it as they feared of the reactions she would receive in public. Another told me that the first time she wore a Niqab was at the age of 19, she walked to the local greengrocers and was spat at repeatedly until a passerby came to her assistance. She told me she wore it out of choice and the hostile reactions she receives make her stronger and more adamant to keep it on. Another young Niqaab wearer told me that she was fed up with the constant misconception regarding the face veil and argued passionately that she had always fully participated in society, she felt it was her Islamic duty to partake in her community as it was her duty to wear the face veil. She blamed the media for attaching a negative association with the image of the Niqab.
Many of women I spoke to were not forced to wear the Niqab, in fact it was quite the opposite. I do not deny that there are some who are forced to wear it, but by placing a ban on it you are not empowering them, in fact the opposite will occur. Strict families will not tolerate their daughters leaving the house without the Niqab and there will be a restriction in movement. If Jeremy Browne and his loyal supporters are so concerned about the welfare of the oppressed woman behind the face veil they should take into consideration that by truly liberating her the best way to do so is for her to have access to information which will inform her on her rights and allow her to make choices autonomously.
I conclude by asking you this, imagine for a moment that you are a woman, a Muslim woman, you have chosen to wear the Niqab because you feel it is your religious duty to do so and also because you are weary of the patriarchal rules of dress which determine the free woman from the oppressed. Imagine that you have chosen to wear this because it actually liberates you, it forces people to hear your voice and not judge you by your appearance. Now imagine the hostility you experience walking down the street, imagine being spat at, threatened, verbally abused. Imagine you have children with you cowering behind you, all they are learning is that in a country where freedom of equality is paramount this is the reception you receive for practicing your rights of equality. Imagine that the whole country is now in furious debate, people want to rip the veil from your face, they speak on your behalf, they talk of you as though you are a circus act, they claim to want to liberate you but their very words shift you from one ‘oppressive box’ and into another. Imagine the feeling of sheer isolation and marginalisation. The very women Jeremy Browne intends to empower are disempowered.
Sabbiyah Pervez is a writer who writes passionately about issues that affect Muslim women in UK. She blogs here www.Sabbiyah.co.uk