By Sajda Khan (Twitter: @Sajda__Khan)

Why has Britain become so obsessed with an item of clothing known as the niqab worn by a minority of women? In the last few weeks, there has been an influx of media commentaries and heightened discourse on this issue.  Burka and niqab are two terms which are commonly used to describe a face-veil. The niqab, in essence, is a veil covering the entire face leaving the area around the eyes uncovered. The burka covers the whole body, including the face, with a mesh or voile around the eyes.

The row was prompted by Conservative MP Philip Hollobone, who refuses to meet constituents who wear the veil, and in addition tabled a Bill making it illegal to wear 'face coverings' in public.

The Bill states: 'A person wearing a garment or other objects intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.' Following this, a college in Birmingham, introduced a ban on the niqab, citing the need to identify students on campus; a counter protest led to a swift reversal of the decision. Meanwhile, Lib Dem Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne called for a debate on women wearing face-veils in public places arguing: 'We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression.'

A number of European countries have decried the veil as being incompatible with their secular values and they have therefore legislated restrictions that impose fines or imprisonment for those who break the law. Belgium and France have become the first European countries to impose a nationwide ban on the wearing of the face-veil in public.

It is argued that the face-veil should be banned in Britain for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it is a symbol of male supremacy and oppresses women; secondly, it hinders integration and communication; thirdly, it is perceived as a security threat; fourthly, it is not British; and finally, that it is not a religious requirement but a cultural practice adopted by Muslim misogynists to repress women.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston said in the Telegraph last month: 'Women should be clear that the burka is a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation.'

There has been a history of Western politicians condemning the veil as sinister, misogynist and oppressive since the epoch of colonialism. For example, Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer, who served as Britain's first Consul General of Egypt between 1883 and 1907, believed that the veil was degrading for women and a 'fatal obstacle' hence 'mental and moral development' may only be attained by discarding this practice. Countries like Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded on the premise of freeing women from the shackles of oppression but sadly, the plight of women has not improved significantly.

The negative depictions of Muslim women are not a figment of the imagination though; Muslim women do struggle for gender equality and are oppressed in some parts of the world. These misrepresentations have been compounded by a profound ignorance of Islam and some Muslims interpreting the Qur'an to justify sexual oppression, inequality and patriarchy. But is banning an item of clothing going to emancipate these women? Muslim women are oppressed in many other ways, not necessarily by what they wear.

The debate has been exacerbated further with the Health Minister launching a review of the guidelines on face-veils within the National Health Service; surely, there is not an epidemic of veiled professionals in our NHS? Security of individuals is paramount and Muslim women who wear the face-veil are known to comply with security checks; hence there is no need to impose a general ban at airports and other public places. It is also important to acknowledge that we have extremely sophisticated new technologies that use eye recognition and fingerprints – these are more precise than face recognition.

Obsession with this simple piece of clothing is fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment

In their quest to 'liberate' the minuscule number of women who wear the face-veil, Home Office Minister Mr. Browne and others fail to understand that patriarchy and subjugation of women will not be eliminated by banning the veil. In fact, it will further alienate and marginalise them. Forcing women to uncover is inherently antithetical. A ban is self defeating – it will fuel anti-Muslim sentiment and sow seeds of intolerance and resentment in the hearts and minds of society. Those calling for a veil ban in Britain must not be oblivious to the aftermath of Former President Nicolas Sarkozy's draconian legislation in 2011. This has not only stigmatised Muslim women but has been a carte blanche for physical and verbal assaults on them.

One case involved a pregnant 21-year-old in the town of Argenteuil, north-west of Paris, in June last year. The woman was assaulted by two men who verbally abused her, then attacked her physically. Consequently, she ended up having a miscarriage. In addition, only days after Nicolas Sarkozy gave a major policy speech denouncing the burka, Marwa Ali El-Sherbini, a German resident of Egyptian origin, was killed in 2009 during an appeal hearing at a court of law in Dresden, Germany. She was stabbed by Alex Wiens. El-Sherbini was in the dock in a German court giving evidence of how the accused had hurled abuse at her for wearing the headscarf after she asked him to let her son sit on a swing last summer. The very same man strode across the Dresden courtroom and plunged a knife into her 18 times.

The ban in France is a breach of basic freedoms and if put into practice in Britain, will only curtail liberty and freedom of expression.

Religious Requirement or an Archaic Tradition?

There is no denying that in some parts of the world women might be coerced into wearing the face-veil and this is wrong; but there is no evidence to substantiate this being the case in Europe. Most women who veil here do so out of a sense of religious obligation. To curb the practice of forced veiling, legislation should read: 'A ban will be imposed on those women who are deemed to have been forced to cover their face against their wishes' rather than the current ban, which confines the religious and personal freedom of all Muslim women.

The argument that the face veil is not a religious requirement but a relic of an archaic tradition, later adopted by misogynistic Muslims, is not plausible because some of the classical and mainstream scholars of Islam unanimously maintain that the niqab is predicated upon the basic principles of Islamic law. However, there is a difference of opinion amongst the scholars; some are of the view that the niqab is not an obligation, while others consider it to be recommended or permissible.

This difference of opinion is based on the interpretation of the verses in the Qur'an that refer to the dress code of women. One of these verses is as follows:

'…They should draw their head coverings over their bosoms…' [Surah Nur; 31]

Those who say a woman must cover her face use this verse to argue that if God orders a woman to draw her head covering over her bosom, it implies that she will be covering her face. While other scholars state that the verse indicates wrapping the scarf around the face and allowing it to drape over the bosom.

Why is it not British to Ban the Face-Veil?

For Britain to follow the example of countries like France and Belgium and impose a ban, would be detrimental for relations between Muslims and non Muslims, creating an 'us' and 'them' dichotomy. It would further isolate and seclude the very women the ban is supposed to liberate. Treating innocent law-abiding women as criminals is not going to help with integration. Instead, it will increase in polarisation. Banning the face-veil will incarcerate women in their homes; it will deny them access to public space while ensuring continued male dependency; this is blatantly counter-productive to what the ban is trying to achieve.

We are proud of British traditions and values which include freedom of speech, and the freedom to practice one's religious beliefs. Banning the face-veil is not British; a great British tradition is respect for other cultures and religions – for centuries, we have been doing this far better than any other country in the world.

To ban any religious symbol be it the Sikh turban, the Jewish Kippah or the Muslim face-veil is to display narrow-mindedness and reflects an undertone of secular fundamentalism. Liberal democracy is about respect for other cultures and religions. Surely in a free society one must have the autonomy to choose; not to conform?

We need to continue to uphold our core principle of diversity: that means showing respect for difference. A fair and just society for all is built upon the foundation of upholding the rights of others even if we disagree with, or dislike the choices that they may make.

Muslim men who force women to cover and Western politicians who force them to uncover are unacceptable.

If women can chose to wear as little as they like then they should also be able to choose to wear as much as they like. Like other women, Muslim women should also have the independence to choose to wear what they want.

 

Surely the European world is entrenched in a myriad of social, economic and political concerns that have a far greater impact on society than the face-veil worn by a few women?

31 Responses

  1. Haleigh R.

    Asalam alaikum. I find it truly heart-breaking and sickening that a country would ban someones religious freedom. How is the niqab hurting anyone? I personally do not wear it but I support every womans right to do so. I also support their right not to wear hijab or niqab… why is it anyones business but our own what we wear? If I got a full face tattoo I wouldnt catch a country banning me because that would be against my human rights. So why is a piece of cloth so different and harmful? Let women wear what they feel like wearing. Masha Allah, we are all beautiful, no matter what we wear on our heads and faces. This article was beautifully written showing both sides of the issue. Alhamdulilah!

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    • Warren Worthington

      When in Rome? I strongly disagree when banning of affection is disallowed in Muslim countries. Respect of other cultures in their own land and if that means banning the niqab and other face coverings then so be it. What is the culture of the UK it is not wearing the god damn niqab.

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      • Naush Al

        Democracy has always been powered by the freedom that it gives to its citizens…as a democratic country…the UK should not dictate or restrict the dress code of female citizens but rather allow them the choice and freedom of what they want to wear

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    • Roze

      Banning the niqab’s no big deal. Its optional. Muslims should look at the French and UK ban on female circumcision more seriously as it’s obligatory.

      By the way, what we Muslims practice is a very simple thing where only the prepuce of the clitoris is removed, just like in male circumcision.

      Unfortunately we cannot practice it freely as the ban also covers this simple procedure.

      Muslims in the UK and France should campaign to exclude this procedure (known as hoodectomy) from the ban.

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    • DrAnam

      If i may put my 2 cents down, i wonder why we dont support the irani and saudi women’s right to cloth themselves as they please, just as vigorously? Why saudi govt forces even foreigners to respect their customs and wear long abayas?Where does cultural relativism goes when it comes to other muslim countries.? No when it comes to these countries the familiar line of reasoning goes that every society has the right to promote their own set of morals through lawmaking, interesting to see muslims appealing to enlightenment values ,all of a sudden.
      That said western countries should not be dictating dress code to their citizens especially because that will make them no better than the above mentioned Islamic regimes

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  2. nasima

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    • Adnan Musa

      No, you are wrong Nasima, the author has made some great and valid points. You are out of touch with reality.

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  3. Tahira Ali

    Britain was obsessed with the niqab Nasima. The author has stated some true facts and has not fuelled not the matter. Think before you write! The media went hysterical with the niqab debate and it was discussed in parliament – and you say Britain is not obsessed!!!! Where are you living???

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  4. O H

    If a few of the Western countries can ban the Veil, it’s a matter of time before the other European countries emulate them. Birds of a feather….

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  5. mutali

    Masha Allah! This article is summed up beautifully considering both sides of coin. And niqab or hijab, this should be the right of every woman on this earth, although I personally do not wear it, but every woman should be given the right to decide whether they wanna own it or reject it. It is really heart breaking to ban someones religious freedom. And using new technologies for the recognition like eye scanning and fingerprint are much better ways of recognition than the face recognition which can lead to ban on face veil.

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    • Immaculate Conception

      You obviously mean every Muslim woman. Using religious beliefs as a form of freedom from law of the land leads to anarchy- check out you own country or the one your parents came from.

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  6. Adnan Musa

    This is the best article I have read on the face-veil. A truly excellent piece of writing!

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  7. Riz Khan

    I have been always attracted to the romantic concept of a chaste and modest hijabi woman keeping all her beauty, love and loyalty only for her husband. And inshallah one day I would marry such a woman.The islamic conecpt of an ideal home i.e man is bread earner and woman is home maker -both loyal to one another always appeal to me as the most natural and efficient. But let us turn to the other side.. what is hijab? what are its limits?. what our religion say about it? Women are half of our ummah. Are we crippling half of our ummah in the name of hijab? Is the role of a woman according to our religion is only at home or she can perform an active role in the society ?

    For me the picture of a bikini clad western woman with no sense of shame or modesty, is disgusting.. we would/should never allow that to happen to our women but there should be initiative on the part of mainstream Scholars to reform and progress the empowerment of women completely according to the teachings of Islam. We have to reach a balance where the muslim women would be chaste and modest yet free enough to act according to their own will in conformity with the teachings of Islam.

    Britain is a non-muslim country so they would decide about it according to their own circumstances and for their own benefit/advantage. I don’t expect them to do anything for Islam..it is us who have to decide as an ummah on this issue. So can we reach a consensus on the issue of hijab, its limits and impact on women. Too strict would cripple half of our ummah… too liberal and we would be moving towards that bikini clad western woman concept. What can be a ideal balance leading to a confident, dignified and empowered muslim woman with high standards of chastity and modesty. Can we make this dream come true for our sisters, daughters and mothers?

    I consider this article informative.

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  8. Zahrin

    Of all that they could ban “For Security Reasons”: a face veil? What next? No loose clothing allowed? No thick coats in winter…by gosh we could be wrapped with explosives. This ban is absurd beyond belief. Will they start banning huge DKNY leather satchels too…for security purposes? Maybe women don them coz they are forced to carry large amounts of shopping by their menfolks. We never know :D How about for oppressive reasons. Aren’t those so called ‘go go dancers’ in strip clubs forced to wear almost nothing. Humor aside, I really think these folks have gone bonkers about the face veil. Maybe they are so curious to have a peek at our faces!!! Next time I get the chance to meet these architects if the ban…i’ll wear a niqab and ask them if they are curious to have a peek first. Absolutely ridiculous they all are. Well done. Great article Sajda Khan. A well thought out and beautiful read. Thank you.

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  9. Arbab Shazan

    Where in Quran and Ahadeeth it is written that women should wear face veil? It is indeed a symbol of enslavement of women. If it is sin for men to look at a face of woman then it is also a sin for women to look at the face of a man so in this case both men and women should wear face veils.

    UK i a sovereign democratic country and majority of its population’s opinion is against face veil. if you want to live in UK you have to respect their sentiments.

    It is strange that muslims are leaving their own countries and cultures to settle in western countries to enjoy the western freedom and still they want to bring their old fashioned customs with them. Face veil should be banned if it is the opinion of the majority.

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    • O H

      Leave the issue of Hijab and Niqaab and the Fiqh issues relating to it with the scholars and also the implementation of Islamic principles living in the UK to the scholars of UK. Jazak Allaahu Khair

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  10. Dina

    I do agree that banning any item of clothing be it a face veil or short shorts that show off your but cheeks is an infringement on personal autonomy, your individual right to make the choice for yourself. However, it is completely valid to say that a ban on face coverings such as but not exclusively a face veil is over concerns of a security threat. I’m sure you will all recall a recent incident last year when a known terror suspect escaped police observation (a requirement of the law) by wearing a niqab. I do disagree with your argument that banning the face veil would create a ‘them and us’ mindset in the public sphere, this has already been create by the wearing of a face veil. Obscuring your face during social interactions is exceedingly rude in western cultures and creates a physical division between yourself and another person. Although one may see fit to obscure your face when not undergoing social interactions (for example, I would draw my scarf over my nose and mouth when walking if my face felt cold and remove it when I was speaking to a person), it is very impolite to obscure your face when speaking to another person. For this reason, a piece of clothing that obscures the face that is identified with a certain group of people will cause a ‘the and us mentality’, the rough lines of this mentality to flow: they cover their faces while talking to people and are therefore rude, we do not and a therefore less rude. All that said though, it still is not valid to impose an all out ban on a certain item of clothing although it is completely valid for private individuals to ban the item of clothing in a space such as a school, a bank or an airplane that belongs to them if they so choose and muslims/other people who chose to cover their faces should accept this.

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  11. Sally Wells

    Britain needs to become a secular state.
    Primitive religions should have no sway in state laws.
    Religions are left over from humankind’s Age of Ignorance.

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    • Dina

      I whole heartedly agree, however the banning of face covering clothing is not a question of religion unless you choose to make it one, this also has an effect on motor cyclists, zoro enthusiasts, people with facial disfigurements, those who feel the need to wear surgical masks on the street because they are paranoid about catching swine flu and those of us who simply like to cover our face for no apparent reason. Of course this issue should not be fought on religious grounds, and no special considerations for those who are under the impression that their religion demands that they should cover their face. However, it is a question of whether we have the right as individuals to dress in any way which we see appropriate.

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  12. Muslim

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    • May my peace be in you

      Hey Muslim, why are you here, do you enjoy our way of life, the welfare benefits, the freedoms that are denied you in your own country. The people have voted for our politicians and their will is the will of the majority so what will you do now, start a riot like one’s seen in the Syria. To quote a very brave woman who stood up to a very sick Muslim who I bet is enjoying his life in prison with free accommodation, heating, food and probably lots and lots of free and unwanted sodomy. “you will lose”

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  13. Yasar Waheed

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  14. Terrence R

    Western culture needs manners and modesty as of old but why is it only women that need to cover up? Who says this? I tell you who men. Ladies ask your menfolk to wear a veil and see how far you get and also ask them to walk behind you!

    *Name has been changed to comply to our Comments Policy*

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    • Umm ZAKAriyya

      Terrence :

      Men and women have always been covering up differently due to ‘modesty’. This is an innate desire.
      Even without the influence of religion or men.
      Western women too dress differently in terms of modesty when compared to men .

      Ask an educated ,confident, atheist man and woman to take their tops off to bare the chest . The man would do it , but not the woman.!

      As a muslim , we don’t cover up because men ask us to , but because God commands us our dress code in the presence of men who are NOT our husbands,fathers,sons,brothers,uncles,father in law …..

      Who better to tell us what modesty is than the ONE who created us ?!

      In presence of our close male relatives and women, we wear regular clothes without the hijab/ outer cloak with scarf.
      So as you see,Unlike the nuns, we don’t wear it all the time.

      Our submission is God is such that even if our men(eg: husband) force us to not wear the hijab or worship God,we would even go to the extent of separating from our husbands .
      Because our obedience is NOT to men , but The Creator.

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    • Umm ZAKAriyya

      This is the entire list the quran mentions :

      …….except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! Turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.” [Q 24:31]

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