By Sajda Khan
The face-veil has become the epitome of European xenophobia. Burka and niqab are two terms which are commonly used to describe a face-veil. The niqab is a face-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.
Once again, Britain’s obsession with the face-veil of Muslim women has sparked controversy. Writing in the Telegraph, former foreign minister Boris Johnson said that the attire was oppressive, that it is not in the Qur’an and that he thought it was ridiculous that people choose to go around looking like letter boxes and bank robbers. While Johnson faces an internal Conservative Party investigation, let us be honest; he is not the first and will not be the last to condemn the face-veil. Since the time of colonialism and up until now, there has been a legacy of Western politicians condemning the veil as sinister, misogynist, oppressive, a mark of separation, and the litany goes on. Sadly this trend of Islamophobia has emerged within our society with impunity.
Politicians and people who hold public office should adopt the British values of tolerance and respect in the language they use; making belittling comments about the practices of a culture or religion is a catalyst for the far-right to embolden discriminatory policies. Muslims are already seen as a fifth column and alienated from society, and comments like this do not help with integration but instead, reflect an illiberal and closed society, leaving minority communities susceptible to stigmatization and abuse.
There has already been an increasing number of attacks on women for their visibility of being Muslim women, and as a result, these women are either forced to curtail their freedom to choose to dress how they wish or they are forced out of public life. This suggests that there is no place in Britain for women who choose to wear the face-veil and creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy.
Furthermore, it undermines our values which include individual liberty and respect for other cultures and religions. A liberal democracy is built upon the foundation of respect and upholding the rights of others even if we dislike the choices that they may make. Tolerance is the willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviors that one may dislike or disagree with.
Muslim women choose to wear the face-veil for a myriad of reasons. Some wear it as part of a religious or cultural identity while others do so as a sign of empowerment, or even as a fashion statement. It is true that in some parts of the world Muslim women are oppressed and may be forced to wear the face-veil, and this should be opposed. But to stigmatize women who choose to wear the face-veil is also antithetical to the tenets of a liberal society.
Even within the Muslim community there are some Muslims who are eager to denounce the face-veil because they believe that it is not Islamic and a preposterous choice. Many of these Muslims may even agree with Boris Johnson: that it is right not to ban the face-veil but it is not prescribed within Islam, hence Muslim women should not wear it. They will also argue that the face-veil is an erasure of women and that the ideology that supports it is an antithesis of feminism. It is true that there are no verses in the Qur’an that explicitly state that a woman must wear the face-veil. However, let us not ignore the fact that Islamic law is not simply a literal reading of the Qur’an. We have an entire epistemology: there is the Sunnah of our Prophet Muhammad , and the scholarly interpretations and opinions. Muslim theologians have debated and differed on the issue of the face-veil ever since the era following the death of Prophet Muhammad . Some scholars have held the opinion that it is an obligation to wear the face-veil while others have said a Muslim woman is not obliged to cover her face. For many Muslims then, the face-veil is rooted in Islamic tradition, but they will differ as to whether or not it is compulsory.
The point is though, whether or not one believes the face-veil is a requirement, no one has the right to tell a woman what she should or should not wear. In addition, people on either side of the discourse should not promote an intolerant austere vision. Islam is not monolithic; there are nuances and these should be respected, even if we choose to disagree.
More importantly however, what seems to be deliberately obliterated from the hysteria around the face-veil, is the actual voice of those Muslim women who choose to wear it. Arundhati Roy said: “There is no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the willingly unheard.” So, whether it is Muslims or non-Muslims, let us not disregard the individual choices that many of these women make and let us not adopt an ethnocentric approach to the face-veil, because that is no doubt, an affront to our British values.
I would say, the face-veil in Britain is symbolic of Britain being a diverse, open and liberal society. It demonstrates the ability of the British to be able to absorb differences and to accept foreign customs. Societies are, no doubt enriched by cultural variation. The presence of heterogeneous mores is a sign of pluralism and let us not forget, pluralism is one of the hallowed values of our country. Surely, an ethnocentric approach is clearly an affront to our British values – values that demand a lot more respect than this.
Finally, Muslim women seek fairness, not favors; so, let’s not deny them the individual freedoms that Britain prides itself on.
Sajda Khan is a writer, and is currently completing her PhD on the Seerah and its relevance to the West. She can be found on Twitter as @SajdaKhanUK