The Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, has said today (17th September, 2013) that we should have an open debate about whether the niqab, which is the face covering portion of the Burqa (the all encompassing garment often seen covering Muslim women from head to toe), can be worn in public places.
Absolutely! By all means let’s have a debate. But what are those in favour of allowing the niqab to be worn in public likely to say? They will reliably argue that it is a matter of religious freedom, freedom of expression, and tolerance. They will tell us that Muslim women who wear the veil do so out of choice. And they will say that it does more harm to ban it because doing so will be a hindrance to cross cultural relations (in fact the ever feeble Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has already offered this defence of the niqab).
So is this just about freedom and civil rights? We must first un-muddy some waters. Liberty and tolerance do not require one to turn a blind eye to everything. If they did, we wouldn’t require a police force. Freedom of speech is a wonderful and precious cornerstone of our culture, worthy of vigorous defence, but we do not allow people to say literally anything, and for good reason. One cannot incite or threaten violence. One cannot even incite hate without some constraint. Would we, for example, allow a media campaign recommending the boycott of all Jewish stores, as was done by the Nazis in the early 1930’s? Of course not. We do however allow campaigns for the boycott of certain stores if, for example, it is discovered that their suppliers use child labour abroad or test their products on animals. The distinction should be clear; the latter is aimed at a faceless corporation that can immediately adapt its ethical behaviour (i.e. switch suppliers), whereas the former targets human beings distinguished only by that which they cannot change and did not choose, such as race, ethnicity or sexuality.
Further to this, we can easily see that we do not allow religion ‘carte blanche’ either. Liberal societies are all broadly in agreement on the need to resist the imposition of Shari’a – Islamic religious law that often condemns criminals to brutal, medieval punishments and prejudices against woman, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in legal matters, particularly where sex crimes, divorce, domestic violence, child custody or inheritance are concerned. We do not allow apostates to be murdered, as is demanded by most interpretations of Islamic doctrine. We certainly do not allow people to be killed for working on Sundays, as the Bible recommends. Both Yahweh and Allah are clearly for slavery and against homosexuality, but thankfully our laws reflect the opposite view. So we must do some more thinking – to simply cry (religious) freedom doesn’t cut it.
Is this a feminist issue? Yes it certainly is, but the other way about to how the argument is often formed. Make no mistake, the niqab is a garment promoted by men, in the name of Islam, to protect their honour:
“Tell your wives and your daughters, and believing women, to draw their veils over their bodies. It will be better that they should be known as respectable woman.” (Quran 33:59)
Many Muslim men (not all) feel their honour is dependent on how submissive the women in their lives are because they believe, on the basis of religious scripture, that women are essentially their property – objects that can be bought and sold (think dowry – selling their daughters to other men in arranged, forced marriages), objects that must represent and serve the men who own them before themselves, and of course objects used for breeding. To protect such misogyny beneath a cloak of feminism is an obnoxious insult to the extremely vital cause of real sexual equality. It is also a form of cultural snobbery, as it suggests that western feminists believe freedom and equality to be indispensable for themselves but not necessarily for Muslim women – the soft bigotry of low expectations.
It is true that some Muslim women defend their right to wear the niqab, but then sadly it is also true that some Muslim women also defend and participate in the forced marriages, honour killings and genital mutilations of their own daughters. No one of sound moral judgement argues that these are feminist issues. It’s therefore impossible not to conclude that these women are just scared. Scared of the men in their lives or scared of Allah – a fictional character whose lines were written by men, all too often with the express purpose of subjugating women. In this regard, we may also wish to ask ourselves whether our real responsibilities lie with women who yearn for freedom or with those who are glad of their chains.
We also often hear western feminists explain to us that not every woman wants to present the image of herself that the more revealing end of western style clothing can generate. This is perfectly reasonable of course, but it is remarkably easy not to conform to western ideals, or to otherwise remain inconspicuous, without wearing a cloth bag, with only a thin slit for seeing through, for the whole of your adult life. Millions of women manage it every day. However, only Muslim women dress as shown in the photo at the start of this article. It is the urgent responsibility of all of us to wake up and realise why. Quite frankly, I find it remarkable that the fact that no one else, anywhere in the world, with a genuine free choice dresses in this manner doesn’t raise more alarm bells.
Is banning the niqab worth the consequence of creating more tension in our relationship with Muslims here in the West? We need only ask if it was worth upsetting slave masters by releasing slaves from their chains. It is difficult to think of a more selfish and lethargic approach to social reform than to effectively say “scenario A is really bad for them, but scenario B isn’t great for me, so let’s keep scenario A.” The journey we must actually embark upon is a far grander and more ambitious one than that. With freedom comes great responsibility.
It should be clear to all moral, thinking people that the effacing of women via the niqab (as opposed to the covering of their hair and bodies in the form of the hijab) is a form of violence and oppression against women, and as such has no place in any society, anywhere.
“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence”
– Christopher Hitchens