Britain’s Debate on the Niqab: My Thoughts

niqabLast week, Turkey’s parliament has allowed female MPs to wear the Muslim veil for the first time since it was banned from public buildings. “There is nothing in parliamentary bylaws that stands as an obstacle to this,” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. “Everyone should respect our sisters’ decision.”

As western countries have growing concerns about the Islamic head coverings, be it the face veil (niqab) or the headscarf, I believe this particular news is a sign in the right direction. I hope the Niqab debate which is now popular in the UK (thanks to Channel 4 and a few MPs) can benefit from Turkey’s example.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, I’m sure you’re all aware of the concerns people are having regarding the Islamic face veil here in the UK. There’s no hiding it or sugar coating it, non-Muslims are voicing their unease of women covered head to toe, walking and talking as British citizens. On the other hand it is obvious to some, and may be less obvious to others how much some of the issues on this topic are being blown out of proportion by the media. Issues are raised from thin air and given emphasis as if they’re major obstacles. Such as ‘the niqab in hospitals’. This is a problem which doesn’t exist within the NHS as far as my research goes. Mainly because any member of the NHS who observes the face veil is clearly aware that she has to take it off when on duty in public buildings simply on the basis of security. This is the type of unnecessary dialogue we certainly want to avoid, we want to deal with real concerns and questions about the face veil and not superficial sensationalism.

Where other countries have already banned face veils, and even minarets, here in Britain we do things differently. We like to discuss, talk, evaluate, dialogue, conversate, debate etc. You get the point, its a very British thing, but it is good thing.

Channel 4 held a discussion/debate on ‘Britain’s niqab‘ at the East London Mosque. With a complete female audience, and Douglas Murray, the only male out of the six panellists, sure it was joy to watch. Especially Murray, watching him sweep in with his generalised statements, but that didn’t surprise me at all. What did surprise me was Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s plea to the audience to ask the Taliban for their opinion on the face veil. The Niqab has been part of Britain for some twenty odd years now or even more. Free thinking, independent Muslim women pick the Niqab today out of their own choice to please their Creator. These are intelligent women of Britain, not blind followers of the Taliban. Her’s wasn’t the only surprisingly absurd contention raised that evening.

In the face of all the issues fired up in the space of 20 minutes, I believe the sisters discussed the topic very well. However, there are some points raised in this discussion that I would like to clarify as I understand them, which in future discussions I am certain can help the debate move forward.

The debate on whether the Niqab is mandatory or not is ongoing even within in Islam. Muslim women do realise this, and they are either of the opinion that it is mandatory or it isn’t. Both opinions are perfectly valid and can be justified. Even women who believe it isn’t mandatory still take it on as free choice. Islam allows this type of freedom of opinion on issues such as this. The argument that the Niqab isn’t mandatory is a misleading one. It should be noted that while majority of Muslims believe it isn’t mandatory, there is a minority which have the view that it is, and both views have to be considered. Also, whether or not the face veil is a cultural practice, it is more important to understand the freedom allowed regarding it in the context of religion and society. To say the face veil is a cultural practice is a false assumption to make. It can simply be validated as a religious practice by looking at basic historical evidence, the wives of the Prophet used to practice it, and it was never refuted or deemed as un-Islamic by the Prophet peace be upon him or by his companions.

Shalina Litt made a very important point. Whose discomfort are we going to favour? As a multicultural society we have to recognise we all live in different ways. We may not like the way one chooses to dress or look a certain way, but at least respect that it is within the boundaries of a diverse community. It is understandable that one can be discomforted by the sight of a face veil, but is it really justified by getting Muslim women to remove them? The discomforted is now comforted and the comforted discomforted, clearly this isn’t a solution. There is a better way, I believe in dialogue and discussion. The more we talk about the issues concerning us the better we understand each other, responsibility belongs on both sides of the fence. Sisters observing the face veil need to understand that parts of the British public are genuinely bothered by it, may see it as a sign of oppression and therefore may be intimidated. It is first and foremost the duty of these sisters to help remove the misconceptions about it, and the best way to go about that is communication. However, those who may not be familiar with the Islamic practice of veiling, should make attempts to understand the philosophy behind the act, ask a sister who veils or enquire about the validity of the niqab in social and religious dynamics. If we want to get to that heart of the issue this is the type of attitude I believe we should be having.

I am not convinced the debate on the niqab is about Muslim exceptionalism. Rather exceptionalism in the context of the religious has been a part of multicultural Britain for many years. It is because of our exceptionalistic society that Britain is the most multicultural and tolerant place to live in the 21st century. Of course there are limits and boundaries, it isn’t apparent that the practice of the niqab is beyond reasonable limits. It isn’t a harmful practice, nor is it worn to offend anyone. By all means if it does offend any person, it shouldn’t be dealt with by speaking against the practice, but by making a positive case for it and highlighting the benefits in it which many Muslim sisters wear it for.

Douglas Murray was of course a delight to watch voicing his simplistic black or white generalisations. His style of arguing was quite an authoritative type, and so he made some startling statements without any real logical reasoning. He first made the assertion that nobody knows who Fatima Barkatullah is due to her face veil. Well I’m sure Channel 4 know who she is, Jackie Long introduced her with name and profession right at the beginning of the debate as she did for the other two veiled panellists. They all spoke clearly and made valid points, and I’m sure everyone understood what they were saying regardless of their head coverings. Sahar Al-Faifi was correct in stating that the majority of the world’s communication isn’t face to face, examples such as Twitter, Facebook, texts and that amazing app called WhatsApp. These are all great examples of how we’ve evolved our preferences of social interaction, we feel just as connected to one another via phone calls and texts as we do face to face. Also picking on Douglas’ point, ‘Muslim women who veil in France have taken it off, is it so negotiable?’. The face veil is negotiable when it is a matter of security, and the reason why so many have taken off their niqabs is not because they wanted to, but simply because they are forced to by the French government. Many cannot afford the fine and therefore have to compromise their religious practice for a law which instead of preventing bigotry and Islamophobia, attracts such qualities.

The debate on the British niqab may be a long one, or we may be distracted by some other news sometime in the near future and forget all about it. But it remains to be seen whether or not Britain will follow in the footsteps of the French and ban the niqab. The niqab is a simple piece of cloth which a Muslim woman chooses to cover her face with in modesty and worship to her Creator. It harms no one nor is it meant to offend anyone. Veiled women still contribute to society and interact with other people on a day to day basis. Douglas was right on one thing, ‘Britain is the most tolerant place to live even as a Muslim’, but if we impose a ban on the veil then we would be taking a step in the other direction. What crucially needs to be recognised, is the veil is misunderstood in parts of Britain and we need to deal with this problem before anything else, people are at unease and concerned, this can only be resolved by dialogue and education, not by a ban. We must consider the rights and concerns of everyone collectively, and we mustn’t force a minority of women in Britain to assimilate to western culture by taking off their covers.

When asked about her hijab by journalists

Tawakul Karman, one of three winners of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

When asked about her hijab by journalists and how it is not proportionate with her level of intellect and education, she replied: “Man in the early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I’m wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times.” – Noble Laureate from Yemen, Tawakul Karman

If a woman chooses to wear the hijab or face veil, it is her right. If she feels she can make a positive impact in society while practicing her it, then what is there to stop her? The people who see it as a barrier? Isn’t it time to realise that faults may lie on the other side of the fence? That the people who see it as a barrier may be ignorant or unaware of why Muslim women practice the hijab, and how they contribute to society?

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.