Monday 19 July 2010

What Not To Wear?

I've always suspected that most people who get so upset about a woman wearing a veil, so angry that they demand it is banned, also happen to live in areas where seeing a Muslim woman, never mind one whose face is covered, is incredibly unusual.

Even living and working around Forest Gate and Upton Park in east London as I do, a full Afghan burqa is still a rarity, although the niqāb (face veil) is fairly common, so much so that now it barely registers (see here for the differences in terminology). The only time it always does, or at least it did until March when I was knocked off my bike and forced through injury to walk everywhere, is when I'm cycling around the borough. I'm sure that other cyclists are, from experience, wary of niqāb-wearing pedestrians stepping out in front of them due to the restrictions the garment places on peripheral vision.

The controversy about the niqāb really took off with Jack Straw's remarks in 2006 and has rumbled on ever since. Rarely has it been constructive and overwhelmingly it has used by racists as a convenient means of expressing anti-Islamic prejudices. It has be reignited by last week's vote in the French parliament's lower house to ban face-covering veils, a decision expected to receive approval in the Senate in September.

Now the new government in Britain seems divided on the issue. First the Tory MP for the predominantly middle-class, rural constituency of Kettering, Philip Hollobone, is conducting a futile attempt to introduce a Private Member's Bill that would make it a criminal offence to wear a veil in public. Now today, the press has reported comments by the new Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, which appearing to describe the choice to wear the veil as "empowering".

I'm sure that Spelman, with the best of intentions, was simply trying to counter the bigotry that exists in her own party, hamfistedly expressing the view that banning the veil would run counter to the freedom to choose what to wear. But her comments about empowerment are still rubbish.

Even if the decision to chose to wear a niqāb is made freely and without pressure, it can never be truly 'empowering', because it is based on a deeply conservative cultural view of the position of women in society, one that restricts personal, social and economic freedom outside the confines of the home. Face-covering is not simply a fashion statement, as Spelman's comments seem to suggest, but a religious one that encourages a separation between the supposed world of men (the public space or the community) and that of women (the private space or the family). It is therefore a symbol of patriarchal oppression and, where it is strictly enforced by men in conservative communities, an instrument of oppression too.

That doesn't mean that the veil should be banned, although it does mean that anyone who chooses not to wear a niqāb must receive legal protection from those who try and insist that they should. Once the state starts deciding what its minorities can or cannot wear, it can target anyone: the garb of the Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill, for example, or Sikh turbans, or the plain dress of the small German sect based in Forest Gate (when it comes to appearance, one of the most diverse communities in London is even more diverse than you might expect).

I've always thought it is revealing that most people who get so upset about a woman wearing a veil, so angry that they demand it is banned, have an awful lot in common with those men who seek to police the customs and behaviour of 'their' Muslim communities. Both have a rigid, narrow view of what a a religious and cultural identity represents and both fail to understand that within broad religious perspectives, people interpret their beliefs in a variety of different ways - sometimes regrettably by embracing oppressive customs and more often by creating new codes and traditions.

When it comes to religion, it's not about needing to understand the views of others, but about tolerating them, no matter how absurd they may sometimes seem. I'm sure plenty of Muslims find my atheism incomprehensible - but if people don't tell me what not to think or say then I won't tell them what not to wear.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

It matters not whether you think wearing of the Niqab,Burka, veil is open to the individual to choose. What is relevant is the fact that regardless of Caroline Spelman and her fashionista perspectives, they will be banned throughout Europe before long. Private members bills or not all EU countries have signed up to the digital image bill and that means that EU citizens have to have their faces shown so that they can be monitored and Identified.

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