One of the multitudinous quasi-reasons given by a certain Conservative MP in the UK and many others for why Muslim women shouldn’t wear the niqab is that it is, in the words of one observer, ‘a blatant obstacle to integration’. This seemingly unequivocal (and ‘factual’) statement is trotted out not only by right-wing MPs, but many a Muslim called upon by the media to offer their two pence worth in the debate. The argument may hold some water if only someone were able to define quite what integration is. Of course there is a lexical meaning which defines integration as “the bringing of people of different racial or ethnic groups into unrestricted and equal association, as in society or an organization…” Or, indeed, as in Tito’s communist Yugoslavia or Zhivkov’s Bulgaria, which of course Britain isn’t, or isn’t supposed to be. To start to address this argument one would start by having to define integration in our context, only to stumble across the first hurdle – there isn’t a consensus definition for integration in the sense that it is being used.
The authors of a report on integration commissioned by the Home office and carried out by a team at the University of Oxford, are a bit more honest about how unambiguously the term can be used as it is:
…it must be emphasised that there is no single agreed understanding of the term ‘integration’’
Castles et al are also helpful in dispelling the ‘when in Rome’ notion of integration:
“Integration is a two-way process: it requires adaptation on the part of the newcomer but also by the host society. Successful integration can only take place if the host society provides access to jobs and services, and acceptance of the immigrants in social interaction. Above all, integration in a democracy presupposes acquisition of legal and political rights by the new members of society, so that they can become equal partners. Indeed, it is possible to argue that, in a multicultural society, integration may be understood as a process through which the whole population acquires civil, social, political, human and cultural rights, which creates the conditions for greater equality. In this approach, integration can also mean that minority groups should be supported in maintaining their cultural and social identities, since the right to cultural choices is intrinsic to democracy.”
With this elucidation, the onus of integration, at least in part, is placed not upon those being integrated as much as it is upon the host society. However, herein lays another dilemma. Much of the discourse regarding integration deals with the issue of migrants, refugees and ethnic minorities integrating into society. What then of third generation “immigrants” who are British and may already have been ‘integrated’ and then decide to wear the veil? Or of white British Muslims upon whom many of the parameters of ‘integration’ do not apply? One politician on a radio interview cited the veil as being discourteous to the ‘host society’. What then if the lady behind the veil is an Emma with a double-barrelled surname who is very much part of the ‘host society’? Many cannot accept the notion that the women wearing the veil are in the main not refugees who have been forced to wear it under duress, but British women who have chosen to wear it out of religious conviction.
Castles et al helpfully contribute to the discourse by setting out a list of criteria against which the degree of integration can be measured – a sort of checklist of indicators that determine the extent of integration with indicators of education, training and employment; social integration; health, legal , political and overall integration. The irony is that there may be women wearing the veil who may tick all the boxes by being educated, working in the public and services sector, voting and being good neighbours, yet be considered not to have integrated because of the niqab. Furthermore, if the veil is an obstacle to integration, the implied meaning by those who use this word loosely is that they will not be able to integrate at all, whilst in the academic sense of the word they may be more integrated into the workings of British society than many thousands of young white working class English (the so-called ‘Chavs’) whose integration may never been questioned on the basis of their appearance. For a politician to assert that Muslim women are not integrated because they wear the niqab and do not converse with male strangers on a street is somewhat of an over-simplification to say the least.
One of the problems in the discourse is that whilst often referring to integration, many of its proponents actually mean assimilation, a totally different concept and certainly not one to be expected in what is supposed to be a democratic country in a post-colonial era that has described itself as being multicultural As expounded on by Professor Modood (University of Bristol), assimilation involves the ‘newcomers’ becoming as much like their hosts as possible while not disturbing the host society, with the least change in the attitudes of the latter. Integration is a two-way process, while assimilation is a one-way process. What is regrettable is that it is the voices within the Muslim community that are the most vocal advocates of assimilation (whilst still talking of ‘integration’) to an extent that even the generality of British society does not demand of Muslims in 21st century Britain.
There are many reasons for this, and certainly one of them is a pathological sense of inferiority that has persisted, albeit in subtle form and especially amongst South East Asian communities, despite decades having elapsed from the end of colonial rule where the subjugated Asian held the white Sahib in awe. There is a subliminal message that in their difference, there is somehow something superior about British society and Muslims are to integrate upward in to it – in contrast to a lateralised mutual accommodation – and adopt its ways, and aspects of Muslim culture are looked down on and denigrated as being inferior. The niqab and the Muslim women’s dress is certainly a case that illustrates this conflict, what with it being described as medieval and backward. A certain lack of confidence in their own heritage makes many Muslims echo these same sentiments.