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Niqab debate: ‘Sometimes you have to force people to be equal’

The Daily Mail, Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun and Guardian all featured opinion pieces questioning the logic behind the decision with some writers expressing outright Islamophobic and racist views.

For more coverage of the niqab counter narrative, visit our new page ”Anit-Niqab agenda”

Birmingham Metropolitan College’s decision last week to reverse its ban on the veil was met with outcry and condemnation in many of this weekend’s newspapers with some politicians and columnists taking umbrage at the policy reversal.

The Daily Mail, Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun and Guardian all featured opinion pieces questioning the logic behind the decision with some writers expressing outright Islamophobic and racist views.

Newspaper commentary is supplemented with political interventions with Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, calling for a ban on the wearing of the veil in public places and Conservative MP for Totnes, Dr Sarah Wollaston, urging national guidance on the wearing of face veils in Britain.

Commentary on the niqab, fusing the events at Birmingham Metropolitan College and Blackfriars Crown Court last week, comes thick and fast in the papers with pieces by Theodore Dalrymple, (whose real name is Anthony Daniels), in the Daily Telegraph, Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent, Sarah Wollaston pens a guest column for the Daily Telegraph, Victoria Coren-Mitchell in The Observer and Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail.

Dalrymple pens a piece peppered with incendiary phrases, referring to the student protests that prompted the college to back down “religious thuggery” while questioning whether events herald “…the triumph of a regressive view of human existence whose adherents use the rights and protections of a liberal society to destroy those very rights and protections, with the ultimate aim of imposing an intolerant vision on the world?”

An “intolerant vision of the world”, which Dalrymple elsewhere in his column refers to as “aspiring totalitarianism”.

Indeed, for Dalrymple “niqab is symbolic of a strong desire not to integrate in Western society” and manipulate by Muslim women who seek to fuse “medievalism with modernity”.

Unwilling to accept that Muslim women would choose to veil their faces, Dalrymple insists that many “wear it often because they have little choice and are coerced”.

On the question of choice or coercion, Sarah Wollaston wades in complaining of what we are to do with those “…once the niqab becomes an accepted norm, are pressured into compliance as a badge of piety or purity? It would be naive to think that a thirteen year old would have complete freedom to reject family or peer group pressure.”

For Wollaston, the niqab places on the majority the responsibility to insist on “our cultural belief that women should fully and equally participate in society…Women should be clear that the burka is a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation.”

One can only wonder at how many Muslim women who wear niqab and burqa Wollaston has spoken to in reaching her conviction that it is “a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation”?

These sentiments are echoed by Melanie Phillips in her last article for the Daily Mail, in which she argues “…the over-riding rule of a liberal society is that minority customs should be tolerated — but only if they do not interfere with the values of the majority.”

But as Jogchum Vrielink in an article for Open Democracy wrote, in a review of the burqa ban in Belgium, “Fundamental rights ultimately exist to protect minorities, unpopular minorities in particular, against the tyranny of the majority. A boundary is crossed when rights of individuals are simply sacrificed to majority sentiments.”

It is a point worth reinforcing to those who use arguments on the values of ‘liberal’ democracies to undermine the rights of women to exercise liberty in practising religion in the way they choose.

Such is the tack taken by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, who in a column in The Independent argues the ‘choice’ exercised by women is the result of an ideology “well funded by sources based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states” in which “manmade injunctions [are] followed by unquestioning women”.

But as numerous interviews with women who wear face veils show, they are certainly not to be regarded as ‘unquestioning’ in the choice they have made.

Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun treads a similar path, decrying the College’s move of caving in to “intolerant fanatics” and being “dragged back to the dark ages of superstition and repression.”

In a confused piece which draws together such disparate issues as ‘honour’ killings, female genital mutilation and forced marriage, Kavanagh claims the niqab and burqa “are first and last an overt testimony to male oppression. The imply women are property. Objects with no public identity outside the household, controlled at all points in their daily lives by fathers, husbands, or brothers.”

In an amusing irony, Kavanagh’s column appears alongside The Sun’s editorial column in which the paper celebrates the fact that half of Liberal Democrat councillors “DON’T want to ban page 3”. 

Kavanagh laments feminists’ silence on the college decision, but it would seem his interest in feminist opinion extends only to opinions on the niqab.

Nick Clegg, adding to comments made last week on the College’s ban making him “uneasy”, adds:

“My own view, very strongly held, is that we shouldn’t end up like other countries issuing edicts or laws from parliament telling people what they should or should not wear.

“This is a free country and people going about their own business should be free to wear what they wish. I think it is very un-British to start telling people what pieces of clothing they should wear.

“I think there are exceptions to that as far as the full veil is concerned – security at airports for instance. It is perfectly reasonable for us to say the full veil is clearly not appropriate there.

“And I think in the classroom, there is an issue of course about teachers being able to address their students in a way where they can address them face to face. I think it is quite difficult in the classroom to be able to do that.”

Other prominent opponents of the ban include Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, who thinks an outright ban on the veil in public needs to be debated. The minister tells the Daily Telegraph:

“I think this is a good topic for national debate. People of liberal instincts will have competing notions of how to protect and promote freedom of choice,”

“I am instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice. That would apply to Christian minorities in the Middle East just as much as religious minorities here in Britain.

“But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married. 

“We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression.”

In all the comment pieces written, the most sensible contribution comes from Victoria Coren-Mitchell, writing in The Observer, about her own wrestling with conventions and patriarchy.

Reflecting on her ‘veil epiphany’, Coren-Mitchell writes:

“That it’s a strong and happy choice; that their grandmothers (or young cousins in Saudi Arabia) might not have had that choice, but they do in Britain today and they make it in glad and grateful acknowledgement that it isn’t mandatory.”

Noting the ‘false choices’ all women are made to make, Coren-Mitchell reflects on her own choice to adopt her husband’s surname and the feminist reaction such choices elicit vacillating between 
“oppressive when it’s obligatory, but confident and happy as a choice”.

Seeing her own dilemma in the eyes of Muslim women who choose to veil their faces, Coren-Mitchell describes her epiphany: “I will recognise her as very familiar – only, perhaps, having made her choices more decisively than I make mine.”

Perhaps a glaring omission in all the commentaries written is the viewpoint of women who veil their faces. Let’s hope, should a national debate be sparked on the issue, that their voices, so absent in the media, are granted the public space to challenge perceptions of their subjugation, oppression, stunted careers etc…

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  1. It is normal to dislike something that looks scary. There was a man who just recently entered the haram in Saudi Arabia wearing a strange medieval Turkish Islamic dress. He had a trimmed moustache and a large beard too. He was removed from the Kaaba because the Muslims in the haram got scared, even though he was wearing a traditional Islamic dress. I don’t blame Britishers from getting scared of the niqaab and asking it not be worn. It is a very scary dress when looking at it from a Western stand point. It reminds Western people of the ninjas in Chinese movies about to pounce at you from a tree top. But it may be suitable in a very few Eastern countries.

    • Forgive me if this may sound harsh but you are coming across as spectacularly ignorant… You remind me of a caricature sh Yasir Qadhi paints in this talk: where someone would criticise Muslims for eating meat, just because his culture sees this as something abhorrent.

      Do not be a sheep who unquestioningly takes the dominant narratives of the culture around him or her to be gospel and then proceed to criticise Muslims based on that arbitrary standpoint. Consider this:
      – Samy Merchant in 1920s Germany would criticise Muslims for opposing the extermination of Jews, Gypsies and disabled people
      – Samy Merchant in the pre-magna carter “West” would criticise Muslims for telling people to stop drowning or setting fire to those accused of crimes in lieu of an evidence based trial
      – Samy Merchant in 1950s USA would criticise Muslims for opposing the treatment of black people
      – Samy Merchant in the pre-1840 “West” would criticise Muslims for wasting water on silly things like washing their hands
      – 2014 Samy Merchant probably doesn’t have a problem with all of the above, however is it because the culture around him/her happens to share the Muslims’ values on the above now?

      If Samy Merchant of 2014 disliked the niqab then maybe we should just wait a few years and perhaps tomorrow he or she will change his or her views when the popular opinion of society around him/her grows wiser and changes to accept the brilliance of this and other Islamic values. In all of the above examples it would be the Muslims who held firm to their principles that would be seen as ‘backward’, ‘strange’, ‘extreme’, and so forth; it is the Samy Merchants of those eras who have now been shown to be on the wrong side of history, so it follows that Muslims should just hold fast to their values instead of letting their values change according to whichever way the wind of popular culture blows them.

      You might feel the urge to write a knee-jerk response saying those things you dislike about Muslims are not from their religion but culture, and so on and so forth. But before you do that, PLEASE just read an article about the Niqab (for example) if not a book of fiqh, just so you are aware of what you’re actually arguing about.

  2. That’s what you get from all them “liberalists” but in fact Satan is hiding behind them.

  3. Iftikhar Ahmad

    Why insult Muslim women who wear the niqab (veil) by presuming that they are incapable of making a personal choice, and that they must’ve been forced to wear it? Those Muslim women who wear the veil do so because it is something that was practised by the Prophets wives, and thus for them it is religiously motivated. Whether you agree with them or not, is besides the point. It is their right to wear what they want!

    Where is the evidence to support the claim that Muslim women wearing the niqab have indeed been forced? Where are the surveys? Where is the independent research and study to support this presupposition? There isn’t any! Some Muslim women genuinely wear the veil as it is something that was practised by the Prophets wives, and thus for them it is religiously motivated. Whether you agree with them or not, is besides the point. It is their God given right to wear what they want!

    There is far more evidence to support the view that non-Muslim women are pressured through cultural media such as magazines and movies to show as much flesh as possible, and to reduce themselves to mere eye candy for the opposite gender. As a result, we have far more impetus to discuss problems such as anorexia and other diet/image related health issues, but here we are talking and wasting time on a matter which concerns possibly a few thousand women scattered around the UK.

    Muslims account for less than 3% of the UK population, of which maybe 0.1% or less wear the veil. Given the extreme irrelevance of such a topic and the fact that there is no independent research to support the view that the veil is indeed forced upon Muslim women, I I am shocked at amazed at the amount of disproportional attention the veil receives in the press and at the level of Government. It is clear that this topic is nothing but a distraction to keep the public on the side of hate and prejudice against a segment of the UK population, and to keep their eye off the ball on more pressing matters such as the economy, foreign policy, health and other such matters which are more deserving of our attention!

    There is no law that prohibits the veil. Only your opinion opposes the veil. Therefore your logic is flawed. ALL men and women should be allowed to wear what they want in accordance to their beliefs. Of course, given certain circumstances such as the courtroom, in a bank or when going through airport security, it may well be arguable that the veil should be temporarily removed out of necessity. But an outright ban is nothing but extreme and unjustifiable.

  4. These people claim to be liberal and claim that religion tells people what to do.

    They’ve shot themselves in the foot now in attempting to ban the niqab- as they only liberalise those things which they desire (gay marriage/gambling and late opening hours for pubs)

    Their own arguments now work against them. Secularism offers less freedom and choice than religion for 2 key reasons:

    1) They cannot tolerate other people’s way of life and seem to want to dictate to others how they should live far more so than religious people. It is not religious people filling column inches with hate speech and discrimination but secularists.
    2) the things that they liberalise directly oppress others: a child brought up in a household where their parents drink/gamble or have given them HIV has far fewer choices in life.

    These people are ridiculous.

  5. Do you smell an election round the corner? It is time for minority bashing to appease bigoted/ignorant voters.

  6. Haresh Ackbarally

    Assalamualaikum. Me and Myself have tried to make SENSE

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