There is no doubt that the issue of the veil, niqaab, worn by some Muslim women is increasingly featuring in Politics and the media. An MP refuses to see members of his constituency if they wear such a garment, a University Student Union calls to ban it, and the Home Minister insists we have a “national debate” around the issue.
Some commentators have spoken out on the issue, arguing the freedom to wear what we want in public needs to be respected. Simon Jenkins rightly explains a national debate is mirroring the actions of states like France, who made a national decision on the issue. If women wearing the niqaab were committing more crime, if such a garment was genuinely linked to security threats, or if it was counteracting integration, I’d be among the first to support a national debate about the issue. Let’s be honest: as it stands, it just makes us feel a bit uncomfortable.
The majority of Islamic thought describes the niqaab as an additional act of worship, and this has meant different things to women in different lands over time. In the end, women are left to make their own choices about the way they choose to dress, and the results of using our intellect is reflected in the diversity of clothing Muslim women wear on the streets of Britain today. We can’t hide from the fact that some women choose to wear the niqaab, nor should we desire to. What we fail to understand is that this simple act, which causes no harm, is an act of attempted integration. People who stay at home all day and don’t interact with people need to give no thought to what they wear, simply because they are not in the public eye. The niqaab, which is an act of worship, is also the mechanism by which some Muslim women create the right conditions for themselves to interact in, experience and contribute to their societies. Living in a country where the majority of the population is not Muslim, such a decision does not come lightly, and reveals a strength, passion and commitment to their values. Being denied the right to dress how they want, these valuable women will simply retreat from the society which will only benefit from them being active within it. There are certain situations which allow for Muslims to compromise their position on issues, for example, a woman being seen by a male doctor, but beyond exceptional circumstances, they will not compromise. Why should they?
Liberal arguments in favour of banning the niqaab centre on protecting the freedom of women, and emancipating us. Such a stance would stand strong in a society where the niqaab is a symbol and tool of oppression. It makes little sense that such a tool of oppression would be worn publicly by women who are out doing things – working, shopping taking children to school, addressing conferences, changing the world… Again, if it was proved that the niqaab is forced upon women and used to oppress them, I would be among the first to call for a national debate. Admittedly there are cases in the World where the niqaabl is misused, but I think we would struggle to think of any form of practice or idea that hasn’t been misused for personal gain at some point. Those issues need addressing differently.
Calling for a national debate suggests the issue of the niqaab is one that affects everybody, and all have a thorough opinion on the matter. A large proportion of the UK population will never have sat on the same bus as a woman wearing the veil, nor even passed someone in the street. The outcome of a national debate is usually a decision which is made to improve the lives of everybody, yet as mentioned above the outcomes look bleak. We are often encouraged to talk about the ‘elephant in the room’. If you consider the niqaab to be an ‘elephant’, by all means, please discuss it. Such a discussion needs to take place privately, with individuals asking questions about it and increasing their own understanding, which can then be translated publicly. A national debate takes the niqaab away from being an ‘elephant in a room’ into a national crisis or a foreign phenomenon. It doesn’t have the capacity to empower individuals, but will be divisive and alienating. The flourishing of society needs us to work with our similarities, shared humanity and the talents and abilities we all have to contribute. If a woman wearing a niqaab is able to use her humanity, talents and abilities to make the world a better place, why are we politicising her wardrobe? We live in a society which prides itself in being committed to equality of esteem, and where different groups promote and facilitate the conditions under which others can flourish. An approach such as this must be grounded in compassion and respect for the dignity of all others.
I’m an advocate of democracy. I think democracy is a wonderful thing, but we simply don’t have enough of it in the UK. National debates are a form of democratic participation, and we need them on matters that affect everyone and the flourishing of society. So let’s have more of them on things that matter. Let’s have a national debate on the proportion of the budget spent on the army; how to tackle child hunger in the UK; how to ensure economic recovery; on Syria; on welfare reform; on changing teacher’s pay; on ending world poverty; on climate change. These things matter, and they affect everyone. Now.