Give me one good reason why a woman shouldn’t be allowed to cover her face in public if that’s what she wants to do. You don’t object to her covering her buttocks, do you, or her breasts? Do you find it offensive if a woman wears sunglasses? And anyway, what’s it got to do with you?
Yes, I deliberately phrase the questions provocatively. I do so because I find the amount of cant that’s been spoken and written on the subject of the “Muslim face veil” (note the first adjective, to which we shall return) frankly ridiculous.
Oh, and before you ask, yes, I do think this is an important issue, even though only a tiny, tiny number of women in Britain choose to wear the niqab, or face veil. It’s important because it’s about what kind of society Britain wants to be in the 21st century. There’ll be other opportunities to return to Syria, Iran, Germany, and even the Lib Dems. This week, I want to write about women’s faces.
Here goes. Reason one: “It’s not acceptable for people to cover their faces in public so that they can’t be recognised.” Really? So should we ban men wearing hoodies or face-concealing crash helmets? Women wearing outsize sunglasses even in the pouring rain? Anyone wearing a face mask because they’re scared of catching flu from someone on the bus? I think not.
Reason two: “It’s a symbol of male oppression of women and often imposed on women by fathers and/or husbands as a means of control.” Well, yes, sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. Some women’s fathers/husbands insist that they wear skirts below the knee, or long sleeves — but is clothing choice really a matter for legislation? And if you argue that even when women choose to cover their faces of their own free will, it’s only because they wish to avoid lascivious male attention — well, isn’t that why women cover their breasts?
Reason three: “It makes me feel uncomfortable because it’s entirely alien to who we British are.” Hmm. Who’s “we” in that sentence, I wonder? We, the British Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill, where the women wear wigs and woollen stockings, and the men wear long frock coats, wide-brimmed hats and side-curls? We, the British Sikhs of Coventry or Leicester, who wear turbans? Or we, the British Catholic nuns who wear cowls and wimples?
I’m old enough to remember the rows over whether Sikh bus conductors should be allowed to wear turbans instead of peaked caps, and whether Sikh motor-cyclists should be allowed to roar around the streets without crash helmets. I remember the debates over whether schoolgirls from Pakistani backgrounds should be allowed to wear trousers to school, or special swimming costumes for their swimming lessons. I thought we’d moved on, and that Britain had learned to accept that minorities have rights too.
Reason four: “It’s important to be able to identify people, and you can’t do that if you can’t see their face.” True, so in those circumstances — in airports or police stations or court-rooms, for example — where identities need to be checked, you can easily make arrangements to enable women with covered faces to reveal themselves in a private place. (We don’t expect women travellers at airports to be body-checked by men, so if their wishes can be met, why not those of niqab-wearers?)
As for teachers, doctors or nurses, or others whose jobs entail dealing with members of the public, if it’s an issue, write it into their contract. The vast majority of Muslim women do not cover their faces, so I see no problem with religious discrimination legislation in saying: “You want to work as a teacher, or a doctor? Fine, no face veil.” (By the way, even in ultra-strict Iran, contrary to mythology, women are not required to cover their faces.)
I find it intriguing that most of the people who sound off on this issue are men. Why do they feel so threatened by women who don’t want their faces to be looked at? Why do they think it’s any of their business? Personally, I’m not wildly keen on women with metal studs in their lips, or men whose low-hanging underwear reveals far more than I would ever wish to see — but I wouldn’t dream of banning items of clothing simply because I don’t like them.
When a man says: “Women shouldn’t be allowed to cover their faces in public”, what I hear is: “I’m a man, and I have the right to tell you, a woman, how to dress.” Sorry, not acceptable.
Ah yes, I nearly forgot. Muslim. It’s that word again. The word that seems to be inextricably linked in so many people’s minds to other words like extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism. So if the niqab is Muslim, then, in the blink of an eye, the women who wear it must be extremists, fundamentalists or terrorists.
No, actually. Most of them are simply women who, for reasons of their own, whether good or bad, have decided to cover their faces. Would I be happy if my daughter wore a niqab? No, I wouldn’t — but then what I want her to wear has rarely been a major factor in her thinking. Nor should it be.
Because what other people choose to wear is nothing to do with me, or with you. You don’t like the niqab? Get over it.