A ban on the niqab is contrary to British values

We must defend the right for women to freely wear what they want

Share

The European Court of Human Rights’ recent decision to uphold the French ban on wearing the niqab in public spaces, has brought this issue back into the public space for discussion. Social commentators have also suggested whether a possible ban should be implemented here, yet cheerleaders calling for a transfer of a similar ban into this country misread the cultural, political, and historical situation in Britain, which makes it distinct from France.

One might think that there is a wide-scale problem across the UK (the news certainly suggests it is), and that there are hordes of niqabi women. How many are there? We, er, don’t know. In the Guardian, Mona Chalabi advances one estimate of 7,300 (the number of adult women from countries where the niqab is prevalent), but notes that this is a crude and inaccurate approach; Channel 4’s FactCheck blog has no idea of the precise figure. In any case, it seems that we’re dealing with a very small minority of conservative Muslim women - just as in France. Moving towards policy decisions based on a small and unknown factual basis doesn’t seem like a very good model to follow, making it debatable whether we should ‘become a little more like the French’.

Through my work on tackling and addressing anti-Muslim hate crime, I’ve heard time and time again - from those across the political spectrum - that simply issuing blunt bans on what we find objectionable isn’t helpful, whether it’s far right groups or political Islamist ones. Personally, I’m conflicted - while I’ve certainly encountered groups, speech, and acts that I find deeply objectionable, I also am drawn to liberal approaches to this, and counter-speech in our society. Therefore, rather than coming down absolutely against the niqab, I’d say that unpacking and debating this is most important.

Read more: The French ban on the niqab has been upheld. Quite right too
Why would you want to wear the niqab?
DKNY's Ramadan collection shows that Muslim dress means more than the burqa

Forget the debate in the UK - what about the women themselves? As a Muslim man, it’s obviously not my place to speak for or represent Muslim women, especially niqabi Muslim women. But with those who I’ve worked with, they don’t feel less British, or isolated, or cut off from society - except by harassment and street abuse from people (usually men) who think they know best how women should behave. Some social commentators have talked about ‘the prevailing social norms’, suggesting that they militate against women covering their faces, just as we frown on throwing garbage out of the window, practicing polygyny , and engaging in female genital mutilation. One of these things is unlike the others, though - while the last three are violent and harmful practices, the first is (or at least, can be) an act of personal autonomy and religious expression. The European Court of Human Rights may come to one conclusion, but in a British context, I’d suggest that uncoerced freedom of conscience and expression are core (and long-fought) British values, as are ideas of women’s liberation and autonomy. Some socially conservative Muslim women may use that autonomy to follow what they see as their religious duty and identity.

Ultimately, seeing the UK situation through a French political/cultural lens - or any lens that fails to account for this - is unhelpful, and we should stick firm to our ideas of state non-interference in uncoerced individual religious choices like these. Far from ‘live and let live’ - and the women in question certainly aren’t allowed to ‘let live’ by many passers-by in the street - this convoluted debate and thrashing-out of the relations of interpersonal relations and religious belief is actually valuable, and important. Just as other rights - like free expression - aren’t unilaterally done away with, but delineated through careful discussion, unilateral statements about religious and expression are also unhelpful.

Of course there are questions to be raised in the debate around niqabi women. Do the majority of Muslim women in the UK wear the niqab? How much to they choose to do so (which ties into broader feminist questions about choice and autonomy)? Is the wearing of the niqab detrimental to the health and well-being of other communities, and to the nation as a whole? But alongside these are questions of proportionality, and unexpected impacts - would a ban on the niqab encourage these communities to accept certain interpretations of cultural norms? Would it bring better community cohesion?  I’d would suggest ‘no’ to these important questions. No matter what you think of the niqab - I for one am no fan of conservative religiosity, or conservative religious symbolism, but that does not matter - backing a unilateral ban on wearing it in public spaces is not going to answer these questions. Ultimately, we must defend the right for women to freely wear what they want and when they want. That is fundamentally a British value.

Fiyaz Mughal is the director of Faith Matters and TELL MAMA

Read next: Is Ed Sheeran the most important British man in black music?
Why doesn't the media ever mention the lack of progress in the Middle East?
Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A sculpture illustrating the WW1 Christmas Truce football match in Liverpool  

It's been 100 years since the Christmas Truce, but football is still changing the world

Jim Murphy and Dan Jarvis
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there