A ban on the niqab is contrary to British values

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


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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own