After the recent (and now revoked) decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to ban the niqab (Muslim-face-veil) and Jeremy Browne MP’s comments, the niqab has once again become a hot topic for many politicians and commentators. There are, however, voices missing in this debate – and I for one think it is imperative for the voices of the face-veiled Muslim women to be heard.
I started wearing the niqab at a the age of 14, although my parents discouraged me. I was motivated by a deep belief that this was the right decision for me and that hasn't changed in the intervening years since.
The common impression that many people have about those that wear the niqab is that we are oppressed, uneducated, passive, kept behind closed doors and not integrated within British society. The terms used in the press often reflect this, as do some politicians statements. Jeremy Browne MP is a case in point with his call for a national debate about whether the state should step in to “protect” young women from having the veil “imposed” on them. Sarah Wollaston MP finds the niqab “deeply offensive”. Enter the Prime Minister and commentators across the political spectrum ready to discuss us.
Allow me to introduce myself. I am a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time. I have formerly been elected as the Wales Chairperson of a national Muslim student organisation and held other leadership roles including working with bodies such as the National Union of Students. I wear the niqab as a personal act of worship, and I deeply believe that it brings me closer to God, the Creator. I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength. People I engage with judge me for my intellect and action; not necessarily for the way I look or dress. Niqab enables me to be, simply, human.
To understand the niqab it helps to understand the religion behind it. Islam has three simple messages – liberation from worshipping anything but the one God, following in the way of His Prophets including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and servitude to the whole of humanity. Islam’s practical acts of liberation are many – from the duty of environmentalism (protecting ‘the Creation’ from the ‘excessiveness’ of humankind) to the imperative of modesty for women and men – one part of which is the face-veil. Indeed, in my view, the authentic reading of Scripture does not deem the niqab as compulsory but highly recommended; crucially, a woman has total freedom of choice to decide what she wears.
Concerns associated with the niqab include “security” and whether it represents an obstacle in the pursuit of justice in court. Islam is not a monolithic religion and therefore Islamic scholars may differ in their jurisprudence but most agree that in particular cases, Muslim women are allowed to take off their veils – though each case should be dealt with individually. Muslim women including myself do not find this a problem.
In principle, I welcome the call for a national debate– so long as it respects a diverse range of views including that of veiled Muslim women. However, my work in community-organising forces me to raise the question of significance and need of it. There are more important issues that are not being tackled – including institutional racism, unemployment, affordable housing and growing inequality.
Perhaps such MPs should rethink their priorities and should not allow the state to interfere the basic individual’s rights to choose, practice and express. We are not living in a state like Saudi Arabia or Iran where the hijab or niqab to some extent are mandated; nor are we living in Turkey or France where militant secularism is deeply rooted, forbidding them. In Britain, public freedom is a part of the fabric of our society. Those public freedoms extend to religious freedoms that give us the right to practice and articulate our religious freedoms and rights. We cannot take this public freedom for granted for the sake of social scares, deep-seated psychological fears, ignorance and fear of the unknown.
The veil-ban and negative prejudices associated with it are old news in the British arena, but what I find new is that we are living in times of remarkable complacency. Comments of anti-Muslim-hatred are not made exclusively by the far-right but by politicians and intellectuals. A widely accepted fear of Islam seems to be fortified, able to justify a sense of collective oppression.
Making such negative comments about face-veiled Muslim women or banning the veil will not enhance integration but rather exclusion, leading to cultural destruction of minorities in the name of equality. Indeed, Muslim women too must raise their heads, speak on behalf of themselves and platforms should be given to them.