Judge the person, not the veil

My own views on the veil were challenged by a niqab-wearing student

Share

I've been following the niqab debate with interest during my time here in London. 

Unlike France, where all symbols of religion are banned from schools and government offices, and the face veil or niqab is completely illegal, Britain has tried to be more accommodating of its Muslim population. I've had many conversations with people here about the concept of "multiculturalism", in which all cultures are equally respected, as opposed to "assimilation" in which you are expected to give up your own culture for the culture of the majority population in the country you live in.

The general consensus amongst non-Muslim British people (white, nominally Christian) is that Muslims should not live in Britain, which is not a Muslim country, and expect every accommodation to be made for their religious beliefs. British Muslims, on the other hand, feel that it is their right as equal citizens of the nation to have their beliefs respected and that employers, schools, and other institutions should not just respect those rights but make visible efforts to assist individuals, rather than objecting to or trying to block them from completing their religious duties.

In many restaurants in London, halal meat is served automatically because many customers demand it but more customers don't care. In the meantime, when it was found out that schools served halal meat without informing everyone, parents of non-Muslim children became angry and demanded that this stopped being done automatically. There are many flaps like this and the niqab ban in the Birmingham college mentioned above, as Britain, Muslim and non-Muslim come to better understanding about how religion fits into this modern society.

I spoke to a woman behind the Dermalogica counter in a department store who wore a bright white hijab and asked her whether she'd had any problems. "No, Dermalogica have been brilliant," she told me, a big smile on her face. "I go to a treatment room to say my prayers and I don't serve male customers, and they're fine with that."

On the other hand, the government and NGOs have been enacting a campaign against forced marriages for the last several years. I saw this poster at Stansted Aiport when I was on my way out to Copenhagen, illustrating the difficult line that the British government has to walk between respect of culture and rule of law.

Going back to the issue of the niqab banned in schools, I read some comments on news stories and one of them that really struck me was someone saying, "How can you teach anyone who wears a full veil?"

I have the answer to that question, because when I was a writing instructor, I actually did have a student in my class who wore an abaya and niqab. I remember seeing her the first day in my classroom and thinking, "Woah...how am I going to handle this?" (My stance on niqab and burka is well-known: it's excessive, unnecessary, not specifically religiously mandated and more of a political statement of identity than a religious expression of piety). I was well aware of my own prejudice against the niqab and my assumptions about the women who wear them. And I was determined not to let that prejudice get in the way of my treating her the same as any of my other students.

Throughout the semester, I found I did have to treat her differently, but only because she was my best student - I had to work hard not to show how much I liked her in comparison to my other students!  She was intelligent, engaged, aware. She always came to class well-prepared. She debated with the male students in the class on many issues with passion and spirit. She outperformed everyone on all essays and exams. She received the highest grade in my class and became one of my favorite students.

I remember talking to her in the class as she answered my questions, maintaining intense eye contact because that was my only point of reference. I was only able to see her eyes behind her glasses, not see her lips move or the expressions on her face, but I could hear her voice, see her body language; the energy came off her in waves. In short, she was delightful, and my class would have been a poorer place without her. I was hired to teach her, but instead, she taught me.

The point of this little anecdote is that when we talk about a blanket ban of burkas or niqabs because of our principles or our commitment to a secular society, we tend to forget that behind the niqab and underneath the burka there is a living, breathing human being in there: a Muslim woman who needs to be educated, to take her proper and rightful place in society. Muslim girls and women need to be encouraged to come to school, to work, whether or not they choose to cover their faces and bodies. As the article in the Nation on France's hijab ban states, "Some Muslim women are resigned to the fact that no one is going to hire them, so they don’t study, they don’t look for a job."

As an educator and as a feminist, and as someone committed to seeing Pakistani and Muslim women not just survive but thrive in this difficult world, I am happy to put aside my personal opinion for the greater goal of helping these girls and women achieve agency, empowerment and independence. If the burka or niqab helps them to do that, to negotiate their way around the many obstacles that our traditional and conservative societies throw at them, I'm fully willing to become their ally. I think that's more important that how I personally feel about the burka. Muslim women already face too many bans in their lives - let's think instead about opening some doors for them instead of shutting them in their veiled faces.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice