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.