Liberal defenders of the veil have lost their way

When faces are hidden those tiny, vital facial signs of human contact and mutuality go missing

Share

Round two of the veil debate. I would prefer not to get into the ring again but must, not because I’m a stubborn mule, but because so much is at stake. Sorry to those Muslim friends and foes who think we should not talk about the veil, that it distracts from “real issues”, is an excuse to attack Muslims, an encouragement to racists, an infringement of personal freedom, whipping up hysteria over “just clothes, only worn by a minority”, something which is not the business of non-Muslims and part of a sinister secularist manifesto and so on.

They are either frighteningly complacent or in denial, so too are white, black and brown liberals on the left. Were their own daughters to take up the niqab, would they cheerfully accept the decision? Like hell they would. Some good friends and individuals I deeply respect defend the choice as a fundamental liberty. But if accepting and symbolising female inferiority and menace is a freedom, we liberals, human rights activists and anti-racists have really have lost our maps and sense of direction.

I wrote to The Guardian objecting to a long feature on niqabs which left out Muslim women who are against veiling, the silenced majority, victims of liberal censorship. At a spontaneous, “private” meeting I attended, I was screamed at by people whose socialist and egalitarian principles are mine too. Muslims were present, several furious. Apparently I am a self-loathing or fake Muslim, friend of the EDL, an ignoramus, a prostitute of a white man (my husband, an antiracist), a sell out. Later a few attendees, including gentle Muslim men and women, apologised for the way their comrades behaved. But they never spoke up. I hear out there on the web some really nasty stuff has been circulating about my anti-veil views.

I will now quote a letter from my friend Suhayl Saadi, a Muslim Pakistani GP and fine novelist from Glasgow. “Saudi Arabia is the worst thing that has happened to Muslim societies since the Black have furthered the coalition between the Al Saud family and Sunni theocracy of the Arabian peninsula... Our political classes seem pathologically leveraged into the interests of the Saudi regime. Nice white liberals who do not want to tarnish their supposedly inclusive credentials do us no favours by politely helping us into ever deeper pits of ghettoisation... This is not about consumer ‘choice’, we are not talking here of brands of tiles or toilet rolls. The Left in Muslim countries is under no such illusions and its members are regularly murdered by Islamicist paramilitary ( often state sponsored) death squads operating like the Contras in South America.” He calls for “guilty” white liberals and all those on the left, including Muslims, to confront this spreading evil.

A few years ago, I was sent a list by a teacher who worked for a strict Islamic, Saudi-backed school in England. She left because they were forcing her to wear the cloak and hijab and were bringing in the face veil too. ( Note: she, a practising Muslim from a liberal branch of Islam had no right to choose what she wore when teaching.) The list for students and parents was of the reasons they were to give for the veil. Those were as follows: choice, religion, spirituality, freedom, tradition. How many times did you hear these repeated last week by niqab wearers and their friends? Parents of tiny girls with headscarves  tell me they are training them to cover themselves. Informed choice is one thing, but trained choice? Or a choice where females know they will be ostracised if they don’t comply? This never happened before, not in the west, nor in most of the east. Now it is spreading far and fast. Iranian women don’t cover faces but must wear scarves; In Arab countries women are attacked for not conforming with imposed rules. Here the compulsion can be internal or external.

The social cost is never considered by upholders of this custom. It is hard enough to keep this multifarious nation together. Racism, suspicion and antagonism lurk in every corner and to stop things from falling apart we need trust and binding ties. When faces are hidden, what goes missing are those tiny, vital, facial signs of human contact and undeclared mutuality. The covering declares self-segregation emphatically and it unsettles and provokes people. For those forced into shrouds, there is only night. They could be victims of abuse and miserable but we would never know. Some prominent Muslim women insist the garment is not enforced. They have no evidence to back these assertions partly because  it would be impossible to gather. The same would apply to Hassidic women – none would ever admit being oppressed.

Bans are unwise. But this practice cannot be just a private matter. If we are allowed to worry publicly about slutty clothes worn by females, why not clothes that make females invisible? The government must now issue guidelines which specify that faces must be shown in schools, hospitals, courts, airports, police stations, driving test centres etc. Schools and hospitals must also be empowered to set their own, reasonable rules on acceptable dress codes. These rules already exist and should be extended to all communities, including Muslims. After all they are British citizens too.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Army reservist Corporal James Dunsby  

Whether it’s in the City, the Army or at school, this ritual sadism has to stop

Chris Blackhurst
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific