Jack and the Burqa

I’m glad that Jack Straw has brought this out because although I am cynical as to why he took it to the newspaper, at least it has opened up a debate and so perhaps some of the myths and misconceptions regarding the niqab can be dispelled.

I don’t believe Jack was being racist in any way by asking the Muslim woman to remove her veil while they conversed.  He wasn’t proposing any sudden bans on the niqab or anything and I think his comments have been blown out of proportion.   But the commentary that has ensued from the blog world and from the media has revealed a greater lack of understanding and tolerance and it’s certainly provided another opportunity to bash the Muslims.

Muslim women in Britain say they are reclaiming the veil as an outward display of their devoutness to Islam and modesty and they also believe it gives them more gender freedom in that the necessity to fuss over their appearance is removed and they will be judged on merit rather than how femininely attractive they are.  They strongly deny that they are oppressed or that they are forced to wear a veil.

Those are some of the reasons Muslim women are giving for covering their faces in public.  Right, well whether you accept them as valid reasons or not and personally I don’t see why women would ever feel the need to cover their faces let alone their whole bodies, but whether or not you agree, it’s a matter of fact that the more you tell them they shouldn’t wear one…that it’s a sign of their oppressed lifestyles or that it restricts their freedom, or that it invalidates the feminist movement and the advances already made within that movement, then the more defensive and stubborn they will become and the more determined they will be about wearing the niqab as a justifiably two-fingered statement to the world.  The more the world derides them about the veil, the more they will utilise their right to wear one.  But…leave them to culturally evolve in their own time and on their own terms, without pressure, and they will eventually throw off their veils, I’m sure. 

I am finding that many people are using the feminism card to argue against the veil.  I reject this and call it the cheap card that it is.   Muslim women who choose to wear a veil as an outward sign of their faith are being accused by other women of undermining the feminism movement.  Well it’s a cheap shot and it’s easy.  Telling women what they should and shouldn’t wear is, in itself, contradictory to the feminism cause and a potential violation of women’s rights.  It’s certainly not supportive of female freedom of choice.   One blogger went as far as to say basically that women can’t possibly live normal lives, indeed they have no lives outside their home because they wear the niqab!  Well this is nonsense.  And in any case, as far as my knowledge of this goes, and bear in mind that I know many Muslims, most British Muslims who use the veil only usually cover up completely at certain times such as during Ramadan perhaps or when they’re menstruating.  Or just when they’re feeling particularly pious.  They don’t cover up every single time they step out of their doors. 

Muslims have become the global scapegoat.  They’re demonised, alienated, held accountable for global terrorism or aren’t loud enough in their objections against terrorism; derided for not integrating, accused of receiving advantages in social opportunities and now their women are responsible for letting the feminist movement down.

Who’d be a Muslim these days? 

Of course it’s more desirable to see a person’s face when communicating with them.  Covered faces hide smiles from children and prevent deaf people from *hearing* by lip-reading.   And it has to be said that the full burqa must physically impede at times but if it’s voluntary and they are able to tolerate any physically restrictions then who else is it hurting?  All in all,  it’s just a piece of fabric.  It’s nothing sinister.  It’s not a threat.  I say that if you feel uncomfortable talking to veiled women (and I’m willing to bet that many commentators who’ve argued against the veil have never had that experience anyway), but if you fail to see the human behind the veil – the person within, then perhaps you should look at your own communication skills, or lack of.

A veil is not a barrier to social and cultural interaction.  Unrelenting Muslim-bashing and holding the Muslim communities accountable for every multicultural failure is.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Madeleine Bunting writes a brilliant article about the niqab saga and makes many more points that I missed in my own post regarding this issue. She picks up on the suggestions made that the use of the niqab is a sign of Muslim reluctance to integrate.

    “Straw’s comments on the niqab escalated into an utterly false implication that Muslims don’t really want to integrate. Television reports ran over pictures of monocultural playgrounds. Ted Cantle’s identification of “parallel lives” in his report on the Bradford riots of 2001 has morphed into a problem that is being laid entirely at the door of a small minority that is impoverished and marginalised. This is ugly.”


    Madeleine is dead right. It is ugly.


  2. Another well thought out article in today’s CiF written by David Edgar:


    He challenges the tolerance of intolerance in order to be tolerant and the contradictions that the liberals are making over the issue of the veil.


  3. And yet another article which addresses the veil and the feminist responses to it:

    “In offering support to Muslim women, all feminists need to be strategic and prioritise the harm those women actually suffer. Toynbee, female politicians and other feminists from the majority community would do well to reconsider the disproportionate weight they are giving to complex symbols such as the veil, which can undermine alliances around more grievous harms such as war, violence, genuine patriarchal oppression and poverty. By attacking the veil – as in the colonial past – they may strengthen many Muslim women’s commitment to it and make it more difficult for Muslims to have a much needed debate on women and Islam. Those feminists who give well-meaning lectures to Muslim women on what they should think, say and wear are not in the end alone. There is a risk that their powerful female voices will inadvertently sustain another political discourse: the words and actions of an illustrious line of men who continue to justify their imperial ambitions on the bodies, often dead bodies, of Muslim women.”



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