Jack Straw, former Foreign Secretary and backer of the war on Iraq said in an interview with the Lancashire Telegraph that he would ask Muslim women who wore a niqab to remove the veil when attending his surgery. He prompted a vigorous debate by saying that he would prefer it if Muslim women did not wear veils which cover the face because they make communication difficult. He suggested that he felt uncomfortable talking to someone whose reactions he could not ascertain as they had their faces covered. Also he believes that the niqab, which is optional according to most Muslims schools of thought, is a kind of ‘public statement, a proclamation about their faith’ which ‘physically separates those women from people outside their own communities.’
Countries across the continent have wrestled with an issue that deals with religious freedom, female equality, secular traditions and even fears of terrorism. In France a ban on Muslim headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols at state schools was introduced in 2004. 80 years ago, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of Turkey rejected headscarves as backward-looking in his campaign to secularize Turkish society. Even so, it is estimated that as many as 65% of Turkish women cover their heads with a scarf. Nonetheless, scarves are banned in civic spaces, including schools, universities and official buildings. In November 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled the ban was legitimate. In Germany, in September 2003, the federal Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a teacher who wanted to wear an Islamic scarf to school. However, it said states could change their laws locally if they wanted to. At least four German states have gone on to ban teachers from wearing headscarves and in the state of Hesse the ban applies to all civil servants. In September 2004 local politicians in the north of Italy resurrected old laws against the wearing of masks, to ban women from wearing the all-over burqa. In July 05 the Italian parliament approved anti-terrorist laws which make hiding one’s features from the public – including through wearing the burqa – an offence. Moreover, Morocco is making major changes to religious education, in particular regarding whether young girls should wear headscarves. A picture of a mother and her daughter wearing headscarves is being removed from the latest editions of a text book. A verse from the Qur’an that says girls should don veils has already been taken out of the books. Other Arab countries have made similar changes, worrying that the veil could be used as a symbol of extremism. Education ministry official Aboulkacem Samir says the headscarf has political overtones: “This issue isn’t really about religion, it’s about politics,” he says.
There are few things that have become such obvious and controversial symbols of Islamic identity as the headscarf. The veil is perhaps a microcosm of a much broader dilemma – should Arab countries in North Africa and other Muslim societies turn towards secular democracies or to more conventional Islamist countries for their guidance and encouragement?
The veil is an iconic part of Muslim culture – for many women it is a statement of cultural identity, of social modesty and of religious adherence. A proportion may silently resent the fact that their husbands or families force them to cover up but there is a considerable group for whom it is a free and happy choice. It is that same sense of religious devotion that leads Sikhs to wear a turban, Jews a skull-cap or Christians a crucifix. The Qur’ an tells Muslims – men and women – to dress modestly. Male modesty has been interpreted to be covering the area from above the navel to below the knee – and for women it is generally seen as covering everything except their face, hands and feet when in the company of men they are not related or married to. But it may also be left to the Muslim woman to decide for herself, whether she wants to cover up fully with the niqab, as an expression of her faith and Islamic identity, or not. In countries where there are legal restrictions on religious dress, it becomes a matter of women’s human rights to wear what they want. But at the same time the niqab is such a powerful statement that more liberal Muslims sometimes object to it, especially in more urbanized societies, where women have fought long and hard to shake off restrictions seen as obsolete and imposed by men.
So what it all boils down to is the ‘evil veil.’ But if this is the case, then what about the wimple? You often see Christians of all nuances of faith kissing the hand of a nun and bowing down in respect. The nuns are not scorned or ridiculed; whereas they have become completely disconnected with this world. They don’t lead normal lives; they don’t study beyond a certain level, don’t work, don’t get married, and don’t have children- in fact they get ‘married’ to the church. Yet they are not extremists. They are not making any public statement. They are pious and are therefore revered by the common Christian. The wimple is thus a sign of simplicity – never evil.
Mr. Straw’s comments come in a year when a lot of Muslims feel under assault with cartoons about our prophet Mohammed (PBUH), a highly undiplomatic remark by Pope Benedict, eviction of innocent passengers from an aircraft, a raid on a Muslim school, the shooting of an innocent man in Forest Gate, a discussion about passenger profiling (want to guess which passengers?), criticism of a Muslim policemen etc. etc. Therefore, this is an unhelpful comment at present, particularly from a politician like Mr. Straw. Especially, when there is already too much negativity in the media and in people’s minds about Islam.
What people need to understand is that the veil is not a symbol of oppression but of status – a sign of cultural tradition and intense piety. Within all religious traditions there are trends underscoring the corrupting influences of the world and how one must keep them at a distance. Niqab is the response of a minority who feel that they are living in an antagonistic climate and if it’s not interfering with the public it should be left alone. It’s been happening for generations and has been handed down. So just because someone moves to a country overseas, it shouldn’t be a reason to change that culture. Also everyone should be allowed to follow their own religion. Mr. Straw can say what he wants, but it’s really none of his business. A Muslim citizen of UK was quoted saying, “We don’t need Jack Straw initiating debate for us – we don’t tell Jack Straw how to dress.” Therefore it really is as simple as that. This is really a religious issue, not something for politicians. The whole headscarf issue should come way down the list for politicians. People are not all the same. People have different religions and no religion. People dress differently and wear different clothes. Is it therefore considered bad to be “different”? Does that mean that our values have now come to include forced homogeneity? Should we all aim to dress and act the same?
The point is – how far do we have to go to blend in?
Mr. Straw says that he would prefer to see someone’s face when talking to them, but we all talk over the phone and write emails. Should those forms of communication be banned too? In reality, a Muslim woman’s choice of clothing is as irrelevant as that of a Goth. Why does no one impose bans when it comes to such factions as the Goths in the west? Nobody has imposed any bans on explicit advertisements promoting the over-sexualisation of women or vulgarity on television. Mr. Straw is not alleging that the women of his constituency are forced to wear niqabs. So if they wish to wear them why should anyone else object? And besides who should be the authority when discussing what any woman should wear? If our values are about freedom then freedom is not a conceptual notion. When the cartoons scandal erupted, Muslims were lectured on the sanctity of “freedom” in the west. What about the freedom to wear the niqab? Are Muslims really “rejecting the values of liberal democracy” by covering their faces on their own free will?
It is universally acknowledged that integration should be promoted, but does that mean discarding the things that some people hold dear to them? Harmony within society requires tolerance and acceptance. Thus it is equally important that Muslims aren’t portrayed as the only ones facing challenges to integrate. What we need to realize is that there are far more important barriers to successful integration in the world today. Are Muslims and non-Muslims receiving equal rights world wide? Is there awareness and compassion for the other? Are leaders of both worlds trying to pacify the extremists in their own divisions? The job of political leaders in today’s world is not to, “unleash a storm of bias, intensified division”, as put by Madeleine Bunting; but to pave the way for an open-minded, peaceful international community.
Anam Rizvi FY-L