More than half of the British public want to ban Muslim women from wearing the full-face veil, or “niqab,” in the UK, a poll by YouGov has found. A whopping 57% of Brits want to completely ban the niqab, with only 25% being opposed to the idea.
With the wearing of the veil banned in France in 2010, many believe that France has the right idea. Issues about security and terrorism have been raised amidst claims that it is difficult to identify with a woman wearing a niqab and the women that choose to do so should ‘respect British culture’ by abandoning their own cultural attire.
There is also the belief that women who wear the niqab are oppressed and that Islam is a sexist religion that needs Western intervention to ‘liberate’ women from feeling pressured, or even forced, into wearing something that renders them invisible and unapproachable.
However, could there be another side to this debate?
Before we begin to address whether or not we should ban the niqab, it is important to briefly examine Islam and its general attitude towards women. While it is undeniable that people have committed atrocities against women in the name of Islam, it is unfair to condemn an entire religion based on the people that abuse it.
Throughout history, millions of people have killed and been killed due to ideas about what God wants (or doesn’t want). People twisting religious texts to fit their own warped ideals about the world is not unique to Islam, and it is crucial that we remember this.
When Islam originated, it was actually very progressive in terms of the way that it treated its women compared to faiths and cultures that preceded it.
For example, according to Hindu scripture, a good wife is defined as ‘a woman whose mind, body and speech are kept in subjection.’ Only if the woman acquires high renown in this world does her status in the next equal her husbands’.
In Ancient India, women were dependent on their male protectors day and night, Athens saw women always subjected to a male, Greece saw women forced to marry people they did not necessarily want to and Roman women were not only properties of their husbands, but could not be witnesses, tutors, curators, could not adopt or be adopted, and could not make a will or contract. The Mosaic Law in the Bible discusses women being ‘betrothed’ aka sold to potential husbands, and women under this law were also not able to file for divorce.
It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, to learn that under Islam, women have the same right to education as men, are entitled to keep their maiden names, cannot be married without free consent, are allowed to file for divorce and were given rights to personal ownership of properties and wealth 14 centuries ago.
Women have the same right to work as men, have always had the same rights as men in the election and nomination to political office, and female infanticide, rife in societies that proceeded Islam, is seen as an abominable sin in the Qur’an.
Although the full face veil is not mandatory under Islam, it is available for women to wear should they so wish. Muslim women say that wearing the niqab makes them feel pure, modest and safe from the male gaze that society all-too-often subjects its women to.
If a woman wishes, therefore, to take herself out of the objectification equation, who are we to deny her that right?
People say that they feel uncomfortable engaging with a woman wearing a niqab, but whose comfort are we prioritising when we ban the niqab? In forcing a woman to show a part of her body that she does not feel comfortable showing, we are subjecting her to the same, or an even greater level of discomfort that ‘we’ feel when we see her wearing the niqab.
Why should our comfort be prioritised over somebody else’s?
We are treading on dangerous territory when we, as a society that claims to value gender equality, try telling a woman what to wear.
Is it not just as oppressing to force a woman not to wear a niqab as it is to force her to wear one?
Are we not in danger of making a law that prohibits an item of clothing just because it is not to our taste?
We live in a country that prides itself on being multicultural and accepting of other cultures. It is all very well for people to squawk that “we’d have to cover up in their countries!” but in actuality, there are only a handful of Muslim countries in which covering up is mandatory, and attempting to mimic Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan when it comes to policing women’s attire is a huge leap backwards in the fight for gender equality.
The thousands of women that take to the streets in their underwear each year as part of Amber Rose’s Slut Walk take the stance that women’s bodies are not commodities for men to enjoy and that we should be able to wear whatever the hell we like without receiving unwanted attention.
Can this logic not be applied to covering up as much as it can to stripping off?
Of course, in court rooms, airport and exam halls, the niqab should not be worn. There have been occasional cases of men wearing the niqab to evade airport security, and of course nobody be able to take an exam without verifying their identity.
However, contrary to popular belief, Muslim women understand all of this and are happy to remove the veil when required. Shalina Litt, 34, radio presenter and community activist from Birmingham, says:
“When I go into a bank, I am prepared to remove the veil, likewise if I go into an airport. It’s nice if an institution is accommodating enough to let me show my face to a woman, not a man. But if it can’t be helped, then I would lift the veil. There are certainly some women who only wear the niqab in the street, not at their workplace. Most Muslim women live in the real world, and assess the situation and what they feel comfortable wearing on a case-by-case basis. It’s not black and white.”
There has not been a single case in recent times where a Muslim women has actually refused to remove her niqab in an environment such as those stated above. The last instance of a woman refusing to remove her niqab was that of Rebekah Dawson in a court room in 2014.
So then, with the hysteria about security risks being largely unfounded, do we really need a blanket ban of the niqab on our streets, in our shops and all the other places that Muslim women may go about their business?
There is a very thin line between concern and racism, and it seems to me that a lot of people have let their ignorance and the fear mongering of the British press manipulate their minds into believing that it is necessary to ban the niqab.
If we really care about security then let’s put the appropriate measures in place.
If we care about women being ‘forced’ to wear the niqab, then we need a better solution than an all-out ban. If the niqab were banned, then the women who are being forced to wear it would most likely be banned from going out in public, thus pushing the issue even further underground and making it even more difficult for these women to access help if they so wish.
Let us engage with women who wear the niqab.
Let us be educated about the reasons behind why a minority of Muslim women choose to wear it. Let us interact and step out of our comfort zones before we mask our fear with hatred and attack.
Would we want to oppress ourselves, to make ourselves feel uncomfortable, to take away our own religious freedom?
Of course we wouldn’t, so let us not do it to anybody else.
What do you think? Do you think that Britain should ban the niqab, or should we let women decide for themselves what they want to wear? Let me know in the comments below!