by Rebecca Chapman
Current obsessions over women’s clothing or lack thereof is all that seems relevant to ‘women’s news’ nowadays. It would be easy to trivialise such discussions as meaningless gossip, but when a government attempts to intervene on the issue, it ought to concern everyone. Though we’ve heard about the rights and wrongs of Miley’s outfits, what really should be on the agenda is the burqa and the niqab. Of course, this contentious issue of women’s dress has never really gone away, but with two incidents in the UK in both the classroom and the courtroom, these items are once again back at the forefront of national debate. Back in August, a Muslim woman accused of intimidating a witness was ordered by a judge to remove her niqab when giving evidence; around the same time there was an overturning of the niqab ban at Birmingham Metropolitan College after a number of pupils protested. Both these events would have passed with little concern were it not for a certain section of the government using these stories to stir up debate around the issue. The burqa and the niqab apply to the most conservative form of Muslim dress, with the former being a full veil covering the whole head and face and the niqab leaving only a small slit for the eyes, and it is these items that are being called into question by the current government.
Let me start by saying this article is not here to discuss the rights and wrongs of Muslim dress, nor will it be addressing whether there is something inherently sexist about a woman covering her head and face. The sole purpose of this article is to ask whether a government has a right to legislate on the issue.
Amidst the recent discussion, non-Muslims have been voicing their desire to ‘liberate’ and ‘free’ women from the grips of such obvious patriarchal oppression. People with almost no knowledge of Islamic cultures and traditions have professed their outrage at women being forced to wear the burqa against their wishes. Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying it was time “to stop delegating this to individual institutions as a minor matter of dress code and instead set clear national guidance.” Comparing the burqa to an “invisibility cloak,” she claimed, “Women should be clear that the burqa is a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation.” Perhaps Sarah Wollaston is making some valid arguments here, but as one may be able to detect from her name, Sarah Wollaston is in fact not a Muslim. In fact, her insular view provides a perfect representation of the tidal wave of opinion coming from non-Muslim women about an issue that is solely concerning Muslim woman.
With the push for the ban coming exclusively from the non-Muslim community, I can’t help but question the real motives behind this ban. The irony of a right-wing government presenting the issue as concern for women’s rights is not only laughable, but it is also irony of the worst kind. It’s difficult to believe that the current party in power in the UK, which has systematically and unapologetically attempted to curb the rights of women since its origins, has suddenly gained a conscience. If David Cameron is so concerned with women’s voices being silenced maybe he ought to have given more than 4 women a place in the cabinet of 25. This is a policy of fear and ignorance, in which a minority of a minority are persecuted, posturing as a policy of liberation.
MPs are often in the habit of presenting complex issues as very simple ones and this is no different. Consequently, prominent voices in the Muslim community have raised concerns about the impact of the proposed ban. Salma Yaqoob, formerly a Birmingham city councillor, said: “The women who do wear the face veils are a tiny minority within a minority, so the thought that they’re any kind of threat to British society as a whole is beyond laughable. But at the same time, [these debates] do, of course, increase the vulnerability of Muslim women as a whole. Time and again, verbal and physical attacks on Muslim women increase when we have these so-called national debates. In emotional and psychological terms, I think it does a huge amount of damage.”
The argument behind the banning of the burqa and the niqab is grounded in creating a freer, more integrated society, but evidence provided by European examples suggests it does the exact opposite. Since France’s introduction of the ban in 2011, Muslim groups have reported a distressing rise in discrimination, reflected by a legal system which has seen an explosion on physical attacks on women wearing Muslim dress. The law has given self-styled vigilantes the opportunity to use Muslim communities as a scapegoat (if the state discriminates against a minority, it stands to reason that certain individuals will follow suit). Confronted with the choice of defying the law and facing verbal and physical assaults, women are opting to stay at home, hidden away from the world. This law has made prisoners of law-abiding citizens, whose only crime is to choose to express their religion and culture through their dress. Despite the fact that every woman brought forward to answer for her ‘crimes’ expressed that they wore the burqa of their own free choosing, the French government have refused to relent.
Supporters of the ban have raised the point that nowhere in the Qur’an does it dictate that a woman must be covered from head to toe, but nowhere in the Bible does it dictate that Christians must where a cross around their necks. Instead, it is a personal choice taken for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily religious ones. In 1970’s Iran, the CIA-backed leadership outlawed the burqa and the niqab; women had their clothing ripped from their faces and, as a result, some choose to stay inside. But some chose to keep their veils, seeing it as the only way they could signal their opposition to American domination of Iran. This compulsory ‘feminism’ is both insensitive to cultural practices and ultimately useless. If there is to be a feminist movement within Islamic cultures, it must, and will come from within the community on their own terms. The reality is most Muslim women in the UK do not wear the burqa; the women who do, do so of their own choosing. As feminists, we ought to understand the importance of a woman’s right to choose.
It is not to say that there aren’t instances when the burqa or the niqab are inappropriate: passing through airport security where it is vital for the authorities to identify people moving in and out of their borders is one example that springs to mind. But there has been no argument from the Muslim community or instances in which there have been objections towards reaching a pragmatic solution.
Of course, clothing is not solely a Muslim problem, given that in their most orthodox forms many other religions provide strict rules for women’s clothing. And even in the relatively secular west, woman are frequently told what length their skirt should be, how much cleavage is appropriate and if their dress is sending out the ‘wrong signals’.
Men have presumed the authority to tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies for centuries. As feminists we must resist it any way we can. A husband telling his wife she must cover her face is no worse than a state telling her she cannot. It is possible to disagree with the principle of the burqa or the niqab but object to legislature against them. And whilst the burqa may be considered a symbol of the oppression of women, it is most certainly not its cause.