Does the niqab represent – if you
will pardon the pun – a veiled threat to our liberty and way of life?
The majority of Frenchmen, Dutchmen
and Belgians obviously consider it a threat to their way of life, the citizens of these, our neighbouring
countries having applauded vigorously when their respective governments introduced
legislation banning the wearing of such veils in public. Most people in Britain, where no such restriction
exists, or is contemplated, seem to agree with them, at least on the evidence
of recent opinion polls, and a spate of televised street interviews conducted
with non-Muslims – not all of them, it must be assumed, Daily Mail readers.
These soundings were taken
following the failed attempt by a Birmingham
college to ban the niqab, as well as other face-covering devices, as antithetical
to the building of community spirit.
Interestingly, it was a petition, of 9,000 signatures, submitted by the
school’s own ‘community’ of students that caused the ban to be reversed.
The fires of controversy were
soon blazing, stoked by journalists who clearly recognized an issue of ‘intense
public concern’ when they saw one. It
remains to be seen whether the fires will become a wider conflagration. The government, for sundry reasons – some of
them, in fairness, honourable – will be doing its best to contain the
blaze. “It is not in the British
tradition to tell people what they can and cannot wear,” was the gist of the
response from official spokesmen. They
are, in my opinion, taking the right stance.
My submission – for what such a
submission is worth coming from an atheist of the Richard Dawkins persuasion – is
that the niqab represents more a threat to the wearer of the garment than to
the rest of us. Most people simply feel
uncomfortable confronting spectral, black-robed figures resembling the ghost of
Christmas-yet-to-come – the one that most terrified Scrooge in A Christmas Carol – finding especially
disconcerting the glimpse of dark, deliquescent eyes peering out, like those of
a child peeping through a hole in the fence, from a mesh sown into the fabric.
Objections to the various forms
of veil worn by Muslim women can be slotted (a second pardon, if you please)
into several categories, most of them of the practical kind. Covering the face
is clearly out of order in the courtroom and arguably in the classroom, and also
in certain places of work – especially those that involve driving. (The question has never occurred to me
before, but are veiled women, deprived of their peripheral vision, safe behind
the wheel?) On the pavements, the only minor
hazard I can imagine is that short-sighted or colour-blind people might conceivably
mistake a stationary Muslim lady for a pillar-box, though I must admit to never
having heard of such an instance.
Anyway, all of these and other practical
issues can, and I have no doubt will, be sorted out by the application of those
old-fashioned English virtues of common sense and compromise, underpinned by a
third winning English attribute, that of uneasy tolerance.
That still leaves objections of a
more theological nature, and here is where the ice is sufficiently thin that
only the foolhardy deign to skate on it.
If Muslim women elect to drape
themselves head to foot in black – which, I understand, they are not required
to by any writings in the Koran, though that is irrelevant – they should be
allowed to do so. And the rest of us
should regard the practice as a right, even if we also regard it as sad,
misguided, anti-social, or downright absurd.
We in turn should be free to say as much, just as long as the expressions
of our disapproval are couched in polite or at least unthreatening terms. (At
this spot the ice becomes not merely thin but starting to creak and crack under
Many Muslims evidently feel that it
is their faith that is being singled out for opprobrium. That, at least in my case, is not true, and I
suspect is not generally true. In
mitigation of my view, I cite a mystification about the women who represent some
of the more extreme orders of the Christian religion by dressing, as they have
done for centuries, in a fashion not dissimilar to that of veiled and otherwise
head-covered Muslim women. They are
called nuns. I have sometimes wondered uncomprehendingly
what strange influences and impulses persuaded these Sisters of Something-or-Other
to devote their lives to the Service of the Lord in such a severely ascetic
manner, one which I am certain would not have met with the approval of the
Founder of their religion.
But far from provoking our scorn,
these sisters have more often commanded our respect for their charitable works
or at the very least our sympathy for their predicament, and they walk among us
still, without let or hindrance or abuse.
The same privilege, logically, ought to be extended to their Muslim equivalents. (Yes, I realize that the comparison is
Having endorsed the right of such
women, Muslims and Christians alike, to wear what they want, and to believe
whatever they wish to believe, I nevertheless fear for them. Whether encased in wimples or niqabs, or
whatever, they seem too often to be the unwitting victims upon who are imposed ancient
prejudices artfully dressed up by their mentors as solemn tribal traditions. The mentors present themselves as religious ‘elders’
and it hardly needs pointing out are almost invariably male. These mullahs and priests, with ruthless and
unrelenting piety, resist all attempts to allow such women greater freedoms,
including the right to be promoted to the same status as their supposed betters.
Clearly, many such women were brainwashed
into subservience as children, when they were at their most impressionable, or in
adult life bullied, at a point when they were most vulnerable. All religions are guilty of the offence of
the latter-day sin of misogyny. Even the Jews, sensible and adaptable as they
are in most aspects of life, both religious and secular, harbour conservative
sects in whose powerful thrall women are reduced to chattels, a public
humiliation that extends even to the marital bed.
These poor souls, whatever the crackpot
religions behind them, are no more a threat to our society than those who
persist in their belief that the earth is flat, or that aliens from outer space
are manipulating us to bring about the demise of the human race. But the sponsoring religions are a constant
reminder that even in these supposedly incredulous times, the mindless
adherence to inexplicable medieval divinations has yet to be eliminated.
Infuriatingly, we will have to
live with them a while longer. And live
with them we must.