Ban the niqab? Or are we missing the point?

September 18th, 2013

One day a Judge asked me, as I was leaving court, what I thought about women wearing face veils in the courtroom. No doubt he thought I would have some insight into the issue, with my Muslim-sounding name and my Western appearance. Perhaps he anticipated a comforting answer, the answer that a lot of people would like to hear: “No it shouldn’t be OK to wear it in court.” I imagine quite a few people would like to hear it shouldn’t be worn anywhere in the UK.

Many commentators have mentioned that the full-face veil (eg. the burqa or niqab) is a barrier to all contact. It warns those who would approach the wearer to steer clear. It is more than enigma. It is a blockade against wider society. To a certain extent I agree. It is one of the ironies of multiculturalism that people who want a melting pot of cultures support women’s  right to wear something that is a symbol of division and a rejection of multiculturalism. Comparing the niqab with the miniskirt on opposite ends of a scale doesn’t help clear up the debate, either –  it ignores the reasons someone wears a face veil. Wearing the burqa is not always an exercise of free choice; the full face veil can be a demonstration of its absence. Some see the burqa as an implicit acceptance that female sexuality as dangerous. Like many issues we wish were straightforward, the debate about the burqa is increasingly complex.

After a judge ruled a defendant would have to remove her niqab when giving evidence in Blackfriars Crown Court, there have been all sorts of arguments raised for and against full face veils in court. My favourite comment on the issue so far comes from Ian Leslie, who contends that using visual cues to judge the quality of a witness’ evidence is madness anyway. A thought-provoking argument but one that sidesteps the main issue.

So would I ban full face veils then? Absolutely not. A ban is to miss the point entirely.  I agree with Hugo Rifkind who wrote today in The Times (£). Whilst we know how the niqab makes us feel, we have made very little effort to engage with the reasons people wear them – although there are endless theories that have been espoused on the subject.

The niqab is not required by the Quran. So why do women wear them? I remember spending time with a guide in Cairo many years ago and asking why she chose to wear the hijab (head scarf). She said she thought women who did not dress ‘appropriately’ would be more likely to face sexual harassment. She used wearing the hijab as a shorthand for indicating modesty and avoiding unwanted male attention. This made me think of my aunt in Pakistan, who has never worn a veil, but who is protected by her profession and social position.

Seeking to ban the burqa or niqab is an illogical course of action for those who want a greater level of integration in our society. Women who decide to wear the niqab or burqa often take that decision in consultation with their family and the wider community. The real risk is that banning full face veils could prompt some women to withdraw from the areas of life that we want them to participate in, especially education. A ban is a headline-grabbing but ultimately incendiary piece of politicking.

What we need is dialogue combined with reasoned public debate and that is a long term project. But then again, since this issue raises questions of integration, feminism and identity, you’d expect it to be, right?

This post was first published on LabourList on 18 September 2013.