If we want a debate on the veil, why not listen to Muslim women first?
As usual, the voices of those most affected are being excluded.
Following on from the attempted veil ban at a Birmingham college, the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston has called for “clear national guidance” on the niqab. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, she said: “We must be bold in resisting those who would allow the niqab to masquerade as personal freedom. In my opinion, to allow it in our schools harms women by colluding with a view that they should be out of sight; that attitude has no place in an open modern society. Sometimes you have to force people to be equal.”
Wollaston’s call seems to be part of an emerging political trend. The Conservative vice-chairman Bob Neill echoed her sentiments, citing “security issues”, while the Lib Dem Home Office minister Jeremy Browne asked for a “national debate” on the veil by “people with liberal instincts”. Browne talks in jarringly paternalistic tones about the need to protect young women, but the basic message is the same. On Twitter, my feed has mostly been full of people mocking the idea – why not ban high heels or bras or Spanx or mid-length skirts or peplum dresses or anything else that women feel compelled to wear? We’d probably be walking around half-naked. What’s less hilarious is Wollaston’s suggestion that Muslim women should be “forced” to be equal – as if equality could be miraculously gained by taking off the niqab, or any item of clothing.
I come from a Muslim family where some of the women choose to wear headscarves, and niqabs, of their own volition, and others haven’t and probably never will. My own mother started wearing a headscarf in her fifties, while my religiously observant 28-year-old sister has never considered it. I imagine there are lots of extended Muslim families just like mine across the UK. Even if there was a debate, how would a ban on veils be enforceable on the grounds that some women might have been pressured into wearing them? What are the logistics of deciding who has been forced to wear a veil and who is wearing it freely? How invasive would teachers and state officials get in trying to identify “victims”?
Yet these voices – of the women who are directly affected – remain largely absent. What’s horribly familiar is the idea that Muslim women wearing the veil should be thankful for what Wollaston describes as a “feminist wake-up call”. She continues: “Campaigners insist that the niqab is 'empowering' for women. Only in the same way perhaps as an invisibility cloak but if that is the case why is it not worn by men? Such nonsense hides the reality that in cultures where it is not a choice but a compulsion, women have no meaningful power whatever.”
To talk of “compulsion” is itself a way of closing down debate. Do this, and the views of women who wear the veil are automatically regarded as suspect: if they want to join the debate they must first justify their choice – something that liberal feminists would not demand of women who, say, wore lipstick or shaved their body hair. Wollaston and others don’t seem to be keen on Muslim women setting the terms of a national debate. Maybe it’s because the diverse answers they’d receive from women for wearing – and not wearing – the veil don’t really fit with their agenda.