A veiled debate
British women who wear the niqab have more in common with hoodies than with Islamic tradition.
It’s easy to understand Jack Straw’s emotional reaction to his niqab-clad constituents. We rely so much on the face and mouth for communication: a woman who has her face covered is talking to you as if from behind a screen. People’s eyes are normally highly expressive, but they are difficult to read through slits of cloth.
The mistake in this whole furore is to see women’s choice to wear the niqab as saying anything about Islam, community relations, or women’s oppression. Straw said that the veil made the ‘relations between the two [British and Islamic] communities’ more difficult. Others have claimed that the niqab is forced on women by highly devout male relatives.
But this has little to do with traditional religion. Gulf Arab women wearing niqab is one thing, a mark of women’s exclusion from the public sphere and their confinement to husband and home. Young Westernised women covering their faces is quite another.
Young British Muslim women are increasingly choosing to cover up – either with the niqab, or the hijab – where their mothers did not. They often aren’t particularly religious, and certainly aren’t at the beck and call of their husbands. They have jobs; they go out in public on their own or with their friends.
They use not the language of religious subservience, but the language of personal choice. ‘It’s my right’, they say, ‘the veil expresses my identity; it shows the strength of my faith’. For the meaning of the niqab now we must look to contemporary identity politics.
The niqab is a ‘visible demonstration of separateness’, as Straw said. But this impulse comes less from traditional Islam, and its opposition to Western values, than from a Western culture that makes a virtue out of alienation. Those who wear the niqab are advertising their separateness from the rest of society – and in doing so, they have much in common with other fashion statements.
Youth culture has started covering up in general. This is most apparent in the fashion for ‘hoodies’, hooded sweatshirts that effectively cover the wearer’s head and obscure their face. But the cap, bicycle masks and even sunglasses are all about cutting the wearer off from those around. While boys cover their faces, they reveal their behinds.
There is a defensive side to all this too. The niqab, the hood and the cap are also about fear of other people. Some young Muslim women say that covering up makes them feel ‘safe’. One said: ‘I’m not deeply religious. I drive, I work full-time. I go to the gym. But I felt like guys, Muslims and non-Muslims, were staring at me. After I wore one, they would move out of my way. I walk down alleyways at midnight and I feel safe.’ (1)
This is in tune with an anxious public culture, where all strangers are seen as threatening. The niqab protects the wearer from the glances of strangers, and keeps them at bay. Wearers say that it means other people give them a berth, they ‘move out of the way on the pavement’ (2).
Having said this, the niqab is only a piece of cloth: it’s not responsible for social divisions. Communities and local government minister Phil Woolas was being melodramatic when he commented that the veil provokes ‘fear and resentment’. We see a similar overreaction to hoodies, with adults panicking at the sight of a pulled-up hood and assuming that they are about to be mugged. When you talk to these young men, they are often awkward and shy.
The veil may express young British Muslims’ sense of estrangement; it doesn’t cause it. It’s naïve to think that the removal of the niqab will lead to a peaceable understanding between Straw and his constituents. Similarly, forcing boys to take their hoods off – as was the policy of Bluewater shopping centre in Kent – is not going to turn them into boy scouts.
The obsession with veils, and people’s personal responses to veils, is a sign of being unable to grasp the problem – our alienation from others – at its roots.
End this Muslim-Mania, by Mick Hume
Hijab in the Hood: Religion, Pop Culture and Public Policy, Andrew Calcutt, Rising East no. 4
(1) A symbol of modesty or sign of separation?, Globe and Mail
(2) A symbol of modesty or sign of separation?, Globe and Mail
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