Eyes Only: The Niqab in Britain

The face covering worn by some Muslim women, the niqab, is one of the elements of Islam that has
dominated coverage of the religion in the British media. It has, for many, wildly negative
associations and debate focuses on whether Britain ought to follow in the footsteps of France and
Belgium and ban it from public places. Advocacy of such a ban is not limited, as one might expect,
to right wing groups such as the English Defence League. Research suggests that more than half of
Britons would support a ban on face coverings. I will argue that this significant support for a ban
exists because of one common, flawed assumption about the niqab: that it is forced on women to
hide them from men, and as such is oppressive and sexist. The reality makes the issue more
complex. Some women make a free choice to wear the niqab, some women are forced to wear it.
The solution to this situation will not be found in a unilateral ban.

The commonplace assumption made by many Britons, then, is that the niqab is always a sign of
oppression; that behind each veil is a woman forced into the clothing by a dominant figure in her
life. This is decidedly not the case. For a great number of British Muslim women, the decision is
made as an act of commitment to their religion. To attempt a greater level of piety, a Muslim
woman might take on a certain way of life defined by the face covering. The subsidiary motivations
are numerous, and often very personal. Frequently, the decision will go against the wishes of the
wearer’s family and, even more contrary to assumption, can be an act of feminism; a rejection of
the modern ideals and expectations of fashion and beauty. An analogy might be drawn between
such a commitment and Christian dedication to monastic life. Viewed in this way it is clear that a
ban of the niqab would itself be an oppression; an oppression of the freedom of a significant
number of Muslim women.

The assumption that all women who wear the veil are forced to do so, then, can be proven flawed.
Yet at the base of the assumption lies the truth that there are women who have to wear the veil
against their wishes. They might be forced into it directly or be faced with overwhelming social
pressure. Whatever the reason, a decision that must be the personal undertaking of an individual is,
in many cases, being forced on that individual. Aside from interviewing every veil wearer in
Britain, the solution to this problem is not an obvious one. Yet it is possible to escape the defeatism
that the issue encourages and propose some decisive action. There is one group by whom the
decision to wear the veil cannot be suitably self-motivated; children. A vocation that carries such
heavy implications is one that cannot be made by a youngster. To return to our earlier analogy,
someone younger than 18 would not be permitted to join a monastery. So one effective way of
preventing the veil being worn by those who do not choose to themselves is to promote the idea that
children ought not to wear the veil.

This approach might first be attempted through Muslim communities themselves; to engage local
leadership to promote such a message. Further, formal policy could be drafted to effect such a
change, and it could be done without impinging on the religious freedom of the individual. So as we
have seen, a ban would be an oppression, but an age limit may prove to be a liberation.


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