Some while ago the French reaffirmed that they will not allow women to cover their faces in public. I felt an urge to comment on this at the time, but did not. However whenever I see women with their faces covered I cannot help but wonder why they do it and after a trip to Vienna, where all the Omanis, who wear hijab, but not niqab, I fell once more the need to comment, so here goes.
First, I don't think the question of what anyone wears can be taken out of its social, and regrettably today political, context. What women wear, and did, has been politicised for a very long, long time. Male dominated societies have for centuries sought to control and suppress women and placing restrictions on what they wear has been part of it, whether it be chastity belts for the wives of crusaders or various forms of covering in numerous other cultures.
I am not condoning these practices, or others abhorrent to modern minds such as FGM, stoning of adulteresses, casting out of women and girls who are raped and become pregnant (until recently a catholic practice as well as one in some fundamentalist Islamic countries). Far from it. We should see them merely as products of their time, functions of an ignorant, unscientific, superstitious world where logic was trumped by superstition, and empathy for others by the harsh brutality of life without medicine and often food. From this perspective we should surely now evaluate such practices in the context of our own society, and the current state of development of the human race, rather than by reference to medieval, and ignorant times.
If you accept the benefits of a modern scientific world then why do you cling on to superstition and practice that belongs to another time? Why is it any longer acceptable culture for a husband to make his wife walk several feet behind? Why are girls made to sit at the back of a class, or the mosque, or not to be accused of bias, in another room of the synagogue (or not to be let in at all)? And this not in a religious autocracy but a supposedly liberal democratic country where it is against the law for the same man to discriminate against a woman in his workplace.
Whether multi-culturalism is a good thing depends on how we define it. If it means Jewish country dancing while eating chicken curry and listening to reggae music, I don't have a problem (actually you might have a problem with the dancing and the music). I acknowledge that mixing of cultures is generally a positive thing; it can lead to a better understanding and adds a richness to art, language and other aspects of the common cultural environment. But cultures also come into conflict whether we like it or not and when culture impacts at the level of public policy or law, then we have to make a choice. A set of rules that says it is OK to kill cannot operate alongside another that says it is not OK. That goes whether the rules are religious "obligations" or not.
I don't think it is offensive, let alone racist, for me to say that macho, misogenistic and sometimes aggressively authoritarian behaviour is common in many middle eastern and south asian cultures. This is not just an opinion, but based on the evidence available to me, from the experience of friends and work colleagues in their own families, from observation living and travelling abroad, and of course from what is reported in the media. I expect excoriation for this remark, but I assess the values of those cultures against my own, which largely reflect those of the British society I grew up in. If I were from, say Pakistan, I may say it is not misogynistic to expect women in the family to obey the father, and for children to absolutely follow what the parents expect. I may say this merely shows a wife's respect for due authority of a husband based on the Q'uran, and a child's respect for age and wisdom. But my values are based on my own cultural experiences and education and they lead me to question that position. And it seems to me that small things, like a wife walking several paces behind her husband, like who is allowed to participate in religious practices or where a wife or mother-in-law should walk in relation to a man, or what a woman is allowed to wear, are all reflections of a bigger picture where men believe they have the right to dominate, in this case backed up by religious dogma. These things may not impact on me directly, at least in my personal life, but they are part of a bigger culture that does come at some point come into conflict with my culture and that of my country.
When a culture leads to humiliation, physical abuse and even death, there can be nothing acceptable about it. But it is surely not necessary to wait for physical abuse or death to ask if multi-culturalism can work in the area of public policy. In a democracy, we are governed and obey the law, by consent. We are not a military dictatorship and cannot force everyone to obey the law at all times, or suffer the consequences. If people do not go along with this then the system breaks down. And when choosing to live in this country, I think it is reasonable to expect people to by-and-large not only obey the law, but subscribe to the system. I would also argue that it is appropriate to apply a "British" perception to those practices derived from other cultures that impact on public life in this country. That does not mean that we all have to comply to a stereotype. There is ample room in British democracy for diversity. People do generally have a choice of where to live and they need to consider the predominant culture in the place they chose to live. But if the small things invariably point to larger things, we should perhaps not ignore them after all, but ask what the basis for them is and, if necessary challenge them and the underlying principles where they conflict with British culture (what that is, is of course another question).It is no coincidence in my opinion that so-called cultural crimes, from forced marriages to wife burning and murdering one's own daughter for doing something of which the parents disapprove, are biased against women.
Turning to the specifics of wearing hijab or a burka, what assumes to be missing for most of the public,miss some facts. Some here are some that I think are relevant but others are welcome to elaborate.
1. hijab actually predates Islam as a mode of dress for women in wealthy families in ancient Arabia. After all it shows you do not need to work for a living, or more particularly that your husband does not need to send his wife's out to work, since this was at a time when women were chattels, treated as property by their men. The question of consent did not, for those ladies, probably even come into the picture.
2. I believe the Quran makes no reference to veiling, but sura 33.53 (the so-called "verse of hijab") says that the prophets followers shoul only speak to his wives "..from behind a hijab", which I have seen translated as screen (otherwise the word hijab is used, in English translations, on the basis that the meaning is understood in English as the form of dress known by that name.
3. If there is a religious requirement in Islam would appear to be modesty, and that applies equally to men and to women. However the fact is that this is interpreted in the case of women in wildly different ways, from bright headscarves and heavy make-up of trendy young women on the streets of London to the Burkas forced on women on Afghanistan by the Taliban, against their own cultural norms, or the Niqab of Saudi Arabia forced on women there on pain of death by Abd Al-Wahhab in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The Taliban will no doubt consider the ladies in London to be anathema, but you cannot seriously argue that the tens of millions of women in Malaysia, Indonesia or the UK who choose hajib, are not proper Muslims. So it cannot be that wearing Niqab is a religious duty; it is purely a personal choice based either on coercion, culture or political intent (in the case of the Niqab one can hardly add fashion as a raisin d'être).
So if wearing Niqab is a matter of personal choice it seems to me that if there are public policy issues then it is legitimate to make a case of restricting personal freedom to wear it. The obvious one is that a hidden face is a threat: masks are routinely used by criminals to hide their identity both from other people and from the ubiquitous CCTV. I know that civil liberties spokespeople will object to the latter as well, but personally I am not yet afraid of being on camera and in fact feel safer for it. So there is a balance to be struck here. And by the way, even men have been know to hide behind them to commit crimes and escape justice.
France being France has made the Niqab ban a matter of social cohesion. A debate is needed in the UK about what we mean by multi-culturism or social cohesion, but that is a different issue. We can make a case for banning masks in public on security grounds alone, but there is also a discussion to be had on whether someone should be able to participate in a western democratic, and relatively law abiding society if they hide their face. If someone can claim Niqab is a religious expression then can they also argue that it is discrimination to prevent someone from teaching or working in a hospital, or as a social worker? Will they be allowed to drive a car ( banned of course in Saudi Arabia, but not on ground so safety)?
In conclusion, I believe a women has the right to wear what she wants if it does not have consequences for society. In my view this probably means that she must accept that wearing Niqab will preclude her going to a great many public places, and taking up many forms of employments. This is no more oppressive than a ban on public nudity, drunkenness, or smoking for that matter.