To Veil or Not to Veil: Is that The Question?

Many British Muslim women wear the head-scarf, or hijab. Some British Muslim women also wear the veil, or niqab, to cover their faces. These latter in particular are the type that make Jack Straw feel "uncomfortable".

Because he can’t see their faces. And it, well, poses a really "visible reminder of our differences".

In addition was Straw’s other important point: that veiling is a "statement of separation and difference"; and that it actually is responsible for the creation of parallel Muslim and non-Muslim communities. By putting his words carefully, Straw thus carefully prised open a whole new debate about the niqab/veil, a debate in which it is now perfectly politically correct to demand that Muslim women who wear the veil be forced to take it off.

So here we have yet another white, middle-class male trying to tell a bunch of women how they should live their lives, in particular how they should dress. The logic is the same as those Muslims who believe that forcing women to adhere to some sort of dress-code is justifiable. Both demands are on the same moral scale, and attempt to cut out the very subject of the debate, Muslim women themselves.

I was therefore quite heartened on Friday midday when I got a call from the newsdesk at the Independent on Sunday, who wanted to find a way of talking to Muslim women who wear the veil. I put them in touch with a friend of my wife, Sarah Hussain, who started wearing the veil several years ago as a matter of choice. I also advised them to contact the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and Arzu Merali, who wears the head-scarf, and who is research director at the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

On p. 16-17 of the newspaper yesterday, they quoted, very briefly, the views of Sarah, Arzu, and an MPAC spokeswoman Catherine Hossain. I reproduce some excerpts here, so you can get an idea of what Muslim women themselves have to say about this issue (something it seems the rest of the media and others demanding that women stop veiling have little interest in):

Sarah Hussein, a student from Acton, West London, wears a full veil or niqab…: "The last two years have been a nightmare. I have had had abuse thrown at me so many times. When I was growing up I didn’t wear a veil and then I made a spiritual decision to wear one — I have experienced people’s reaction to me when I was wearing the veil and when I wasn’t, so I know this abuse is because I wear a veil. It is usually from white men in groups and it is when I am alone or with my family. They never say anything when my husband is there. I know it would be easier for me if I didn’t wear my veil, but I shouldn’t be dictated to as to who I am. I am not doing anything wrong, I am interacting with society and studying society."

Read these words carefully. It’s all very well pontificating about the evil and oppression of a veiled woman, assuming that we know all there is to know about why a young modern Muslim woman might choose to wear it. But perhaps we should stop and think. Perhaps the gut-instinct, the cultural revulsion, the feeling "uncomfortable", is nothing more than the simplistic prejudice of seeing someone do things differently, in a way that one cannot understand. The task then is not necessarily to engage in a form of "liberal imperialism", commanding Muslim women to break free, throw off their veils, or ELSE! Perhaps the task is to build bridges of mutual cultural understanding.

Catherine Hossain is a nursery teacher and spokesperson for Ilford MPAC. She wears the hijab: "[Jack Straw] is creating a storm in a tea cup by saying some very ‘headline-grabbing’ things. I don’t think it is far from the truth to say that it is for his own gain — to become deputy prime minister… Talking about women taking off their veils is not going to help. It suggests that men are more integrated than women when there is no evidence for this."

Arzu Merali, co-author of a recent study into the Muslim community’s reaction to veils and headscarfs: "Mr. Straw’s abuse of power should not dictate to these women what they should wear. These women go to his surgery and are vulnerable and I suspect that they remove their veil because they feel they have to — he is a powerful person. There is a perception that Muslim women are pushed around by Muslim men, but what Jack Straw is doing is no better than that. He is a bully."

However, the Independent on Sunday had these "Muslim views" at the bottom of a double-page spread that was taken up largely by a lengthy comment by Joan Smith in which she described how she "loathese the niqab and the burqa" as worn in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finds them "equally offensive on my local high street."

But Smith seems a little out of her depth. I have no doubt that in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Muslim women are forced to veil their face. But there are important caveats. The first is that, in predominantly Shi’ite Iraq especially, it is certainly not mainstream or traditional to wear the full niqab or veil (i.e. facial covering). Some women may choose to wear it. Others may indeed be forced. But the idea that the majority wear the niqab, and are forced to do so, is simply wrong.

However, there is undoubtedly a growing danger of women being forced to wear the head-scarf — please note, that this practice of wearing a head-covering is also often referred to as "the veil" also, so the term "veil" needs to be properly defined depending on the circumstances. Look at US-occupied Iraq. The BBC reports that "UN officials in Baghdad say they are very concerned that religious extremists are intimidating women and girls into wearing the veil. In particular, some radical clerics have demanded that women — even Christians — wear the veil." (The veil referred to here, by the way, refers to the head, not the face). Similarly, The Guardian noted that the US-appointed governing council in Iraq, along with the dominant religious parties including those that now dominate the government, are responsible for climate in which Muslims girls "are being forced to wear the veil again."

And the same thing is indeed happening in US-occupied Afghanistan too. Violence against women there is not only as endemic as it was under the Taliban, it is explicitly condoned and actively facilitated by the Northern Alliance war-lord regime, with ministry officials policing women to ensure they comply with yet another national official dress-code.

I would like you to consider what was happening in 2003, as documented by Human Rights Watch, in western Herat, under the rule of Northern Alliance governor Ismail Khan. Khan was described by the Economist as "The west’s favourite warlord", and "As good as it gets." The Economist goes on to praise Khan for promoting "open government" and other such "peaceful and enlightened" social programmes.

Perhaps Khan forgot the meaning of "peaceful and enlightened" when he was involved in what the 2003 annual Human Rights Watch report describes as follows:

"In western Herat, governor Ismail Khan ordered a number of announcements on television and radio about proper Islamic conduct, including instructions for all females to dress in Islamic clothes (taken to mean the burqa or chadori) and not to associate with men in public, and for men to refrain from wearing western clothes. Ismail Khan’s troops began harassing women not dressed in the burqa or chadori–a more restrictive version of the hijab worn in neighboring Iran. Herat’s police also began arresting unrelated men and women seen together; in several cases, men were taken to Herat’s jail and beaten by police troops; women and girls were taken to a hospital, where police ordered doctors to perform forced medical checks to determine if the women and girls had had recent sexual intercourse."

A regional aberration? If only… HRW continues to look at what was going on the Afghan capital, where the president Hamid Karzai himself –an ex-UNOCAL consultant- resides:

"In Kabul, during the loya jirga, several conservative strongmen intimidated delegates, suggesting that if they spoke on Islamic issues or the Koran, they would ‘face the consequences’. Sima Simar, a member of the first interim government, was accused of blasphemy, and told to appear in a court to face the charges (later dropped). Through 2002, there were reports of police forces storming wedding parties, insisting that playing music was ‘illegal,’ and arresting and sometimes beating musicians. Reconstituted Vice and Virtue squads patrolled Kabul, intimidating women without burqas and men wearing Western clothes." [Incidentally governor Khan only became considered a problem when he "defied the central government and refused to hand over to Kabul most of the tax and customs revenue."]

In both societies, we have two US-backed governments which advocate a specific dress-code for women, to be policed as part of a theocratic social order. Smith is absolutely right to note these cases of systematic state-endorsed violence against women, and the manner in which certain configurations of power here actively justify the legal and physical control of female appearance. It’s a shame that she misses out the all-important backdrop.

Note the backdrop: Both configurations of power include, at their helm, the forces of our Anglo-American "liberators", who are purportedly spreading forth democratization across the Muslim world. In the name of "democracy", we’re still going around financing fundamentalists because, really, our leaders are not hugely interested in democracy, nor the human rights that our military interventionism consistently obliterates worldwide. They are far more interested in the more important matters of geostrategic and economic interests, particularly in terms of securing access and control over the world’s most lucrative supplies of fast-dwindling hydrocarbon (oil, gas, etc.) energies.

The need for that access also explains why the US government, for instance, was happy to provide military and financial sponsorship to the Taliban from 1994 through to 2000, as confirmed in the Congressional testimony of people like Hon. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, former White House Special Assistant to Ronald Reagan. As one jubilant US diplomat remarked rather jubilantly:"The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that." Forget whether the Afghans wanted to live with that. That never was, and never has been, the point. The point is protecting UNOCAL, and related vested interests. And clearly still is.

There is, thus, a huge contrast between the decisions and plight of Muslim women in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those here in the USA, UK, or Western Europe. It is condescending and ignorant to attempt to group together Muslim women from these disparate regions into a single homogenous mass who can be defined and encapsulated under the same diagnosis. The fact is that the majority of those Muslim women in the west who wear some form of the veil (with or without facial covering, the vast majority do without), do so because they have made an informed choice to do so. Those who’ve taken the time to talk to Muslim women about this, rather than pontificate in an ivory tower, have by and large made great progress in bridging the subjective cultural divide. For instance, Mary Walker, who was a producer for the BBC2 series "Living Islam", drastically changed her views of the veil after talking to Muslims in 19 different countries:

"Just as to us the veil represents Muslim oppression, to them miniskirts and plunging necklines represent oppression. They said that men are cheating women in the West. They let us believe we’re liberated but enslave us to the male gaze. However much I insist on the right to choose what I wear, I cannot deny that the choice is often dictated by what will make my body more attractive to men. Women cannot separate their identity from their appearance and so we remain trapped in the traditional feminine world, where the rules are written by men.

By choosing to wear the veil, these women were making a conscious decision to define their role in society and their relationship with men. That relationship appeard to be based more on exchange and mutual respect (a respect that was often lacking in the personal relationships I saw in the West), than the master/servant scenario I had anticipated. The Veil to them signified visual confirmation of their religious commitment, in which men and women were united, and for Zeenah and Fatima an even stronger commitment to a political ideal.

So were my notions of oppression in the form of the veil disqualified? If my definition of equality was free will then I could no longer define that oppression as a symptom of Islam. The women had all excercised their right to choose. To some extent, they were freer than me — I had less control over my destiny. I could no longer point at them and say they were oppressed and I was not. My life was influenced by male approval as theirs — but the element of choice had been taken out of mine. Their situations and their arguments had, after all, served to highlight shortcomings in my view of my own liberty."

It is this sort of self-reflection and analysis, as well as the previous deep-political critique, that was unfortunately completely missing from Joan Smith’s Independent on Sunday piece. When Smith finally got round to the subject of Muslim women veiling in the UK, her comment was, typically, to portray the convictions and perceptions of Muslim women themselves as utterly irrelevant, and not worth any consideration at all:

"Muslim women in this country may be telling the truth when they say they are covering their hair and faces out of choice, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been influenced by relatives and male clerics."

In one sentence, she dismisses the free decisions of millions of Muslim women as not even worth the freedom required to make them. These people must be oppressed! They must be coerced! The implication is that Muslim women are incapable of making their own choices and decisions, incapable of rational reflection, suffering from some sort of deep-seated inferiority, stupidity and/or vulnerability inherent to their peculiar Muslim psyche, requiring people like Jack Straw to stand up, take charge, and pressurize such women to change their backward ways. And immense socio-political pressure it is, whether or not it has been a legally-codified.

And of course, there is the wider issue of the alleged linkage between veiling and failed community relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. The fact remains that it is quite absurd to suggest that the phenomenon of parallel communities and so on has anything whatsoever to do with the fact that some women cover their faces. Straw’s statement to this effect is a pathetic deflection away from policies of institutionalized racism and social segregation routinely deployed by local authorities under both the Tories and New Labour, including during Straw’s tenure as Home Secretary.

Want to know why British Muslim Asians in areas like Blackburn and Bradford are separated off into impoverished ghettoised communities? Well, I wrote about this as a researcher at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, when I was doing a report on the Oldham riots. We found that institutional racism condoned by Oldham Borough Council was at the root of the underlying causative processes behind the rioting. Unemployment was twice as high for blacks and Asians, compared to whites. In particular, at 38 per cent, the unemployment rate for people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic origin is nearly five times that of white people. Housing conditions are also grim. Thirteen per cent of Oldham’s housing stock is “statutorily unfit for human habitation and a further 28% are in serious disrepair”. Areas with houses in such condition are predominantly inhabited by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Here is a relevant quote from my IHRC report (also available here) on the direct role of the local authority in manufacturing and consolidating these ethnically-defined parallel communities:

According to the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) this state of affairs is rooted in “a whole history of racism and social exclusion.” CARF reports that in 1993, Oldham Borough Council was found to have been operating “an unlawful segregation policy in its housing allocation”. The policy effectively “ghettoised Asians onto a rundown estate, while whites were given homes in a more desirable area.” The legacy of this policy, which has gone on for decades, has continued to this day, exacerbating an informal type of apartheid between the white and Asian communities. In 1990, Oldham Council attempted to cover-up a council housing allocation report it had commissioned which exposed a “staggering catalogue of discrimination.” The report found that Asians “spent longer on waiting lists, were more likely to be offered lower quality housing, and were segregated on specific estates around the town centre.” A Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) investigation into private housing conducted in the same year similarly revealed that at least two estate agents were “redlining­ the practice of confining different racial groups to their own areas.” Other problems include the fact that the Council has no race relations or quality officer; similarly, the local racial equality council was shut down two years ago.

Straw wants to blame Muslim women for the results of the racist and discriminatory social, economic, and housing policies of local authorities overseen by his own government, when it is such women who remain the principal victims of such policies. What a bitter irony indeed.

So if you’re interested in genuinely tackling "Muslim ghettos" and parallel communities, you could start by writing to Home Secretary John Reid and asking what he’s doing to reverse the deliberate entrenchment of "informal apartheid" between white and Asian communities dotted around the country, by corrupt local authorities.

And if you’re rightly concerned about the rampant repression of women in Iraq and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, you could start by writing to the Foreign Office and asking them to stop financing and supporting unpopular, tyrannical regimes throughout the Middle East.

And if you still think that covering the face is a danger to community relations, don’t pontificate: prove it. I don’t think compromising on yet more civil liberties at home is the way forward.