Niqabis are not just veiled, they are silenced

A UK court has today ruled that a Muslim woman may not wear niqab (the face covering veil) while giving evidence in a trial. The judgment does, however, suggest that the woman may be allowed to give evidence behind screens, or on a video livelink.

The case had sparked calls for a “national debate” on niqab in the UK, led by Home Office minister Jeremy Browne.

We’ve been here before, of course. As far back as 2006, I took part in a discussion on the issue on the BBC radio’s philosophical bear pit, the Moral Maze.

I pointed out then my personal objection to niqab, and indeed other strictly interpreted religious dress codes: in my view they are the product of an obsession with female sexuality that is just creepy.

This is not a new idea, but I still think it’s true. There are, however, other parts of this argument.
Pointing out the “male gaze” argument carries a danger of simplifying the issue of niqab in the UK to a straightforward view of the face veil as a patriarchal imposition. This makes the debate easier, as it becomes simply about liberating women from portable prisons.

While male pressure may certainly be a factor, it’s far from the whole story.

Veiling (as opposed to hijab) among older Muslim women in the UK is really quite rare. The majority of those taking up niqab are teenage girls and young women choosing to do so whether due to devoutness, fashion or peer pressure. I have heard the argument put forward that the more attractive a girl is, the more it is religiously sanctioned that she should wear a veil. Thus covering your face is in fact sending a signal that you are very beautiful indeed. One can see why some teenage girls would sign up for that.

There is a debate to be had over parts of social interaction where identification is more than merely desirable: courts being the most often cited example. But too often the discussion about niqab is about what “we” are comfortable or uncomfortable with, rather than what is necessary for a functioning society.

And consistently, the voices of niqabis are not sought out. In the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai Brown blithely dismisses niqabis as “unquestioning women” following “manmade injunctions”.

On Newsnight in 2010, when asked whether women in, say, the legal profession should be allowed wear niqab, Tariq Ramadan shrugged off the notion saying the type of woman who wears niqab would never enter that profession in the first place. Niqabis are not just veiled, they are silenced.

It’s worth watching this clip below (from the same Newsnight segment as the one where Tariq Ramadan dismissed the future of niqabis), one of the rare instances where girls and women are actually asked about niqab.

Speaking to veiled young women in Whitechapel, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone encounters some interesting views, but the emphasis is on personal choice.  One Niqabi implies that veiling, like goth or punk, is a subculture rather than necessarily an imposition of piety. A liberal society should not be comfortable with discussions about proscribing modes of dress, for whatever reason they are adopted.