When it comes to Muslim-related issues we, in Britain, do things differently. We do not ban the face veil which is worn by some Muslim women, like they do in France and Belgium, and we do not ban mosque minarets like they do in Switzerland.
However, we sometimes have a nasty habit of ‘over-cooking the egg’ when it comes to dealing with Muslim-related issues. Sections of our media and political elites can initiate free-fall discussions that focus disproportionately on our Muslim citizens and their lifestyles; they often create a national hype and debate it on and on until something else comes up. One of the issues is the face veil.
In recent years, the first debate on this issue was initiated by none other than Labour’s senior ‘Muslim-friendly’ politician, Jack Straw, in October 2006, when he wrote in his local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, that he would prefer Muslim women not to wear veils at his Blackburn constituency surgeries. His comments got widespread national publicity. In 2010, Jack Straw publicly apologised over his 2006 comments.
Very recently, the face veil issue has again gripped our national media. It started last week when the Birmingham Metropolitan College decided to ban Muslim veils on its campus. Students accused the college of racial and religious discrimination; the NUS Black Students’ Campaign came up with 9,000 online signatures protesting against the college decision and, ultimately, the college backed down. With this and a continuing court case involving a veiled Muslim woman, the debate has now gone viral in the media world.
Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne felt it necessary to call for a national debate on veils. He probably got more than what he wanted, but not in Parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg came out strongly against banning veils in public places, calling it “un-British”. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, waded in by suggesting that it was not the role of the state to tell women what to wear; “wearing niqab should be the woman’s choice”, she said. The latest heavyweight joining the debate was Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who suggested, “NHS patients have the right to demand their doctor or nurse does not wear a veil;” however, he also insisted that it is a “professional and not political” issue.
Creative and sensational headlines in the tabloids, matched by equally creative and lively discussions in the broadsheets, have been feeding the diet of publicity. The primetime BBC show, “Question Time”, also had quite an interesting discussion on this subject on September 19.
Questions definitely arise - who are these women who, by wearing a piece of cloth on their face, have created such a feverish marathon discussion in the country? How many are there in Britain and why do they wear the veil? Should this be so important an issue deserving such national attention?
The fact that most people would not disagree with is that face veils are worn by only a tiny fraction of British Muslim women and as to why they wear this is anybody’s guess.
What we have heard so far from some of those women who cover their faces is that they do this for religious reasons. But the overwhelming majority of practicing Muslim women do not wear the face veil. This makes the issue religious interpretation which may be linked to culture. Religion and culture are not easy areas in life. Do some of these women wear this because “misogynist men in a male dominated culture” force this on them? It may be the case for a few, but how do we know without talking to them?
Yet some in our media and political world are hell-bent on proving how uncultured or backward Muslims are. This is sheer politicisation of the issue and it does not help the debate. However, on balance, I am generally heartened by the fact that the debate on this issue is gradually getting nuanced, informative and dispassionate - from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Where Muslims are known to differ on everything nowadays, they seem to have come up with smarter and more consistent views on the face veil.
This has been articulated by the Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, in a statement, “We recognise that there are different theological approaches to the niqab. Some consider this to be an essential part of their faith, while others do not ... but Islamic practices allow for certain exceptions, and in the spirit of being reasonable. That debate will continue, but it must be done and led by Muslim women, who freely decide to wear, or not wear the niqab or hijab.”
Personally, I do not want to add anything new to this debate; none within my extended or immediate family wears the face veil. My own view is that it is a woman’s choice according to her understanding of religion, public modesty and human dignity. In a choice-based society people need to accommodate others. In the public arena a good understanding is needed among people for better civil interaction - between employees and employers, students and teachers, service providers and recipients. And unlike on other occasions, I agree with our senior politicians that it is a professional issue, it should be a woman’s choice and it is un-British to think of banning it in public.
Dress is our external symbol and in public life one has to care about our collective security; we have to look after our own as well as others’ safety. For a religious person, one’s inner spirituality is as, if not more, important as external manifestation. Now that enough has been said on this, are we in a position to avoid “storms in our tea cups” and rise above the veil issue by slaying the mythical dragons of misinformation about Muslims in our midst?
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is the Chair of East London Mosque Trust and former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). –Aljazeera