Speaking out against the veiling of Muslim women is hugely problematic because of the way niqab has been politicised, and also because the experience of North Africa shows that when Western feminists get shrill about Islamic oppression of women it seems to mean that more and more women are coerced into donning the veil or getting their genitals cut as a form of anti-colonialist solidarity.
Jack Straw, the British MP, caused a furore this month by asking women in his constituency to please unveil when meeting him. Straw has a special interest in seeing people’s faces as he is hearing impaired and relies on lipreading to better understand the speech of others, but he was also clear that he found niqab disturbing in its own right as a denial of personhood to the women wearing it – this cultural tradition deliberately makes them unpeople without faces.
When it comes to something as basic as women hidden from view behind religious veils, is it really so hard to say this is a bad practice? Because some racists may jump on the bandwagon to attack Muslims, that’s no reason to pretend veils are OK. Meanwhile, Labour has given away yet more state education to all the religions – 42 of the first 100 expensive academies gifted to Christian groups, seven new Muslim schools, with 150 in the pipeline. Why, in this least religious of nations?
The veil turns women into things. It was shocking to find on the streets of Kabul that invisible women behind burkas are not treated with special respect. On the contrary, they are pushed and shoved off pavements by men, jostled aside as if almost subhuman without the face-to-face contact that recognises common humanity.
I choose not to be shrill and confrontational in general about the practise of niqab, but the article prompted me to make it clear that I see no doubt that the practise is hugely oppressive and not at all a sign of respect for women’s persons as apologists like to claim. I have little problem with simple headscarf hijab because I can still see a face, catch a glance, share a smile with the women in the headscarf. I can’t do that with a woman in niqab, and that’s the whole point of the veil – isolation and dehumanisation.
Do I think there should be laws against the veil? No, although it’s an interesting security dilemma. But obviously, if the veil is banned in public, then the women in families where it is expected will simply become totally prisoners in their own homes. It might make some people feel better just because they don’t see women in niqab anymore, but it certainly won’t do the women any good.
So how do we walk the tightrope between indicating that we find the veil dehumanising and oppressive without further isolating and punishing the women who feel compelled to wear it?