‘Why I believe in the right to wear the veil’

Eyes only: Home Office minister Jeremy Browne has called for a national debate about the niqab.

Many women, Muslim or otherwise, wear the veil not by compulsion but by choice. So why should anybody have the right to tell them not to?

Opponents of the veil claim that they are defending freedom, ‘protecting’ Muslim women from oppression and society from security threats. In courts, from now on, a woman’s verbal testimony is insufficient; her face must now be inspected for suspicious movements or symbolic wrinklings. This campaign erodes the very freedom it claims to preserve.

A free society is dependent upon personal privacy. Nobody needs to know what I do, where I go or with whom. In particular, nobody needs to know what I look like. My appearance is my own business, not yours. If I choose to walk around in a hoodie, in a polka-dot bikini, in men’s clothes, in Islamic robes, in a Batman costume, it is up to me – and nobody else. I will not allow anyone to define my identity or to label me. I become the person I want to be every day. So although I am a Catholic from generations more English than bloody-mindedness itself, I often choose to wear Islamic dress.

Not all women are pressurised into wearing the veil: within many families, some wear it and others choose not to. Muslim women are also protected by our laws. At any time, they may throw off the veil or call the police if they are intimidated. Outreach groups make women of all cultures aware of their life choices. What baffles Europeans is that many women, like me, actually choose to wear it. Not because we are frightened or ‘backward’, but because we relish the privacy, the peace, the protection.

Nobody forces me: my husband – an Algerian now anglicised – cringes when I wear it. But its not up to him.

Islamic dress, like feminist dress, resists body fascism. ‘You’ve got to look good’, the culture industry tells us, or you will never find work, never socialise and never be loved. This dominant view drives schoolgirls to anorexia. It leads women to have nose jobs, spend hundreds on make-up, shiver in miniskirts and damage their feet with high heels. Great for business, but not for the individual, who feels like they are converted into an object, dependent for their happiness upon what others think.

Given the kaleidoscope of British fashion, why is Muslim dress singled out for attack? It is an especially soft target for the tabloid press and their anti-Muslim bedfellows the English Defence League. Veil-wearing women have been insulted and spat at, in scenes reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Politicians resisting this mob are therefore displaying exceptional moral courage.

The ‘suicide bomber’ argument is illogical: a bomb could be hidden by a baggy suit or a rucksack perhaps, but how could it possibly fit under a little flap of material covering our faces? CCTV cameras in Britain, as well as our excellent intelligence services, can track genuine suspects without needing to have the whole population’s faces constantly turned to a screen. In what sort of society, anyway, must we be constantly exposed and inspected? Unlike Europe, much of which has embraced both ID cards and the veil-ban, in Britain freedom means something very specific: doing whatever you like as long as it does not harm others. Certainly, allowing veils causes far less distress than their forced removal. Freedom cannot exist if it is freedom except this and except that – in the end it disappears. The freedom to wear what I want is a freedom that I take very seriously: my body, my face, my veil!

You Decide

  1. Is there any accessory or item of clothing that should be banned in public places?

Activities

  1. Choose a religion and research an aspect of its traditional dress. When is it worn? Who is it worn by? Ad what is its cultural and theological significance?

Word Watch

In courts
This week, a London court issued a much debated ruling on whether a Muslim defendant had a right to cover her face in the courtroom. The judge decided that wearing a veil was permissible except when giving evidence.
Body fascism
A provocative way of describing how people (especially women) are made to feel as though their bodies should conform to a particular norm. Campaigners for positive body image say that we should stop idealising tall, skinny women and recognise that any shape and size can be attractive.
ID cards
Compulsory documents confirming the holder’s identity handed out by the government. In the EU, 25 countries currently have ID cards. A plan by the previous British Government to introduce them was scrapped.

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