Is wearing the niqab any more acceptable than wearing a paper bag over my head?
Phillip Hollobone MP has said that he expects niqab wearing constituents to remove them before he’ll talk to them. Liberty has warned him of potential legal action under the Equality Act 2006, because this would constitute religious discrimination.
Maybe Mr Hollobone is right. It would be reasonable to ask someone wearing a crash helmet with tinted face shield to remove it, or a paper bag, so why should a niqab be different? In this instance, I think Liberty is wrong. You might argue that this isn’t about religion, but about culture. I’ve emailed Liberty (not that they’ll take any notice of me, having forgotten that I was once on their National Executive committee). This is what I commented on the Guardian website:
I saw two very young women being interviewed on TV about their burqas and niqabs the other day. They were clearly unaware, as are most who are raised in the UK and adopt this form of dress, that this is as much a cultural issue as a religious one. Many Muslim women’s families originate in countries where the burqa and niqab aren’t worn by a majority, and their interpretation of the Qur’an is quite different; they don’t wear Islamic dress. I recently spoke to a young man from Egypt who said he was shocked at the difference between the liberal attitudes back home and the rigidity of the attitudes in a British mosque. He said he’d never go there again as he felt he had nothing in common with the mainly Pakistani people who worshipped there.
Rather than adopting a confrontational attitude, the health education approach might be more successful. There is plenty of evidence here and in Pakistan that covering yourself from head to foot in dark clothing causes rickets and other health problems due to a lack of exposure to sunlight. Unless women are treated for Vitamin D deficiency, they risk having children with rickets too. This is a disease that was virtually wiped out in this country with the Clean Air Act, and now it’s returned due to the adoption of the burqa and niqab.
Before the problem can be tackled, we need to deal with the influence of immigrant imams who have very little understanding of British values, and who are determined to keep women in ignorance. The two girls I mentioned earlier, aged 16 and 17, said that they were willing to rule themselves out of the possibility of a career in medicine or law, for example, because of a refusal to remove their veils.
The issue is far more complicated that banning the burqa.
Illustration (c) M Nelson 2010