Stray thoughts on niqab-related tussles

I don’t care for ‘Islamophobia': it names a multitude of sins, but more than the odd virtue too, and politics seldom gains from too-broad terms. That said, Daniel Trilling’s latest column at the Rationalist Association site (he’s New Humanist‘s new editor) says excellent things on the recent media storm over niqab-clad women.

A defendant currently on trial in London, if you hadn’t heard about it, has been permitted to wear hers in court while removing it to give evidence, face shielded from public view by a screen but visible to judge, jury and lawyers. (‘The defendant, who cannot be identified,’ BBC News reports mischievously, ‘was present for the hearing.’) A Birmingham Sixth Form college, meanwhile, has revised its dress code after pressure to allow niqab.

Writes Trilling, among other things:

The National Secular Society opposes “a general ban on the wearing of the burka and niqab”, but states that “religious freedom is not absolute” and supports certain requirements to remove a face veil in situations where people need to be identified. Precisely which situations, how these are negotiated, and whether people are being treated fairly and without being stigmatised, seem to me to be the real areas for debate.

It seems on the face of it a sensible line to take. Discussions like this always call for degrees of nuance, so like him, I’ll avoid skindeep demands and outline some instincts that shape my thinking.

  • I’m don’t believe in ‘religious freedom’ as a category unto itself, the ‘right to manifest religion’ being one example. There are no religious rights or freedoms, as such: there are secular rights and freedoms (of thought, speech and assembly, say) which at times find religious expression. One such right, it seems to me, is not having one’s clothing unduly policed.
  • Demands ‘face coverings’ be banned in public, Tory MP Philip Hollobone’s among them, seem clear products of the so-called War on Terror’s Hobbesian domestic politics, obsessed with fatuous ‘security’ concerns. Could you tell a friend in detail, if asked, about the faces of passers-by when last you went to buy milk or strolled to work? Did you even eye them that closely, or feel a burning need to view them? If not, what does this say about the widespread urge to view niqab-wearers’ faces?
  • My general presumption thus would be not to proscribe items of clothing. Certain specific contexts do exist, however, where we justifiably require faces’ visibility – in passport photographs, banks or while taking exams, for instance. (During my university finals, student cards were placed on desks to be compared with owners’ faces by invigilators.) The question then, as Trilling states, is which contexts qualify.
  • Incidentally: should we assume any woman in a niqab considers its removal an unthinkable sacrilege? Many no doubt do; there are also those, I’d imagine, who find it viable enough if unpreferable, or else not a matter of huge importance. Veiled women: not homogenous or undifferentiated.
  • Relatedly: niqabs are not burqas. Here are the former, predominantly Middle Eastern; here are the latter, predominantly South Asian. So-called Muslim cultures from all around the world: not interchangeable.
  • Also: why the media’s constant reference to ‘the niqab’/’the burqa’, as if only one exists? Veils, and women wearing them, are plural.
  • Also: a little over three million Muslims, half of them presumably female, live in France where veils have been publicly banned since 2011. Around 2000 women according to the Independent‘s coverage of the Sixth Form college story, and certainly a very small minority, wear this version of hijab. Why have veil-wearing Muslim women, making up only a tiny, highly conservative fraction of the populace at large, been used so emblematically of Muslims in the West by media there?
  • The question of whether or to what extent niqab (or hijab more broadly) is a ‘choice’ is not binary. ‘Choice’ is complex and has degrees and counter-valances; if you want to read about that, see Marwa Berro’s guest post here on Lady Gaga and veils.
  • This whole discussion is complex, in fact, and needs to involve who are Muslims, ex-Muslims and who’ve worn hijab – as Zakia Uddin argues persuasively here.
  • France’s anti-veil laws have, it seems to me, had penetratingly dire results.
  • All sides in the current British controversy appear to want a ‘definitive answer’ from government on the status of niqab ‘bans’, one way or the other, which seems to hint at legislation on the issue. I am unconvinced, especially in the courtroom and college contexts, that this is a good idea, as I’m often unconvinced demands for new legislation are worthwhile.
  • In educational settings, it seems to me niqab-related issues might best be dealt with case-by-case. It’s conceivable potential risks of students covering their faces might vary strongly between schools (are ‘security’ concerns over covered faces more valid, perhaps, at Birmingham’s inner-city colleges than small-sized grammar schools in leafy Buckinghamshire?), and different teachers might feel differently about veils’ impact on lessons. (Could staff legitimately ask, for example, to see students’ faces for while teaching them? Probably, yes – on the other hand, individuals’ discomfort on being made to remove veils or tense group dynamics as a result might stop that being worth it, or cause teachers to think carefully about whether, or how uncompromisingly, to set down that rule.)
  • In court, as in the classroom if not more so, facial expressions matter greatly. Though we don’t bar the blind or partially sighted from jury service, those who do serve are presumably told as objectively as possible of testifiers’ expressions – certainly, we wouldn’t hold court with the lights out. In the current case, of course, jurors and court officials can still see the defendant’s face, so perhaps the point is moot. While we do let individuals give evidence in silhouette, this presumably requires special circumstances: religious faith alone, as far as I can see, shouldn’t qualify. There may perhaps be issues of comfort here too, since insisting garments held sacred be removed could quite conceivably place witnesses under added stress, thus biasing proceedings – this seems, though, like a reason for the kind of reasonable accommodation currently on offer. (Do members of the public have the same right as the jury to see all participants’ faces? I would say not.)
  • In either case above, existing laws allow over-draconian rulings to be challenged quite sufficiently. My sense is that any case for niqabs’ allowance based specifically on legislation to that effect, and not on any broader principle of human rights or personal autonomy, would deserve dismissal, as does UK Christian groups’ demand for a specific, legally enshrined right to wear crosses.

Those are my thoughts. I might have missed no end of things of course, and my stance here isn’t set in stone, so what are you yours?