The following piece first appeared on the Huffington Post blog, and has been re-posted with the author’s permission and some edits.
Dear Yasmin Alibhai-Brown,
I feel compelled to write this letter in response to your recent article in the Independent addressing the topic of veiled Muslim women. The fact that such views were given space in the Independent is disappointing enough, but that they were made out as some sort of defence of Islam (the right kind of course, “progressive Islam”) is even worse.
Allow me to first position myself in this debate by saying that I do not wear a face-veil, but living in a liberal society, I support the right of women (and anyone else) to wear what they choose, for whatever reason. As a Muslim, I support this right even more if a woman’s decision to cover her face is a personal expression of her devotion to God (it’s not unheard of – see here for just one example). However, I take offence at the suggestion that because I should support the niqab or burka, I am part of some mindless “aggressive guerrilla army of salafists and their misguided allies.” The truth is that as a Shia Muslim, I couldn’t be further away from being an aggressive salafist or an ally of one – for decades my people have been the target of niqab-enforcers, and we continue to be slaughtered with impunity to this day. The Saudi government, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, all detest the Shia for having “deviant” beliefs, and make their feelings known mostly through extreme persecution, often ending in murder (see cases in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia for evidence), and so before coming to this country I often found myself loathing the niqab as a symbol of Wahabi fanaticism. The insistence of these fanatics that women cover their faces, claiming it to be a religious requirement when it is nothing more than patriarchy in disguise, is something I still find reprehensible.
Yet today I stand in support of the right of women to choose niqab. Again, this is because I support the right of anyone to choose what they wear, full stop. Any nation that claims to be built on “liberal” values cannot possibly deem it acceptable to infringe upon a woman’s freedom of expression by banning the niqab, at least not without becoming a paragon of double standards and institutionalised xenophobia (yes, I mean France). Despite this simple fact, if the niqab debate has currently spiraled out of control this suggests only the continued lack of tolerance for otherness, for culturally alien practices, in British society.
Of course, on the surface the arguments are dressed in politically correct terms: ‘safeguarding’, ‘communication’, ‘harm’, ‘oppression’. Beneath the surface, though, is the common element of forcing out otherness, “banning” a practice that is unfamiliar, alien. If the identity of a veiled witness needs to be verified, can it not be done in a separate room, by a female clerk or officer? Would a veiled woman really object to that? And surely campus security should have to consider more than a person’s clothing to establish whether or not they are a security risk? Where do we draw the line? Now that reckless comments have been made about banning veils in schools, should we also have a national debate on banning Sikh head coverings for boys, because they might be “forced” to wear them? Couched beneath the rhetoric, these commentators and politicians are employing the age-old tactic of using legitimate concerns to disguise racist discomforts and paranoia. In spite of being from among the Muslims you are attempting to speak for, your description of the veil as a “shroud” is derogatory to the point of being racist. Worse still is the insinuation that women who veil are a provocation similar to the Ku Klux Klan? Let’s take a moment to reflect on that – these are women who veil for their religion, whether forced or otherwise. Is it really reasonable to compare them to a handful of violent bigots who are right up there with the Nazis?
To address your “legitimate” criticisms: firstly, choosing to cover the face is by no means choosing to be objectified – it is the opposite. The niqab makes superficial features irrelevant, and brings into focus the features by which a niqab-wearing woman chooses to be judged: her mind, her speech, her values. You would know this simple fact had you ever met a decent number of niqab-wearing women in your life; in this country, they are working, going to university, leading truly liberated lives because they are free from expectations of the male gaze. We wouldn’t even be having this debate if niqab-wearing women weren’t pursuing higher education. Secondly, If you think women will never become judges or barristers or will “deny themselves jobs” because of choosing not to conform to Western expectations of physical presentation, and that this is the fault of the women themselves, not of those denying them said opportunities, then you are in effect defending such blatantly discriminatory, Islamophobic, racist attitudes. You mention Malala’s courage, yet it’s ironic that by promoting a policy of forced ‘de-veiling’, you are closer to Malala’s oppressors than you seem to realise.
Zealotry is hard to defend in most cases, and I will not make any attempts to defend it here. To say that Islam today needs to be formed and shaped by Muslims into some modern, “progressive” adaptation is, however, an idea that I detest, simply because it smacks of so much Orientalist, Western ideological hegemony. Islam must be “modernised” for Muslims in the West, because its essence is “unmodern”; Islam must be made “progressive” for Muslims in the West, because it would otherwise remain “backward.” Well, as a modern, progressive, free-thinking Muslim in the West, I say: no thank you. The religion I follow is not in need of modernisation by Muslims in the West. Islam is, and always has been, a progressive religion – those who do not recognise it need to understand the faith at its core, rather than imposing upon it Western standards of modernity and progress. The Qur’an mentions that men and women will be judged as equals, and the choices of women are theirs alone to make. The right to choose niqab is inalienable, and it is not yours, Sarah Wollaston’s, Jeremy Browne’s, David Cameron’s or anyone else’s – it belongs only to Muslim women.