Step right up and show your face

The following letter appeared in the 20th October Independent.

Sir: My fellow countrymen seem bewildered by the niqab, a bewilderment rapidly turning into anger and repulsion; but it is just a simple garment with a simple purpose.Every other person in Britain has been affected by infidelity, and it all boils down to either party having been charmed by someone else, hence losing interest. Britons are so used to this reality that they view any means of prevention, however logical, as absurd and futile.

Dress code plays an integral part in the promotion of fidelity in a society. Islam seeks to preserve the family and quash promiscuity. Immodest dress is a direct cause of this vice. As for men, in Islam they need to be in the world of work for most of their day, and wearing similar clothing would be a major impediment. Islam prescribes this formula as the only way to attain harmony and peace in marital life.

Do commentators and politicians honestly believe an extra garment worn only outside the house means a woman loses her meaning, her value, her self? This is a backward and oppressive concept which amazingly is being referred to as “progressive” and “empowering”.

A woman in niqab is not a mere shadow; she has family and friends who know and appreciate her. They are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her. A friend of mine complained: “For God’s sake, I have a great life, I have a family, friends, go to parties, and everyone I know knows me. The only people who I haven’t been quality-stamped by is the public, and I don’t see why I need to be.”

I and many other Muslim women view the present furore as nothing but a politicised version of being nosey.

Women’s faces should be concealed, lest they charm another woman’s husband. Promiscuity is a vice. Sex is dangerous. Sex is caused by women’s attractiveness to men.

Men need to be in the world of work. Women don’t.

A woman’s family and (presumably female) friends are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her.

I grew up in a society which had been deeply affected by the achievements of the women’s liberation movement and its successors. As a result, I grew up in a society where attitudes like those expressed in this letter would be laughed at, or at best treated with pity and scorn. I don’t respect these attitudes or the practices which derive from them; I don’t believe they deserve respect. I believe they’re an insult both to women and to men, and should be criticised on those grounds.

This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be tolerated. The most worrying thing about the current furore about the veil is that the difference between tolerance and respect seems to have been forgotten or obscured, on both sides of the debate. Defenders of the niqab argue that it’s just one more outwardly visible sign of religious observance, like a crucifix or a turban, and should be respected as such; I don’t need to restate my disagreement with this position. But critics of the niqab go to the opposite extreme, arguing not only that the niqab is objectionable but that women should be asked – or compelled – to remove it. I detest the niqab – come to that, I’m not at all keen on hijab in general, which seems to me to embody very much the same set of sexist assumptions – but I was shocked and offended by Jack Straw’s casual revelation that he asks niqab-wearers to unveil. I find myself in qualified agreement with this columnist from the Arab News:

Mrs. Azmi was suspended not because she is Muslim but because she is unable to perform her job to the standard that parents have a right to expect for their children. If she believes that it is her religious duty to wear the full-face veil — as she does — then clearly she cannot be asked to remove it, but neither can she expect to teach in a mixed-gender environment. I have no doubt that Aishah Azmi is a dedicated and capable teacher but she should be teaching at a single-gender school where she can be free to teach without a face cover. Clearly she knows this since she did not wear a face covering to her job interview at the school.There are a host of jobs that Muslims cannot undertake. Some, like wine tasting, are out of bounds for men and women. Others, like being a lifeguard, are out of bounds for veiled women. It is in the nature of the job. It is ludicrous to cry racial discrimination because the job we wish to do is incompatible with our religious customs.

One final note on the sexism of the niqab. Apparently Aishah Azmi was happy to teach a class of children unveiled, as long as she could replace the veil if a male member of staff came into the room. Picture the scene: a man comes into the room, the woman hides her face. What message does that send to the girls in the class? What message does it send to the boys?

PS Fortuitously, Brian (who didn’t grow up in the 1970s) has been thinking along similar lines.

Update 23/10
Rob, in comments: “to tolerate something requires that you disapprove of it”

Interesting angle. Apparently on Question Time the other night the idea that this is historically a tolerant society (and so why should we have a problem with this?) got a lot of play. My first reaction to hearing this was to laugh out loud – we may live in a society which respects non-white and non-Christian cultures now, but it sure as hell wasn’t like that in the 1960s and 1970s, to go back no further than that. (Flicker of sympathy for the anti-Islamophobia lobby at this point. On the anti-racism front we’ve come a long way, in quite a short time.)

But tolerance – in the sense of “I think the way you live is wrong but you’ve got a right to carry on doing it, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else” – probably is better-rooted in this society than intolerance (“I know the way you live is wrong and you’ve got to stop it right now”). And it’s intolerance, of course, which Straw and Kelly play to. All very communitarian, in New Labour’s understanding of the word – compare Cameron’s ostentatious tolerance of ‘hoodies’.

(There’s a difference between tolerance (public attitude) and toleration (official stance), but since Straw & co are effectively playing both ends – evoking intolerance in support of decreased toleration – the difference may not make much difference in this case.)

Update 30/10

Is this the witness, friar?
First let her show her face, and after speak.

Pardon, my lord; I will not show my face
Until my husband bid me.

What! are you married?

No, my lord.

Are you a maid?

No, my lord.

A widow, then?

Neither, my lord.

Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?

My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid,
widow, nor wife.

[From Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1. ‘Punk’ = prostitute]

Karen Armstrong (via Rob) makes some excellent points drawing on her own experience of veiling as a member of a Catholic religious community [sic], a group which has attracted its own share of opprobrium in this country:

When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism.

She also brings out the history of governmental and imperial oppression which official demands to un-veil bring with them. It’s as well to be reminded that reactionary customs may be a resource of resistance to the coercion of state-sponsored liberalism.

And yet, and yet. There’s a large hole in Armstrong’s argument; she ignores or obscures the crucial difference between the nun’s veil and the niqab. To take the veil is to devote oneself to God: it’s an emblem of withdrawal from any kind of involvement with society or with men, and of being set apart from the great majority of women. To become a nun, in a time when the options for women are defined by their relationship with a man (maid, widow [or] wife – or prostitute), was to refuse a role in a gender-defined social structure; for some women it could be an act of self-determination, even rebellion. To put on the niqab is an act of religious duty, and it’s an emblem of withdrawal from involvement with male-dominated society, but these similarities are deceptive. The niqab-wearer’s withdrawal from society goes along with a continuing relationship with one man (and his children). It’s a way of living within the framework of maid, widow or wife, not withdrawing from it – and its advocates recommend it for all women, even (or especially) those women who are already actively refusing to live a life defined by gender roles. If putting on the niqab is a rebellion, it’s a rebellion against self-determination. In many respects it’s the polar opposite of the nun’s veil.


  1. Ellis
    Posted 22 October 2006 at 14:08 | Permalink | Reply

    Inspirational post, Phil!

    Retrograde Mark of Separation

  2. Phil
    Posted 22 October 2006 at 15:38 | Permalink | Reply

    Idiotic post, Ellis.

  3. Backword Dave
    Posted 22 October 2006 at 19:23 | Permalink | Reply

    I agree with almost all of that. The only part I don’t is “I was shocked and offended by Jack Straw’s casual revelation that he asks niqab-wearers to unveil”. Trevor Phillips calls it a polite request, and I think so too. We’d both – I think – accept that it’s polite and the done thing to remove one’s shoes when entering a mosque. We’d consider it rude not to comply. We would not be surprised if a Muslim stated this to a Westerner who just wandered in to a Mosque. Nor is it considered rude, these days, to ask someone to extinguish a cigarette. I’ve no objection to women choosing to wear the niqab in the street (though I do have issues with whether they really choose to do so, or whether they are pressured into it); I do think it is reasonable to ask that they understand Western etiquette.

    On the veiled teacher, I’d go further than you. Again, I’ve no problem with the veil per se. But I don’t think it really is a religious requirement: I heard one veil wearer on Radio 4 say she went to Morocco, where the local boys followed her about calling her names like ‘Hezbollah’ which I thought was hilarious and good for them. (I wonder if they still say that they all met Jimi Hendrix and sold carpets to Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger or am I showing my age?) But, as I understand veil-wearing, it’s only done outside the family – someone has to persuade women like this that they have to regard colleagues as family in this instance. One can’t, quite properly, behave in one way to male colleagues and another to female colleagues; it’s discrimination. The only thing which worries me here, is that this may be a back door method of ensuring that Muslim women don’t work, just as the school dress thingy kept that girl (whose name I can’t remember and can’t be bothered to look up) out of school until she was too old to attend.

    In short, I respect women’s rights – and sisterhood and solidarity – much more than I respect religion, especially one which in this case is oppressive.

  4. Rob Jubb
    Posted 22 October 2006 at 23:06 | Permalink | Reply

    This is very good, and sensible. I think too few people realise that to tolerate something requires that you disapprove of it.

  5. Jarndyce
    Posted 23 October 2006 at 10:33 | Permalink | Reply

    I was sure you’d write something interesting and sensible on this. And, hey, I was right. In my baser Saxon tones, I could only think of the following to say:
    1. Niqab is a stupid and horrible form of dress, whose intention and logical conclusion is separation.
    2. Women ought to be able to wear what the hell they like without being hassled by anyone, including MPs.
    3. Nobody who wears a niqab is ever going to “integrate” into any sort of society (which is of course the aim).
    4. Alas, wearing niqab is going to disbar you from working in certain environments, in much the same way that having strong Christian conviction would disbar you from working in a sex shop.

  6. Brian B
    Posted 24 October 2006 at 14:34 | Permalink | Reply

    As you correctly noted in your original post, I expressed a very similar view to yours on my own blog about the implications of the niqab for the wearer’s attitude to relations between men and women, attitudes which seem to me plainly incompatible with life in a modern civilised society. But I don’t agree at all with your (and many others’) condemnation of what Jack Straw and Ruth Kelly have been saying on this issue. It seems to me beyond dispute that Straw has every right to ask a fully veiled woman attending his constituency surgery to raise her veil while in conversation with him, to assist communication and understanding, especially if he makes it clear at the same time that she is free to refuse to do so if she wishes. To describe this as insulting or offensive is surely sensitivity gone mad, and the right response to any such reaction is incredulous laughter. Straw was also right to describe the niqab as a symbol of separateness — and to make it clear that separateness is antisocial and undesirable. Those who can’t stomach such a factual statement need to go and lie down for a while in a darkened room until they feel better.

    As for Ruth Kelly, there’s really nothing to add to the Martin Bright’s excellent analysis in the current New Statesman ( Like most other lefties, I suppose, I’m instinctively sceptical about the attitudes to issues with a religious dimension of committed Roman Catholics and indeed of anyone else with strongly held religious views, but in this case I think young Ms Kelly is spot on.


  7. Phil
    Posted 24 October 2006 at 19:08 | Permalink | Reply


    I don’t find your derision any more persuasive than Ellis’s. I understand and respect your position, although I don’t agree with it. If you genuinely don’t understand or respect mine, I think the loss is yours.

    I’ll take one more crack at it. I detest the niqab and what it stands for (as I understand it): I don’t respect the arguments for it and don’t think there’s any reason to let those arguments pass unchallenged. I don’t believe there’s any reading of the Koranic injunctions on modest dress which mandates face-veiling, and I look forward to a day when those injunctions are no more binding on most Muslims than St Paul’s strictures on women’s headgear are on most Christians. However, I’m conscious that some (many? most?) women who wear the niqab do so as an outward sign of their identity as observant Muslims. As such, I don’t think niqab-wearing should be challenged at the individual level – least of all by someone in a position of power and patronage over the niqab-wearer, such as Jack Straw in his constituency surgery. Asking a Muslim woman to unveil – however politely – strikes me as akin to asking a Catholic woman to take off that silly cross, and hitch up her skirt a bit while she’s about it. In terms of the distinction I attempted to draw at the end of the post, it suggests that the requester not only doesn’t respect the veil-wearer’s observance but doesn’t intend to tolerate it.

  8. Anonymous
    Posted 24 October 2006 at 22:20 | Permalink | Reply

    Yeah, sure it’s wrong but don’t you think it myopic to just follow Straw and then everyone else attacking the dress of some Muslims.

    It’s missing the big picture and not calling for an unconditional right for people to wear what they want is an ommission.

  9. Phil
    Posted 24 October 2006 at 22:51 | Permalink | Reply

    Southpaw – I’m not following Straw; I’m not criticising the niqab in the same terms as he is, and I’m certainly not endorsing his apparent intolerance of individual women wearing it.

    But I don’t think there is an unconditional right for people to wear what they want, anywhere – and I certainly don’t think that’s what is at issue here. Hijab is about telling women to cover their ‘adornments’ so that they don’t turn men on. The niqab extends this to telling women to cover their faces. I can’t see this as a point of feminist or libertarian principle.

  10. Ellis
    Posted 25 October 2006 at 10:00 | Permalink | Reply

    From idiocy to reason!

    Fraternal Disagreement

  11. Phil
    Posted 25 October 2006 at 19:36 | Permalink | Reply

    Cheers, Ellis – I can’t find much in there to disagree with. I’ll even concede that not being killed is more important for a child than not being taught by somebody in a veil. I don’t endorse Jack Straw’s reported comments; one of the weird things about the ‘official’ anti-niqab line is that it hasn’t focused much on the sexism angle, while going big on this strange we-must-see-your-face-at-all-times rhetoric.

    Yes, I was equivocal about the Kosova war, but that deserves a post of its own. A friend of mine was in a group which campaigned on the slogan “Stop the Bombing – Arm the Kosovars”. I’d still go with that.

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