Freedom & Liberty,  Islam

Anti-Jacobinism [updated]

On reflection, I slightly misrepresented my own position on the niqab in a recent post. I said I supported women’s right to wear it in most contexts, but it would have been more accurate to say that I opposed an outright legal ban on the niqab in most contexts, which is rather different.   I certainly have no objection at all to the ban on the niqab when giving evidence in court (as per Judge Peter Murphy’s recent ruling).  Neither – although I thought the judge negotiated his way around this thorny issue quite well – did I find Keith Porteous Wood’s suggestion that the ruling was too accommodating in any way outrageous:

But Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said the judge was wrong to allow the woman to attend court with her face covered. The organisation is set to raise the matter with the Office of Judicial Complaints demanding that all participants in a trial can be clearly seen.

“It is vital that defendants’ faces are visible at all times, including while others are giving evidence, so we regret the judge’s decision not to require this,” he said.

But, although I don’t think women have the right to wear the niqab in all situations, I disagree with some of Jacobin’s arguments. I take his point (made in section 1) that banning one rather extreme form of clothing (proscription) is different from laying down precise rules about what women should wear (prescription).  However I still don’t think the fact there is no absolute symmetry between a niqab ban and a highly prescriptive dress code justifies such a ban, particularly when one can wear offensive symbols, including swastikas, in public. In section 6 Jacobin suggests we should support illiberal measures designed to counter a far greater illiberalism, but that seems a dubious line of argument.  Where on the scale of ‘illiberalism’ does the act of banning something fall – if the answer is ‘not very far down’ then maybe we should ban a few more things while we are about it.

I agree with the point he makes (section 2) that turning to Muslim women for an opinion doesn’t get us very far as such women hold a variety of views (If every niqab wearer said she was coerced this debate would be easy.) Jacobin states:

Secular Muslim women who eschew and/or condemn Islamic dress codes are deemed to have become ‘Westernised’, and their opinions tainted. Particular venom is reserved for those Muslim women who have had the nerve to shed their faith entirely; an act, apparently, of unpardonable tribal betrayal that invalidates her opinion entirely and can sometimes result in murder at the hands of her co-religionists.

Yes, some liberal or ex-Muslim women come in for criticism and abuse.  But so, from another direction, do more orthodox Muslim women. And if Westernised Muslim women are seen as having ‘tainted’ views by some, it is also the case that these conservative women are dismissed as brainwashed doormats and/or hostile supremacists by others.  But many niqab wearers are clearly making a free choice which they articulate clearly, and some, like the woman interviewed here, demonstrate understanding for the concerns of critics or those who find the garment alienating. Again, there is no need to see this in a dispassionately symmetrical way. For most of us the decision to veil seems an odd one – much odder (to me) than the decision of the (ex)Muslim who resists even the hijab.

In section 2, when discussing the dangers of women internalising a sense of inferiority and oppression, Jacobin briefly refers to body dysmorphia.  Although I agree with James Bloodworth that it’s generally dodgy to try to parallel the ‘pressures’ on women in the West with harshly enforced theocratic rulings on dress, cosmetic plastic surgery is perhaps worth invoking.  Setting aside surgery dealing with serious disfigurement, burn injuries for example, it could be seen as a concern that so many women are putting themselves under the knife to correct perceived aesthetic flaws. Timothy Winter-style rhetoric – women are like precious jewels and must be hidden in a casket  – is infuriating, but so is this kind of crap.

It’s a learning experience to watch an attractive colleague leapfrog past you at work. It’s devastating when you believe yourself to be just as competent as the competition. It’s heartbreaking when you know it for a fact. Experiences like these do nothing for your confidence.

What if your company continues to ignore you, and you suspect it’s because of your physical appearance? Your female competition isn’t going to give you a break, and the men you work with don’t know what they’re thinking most of the time.

Jacobin complains in section 4 that too many niqabis and their supporters don’t defend women who wish to escape the veil or hijab.  But the woman whose story he quotes from, Sahar al Faifi, was asked to present her side of the debate – conversely, I don’t expect the CEMB forum to make a ritual denunciation of anti-Muslim bigotry at the beginning of every post.  And she does say it should be a free choice, implicitly criticising Iran as well as France.  (Though it would certainly have been better, and more rhetorically effective, if she had, as Jacobin would have liked, criticised coercion more explicitly.)

Esha, the ex-Muslim quoted by Jacobin, compares niqabis to anti-suffragist women who said ‘it’s our choice not to vote’, when arguing that no women should be able to vote.  But Sahar al Faifi doesn’t want to deny Muslim women the right to unveil, so this is not a good analogy.  I agree with Jacobin that the views of ex-Muslims should be heard more often.  However I did feel that his stereotyped invocation of some ghastly Guardianista type who ‘nods along’ with the idea of the niqab being liberating was a bit of a straw man.  Most good defences (or partial defences) of the niqab are written from a balanced perspective, and take into account the issue of coercion and the barriers placed by the niqab to full participation in society.

I’m happy to go along with Jacobin in supporting a niqab ban in security/identity sensitive contexts, but certainly don’t agree there should be a complete ban:

But the idea that a woman’s face is so shameful that she must be completely depersonalised is a vindictive and intolerable affront to human dignity. The niqab marks, segregates, depersonalises and degrades those who wear it. It is, objectively, a tool of abuse.

This definition of the niqab’s role, as covering up something shameful, seems to flatten the explanations for wearing it offered by Muslim women.  Many of us may wear things (or otherwise behave) in a way which sets us apart in some respects. In a sense it segregates – but clearly some niqabis still want to engage – otherwise why would they be going to university? – just on rather different terms.  I don’t find these terms fully satisfactory, but that’s true of a lot of things one encounters even (or particularly) in a free society.

There are many problems in society today. The veil is not the greatest of these, although the recent legal challenge was a more than reasonable pretext for some debate on the issue.  But the scrutiny can become disproportionate, and an excuse for raking up old stories.

It could be argued that, much though we probably dislike the uniform policy described in those two links, it is consistent with Cameron’s view that schools should be able to ‘set and enforce their own school uniform policies’.  This Derby story raises further issues, such as girls being made to sit at the back and teachers being forced to wear the veil. (Take note, left/union bashers, that the NUT are taking quite a firm line on this issue, expressing serious concerns about the impact of the school’s policies on both teachers and pupils.)

Visibly religious women are a major target for verbal (and occasionally physical) harassment against Muslims.  Women are also the main victims of restrictive interpretations of Islam – whether they are being pressured to veil or, like Pharbin Malik, killed for leaving or dishonouring the religion.  Whatever we think of the niqab, I believe both categories of women need support – and of course some women, given the real issue of coercion, may be facing abuse from both sides, from bigots and from abusive family members.


This brief update relates to Sahar Al Faifi, someone who was discussed by commenters after being profiled in the Independent.  Here are just two of many tweets which an HP reader pointed out.

@AbdulAzim what about the Rothschild Jews and their branches in Palestine, would such genetic research effect their banking empire …

Zionists ran away since the first rocket fell! YOU KNOW WHY? Because it is not their land! They do not know HOW to die for it #GAZA

Nothing worse than a Shia who flipped and became a secularist attacking Islamists! Combining the worst of the two!

So the reality is sexual exposure does over-stimulate men inviting to sexism it’s a woman’s responsibility in that sense #bbc3freespeech