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To Veil or Not to Veil: Is that the Question?

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Many British Muslim women wear the head-scarf, or hijab. Some British Muslim women also wear the veil, or niqab, to cover their faces. These latter in particular are the type that make Jack Straw feel "uncomfortable".

Because he can't see their faces. And it, well, poses a really "visible reminder of our differences".

In addition was Straw's other important point: that veiling is a "statement of separation and difference"; and that it actually is responsible for the creation of parallel Muslim and non-Muslim communities. By putting his words carefully, Straw thus carefully prised open a whole new debate about the niqab/veil, a debate in which it is now perfectly politically correct to demand that Muslim women who wear the veil be forced to take it off.

So here we have yet another white, middle-class male trying to tell a bunch of women how they should live their lives, in particular how they should dress. The logic is the same as those Muslims who believe that forcing women to adhere to some sort of dress-code is justifiable. Both demands are on the same moral scale, and attempt to cut out the very subject of the debate, Muslim women themselves.

I was therefore quite heartened on Friday midday when I got a call from the newsdesk at the Independent on Sunday, who wanted to find a way of talking to Muslim women who wear the veil. I put them in touch with a friend of my wife, Sarah Hussain, who started wearing the veil several years ago as a matter of choice. I also advised them to contact the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and Arzu Merali, who wears the head-scarf, and who is research director at the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

On p. 16-17 of the newspaper yesterday, they quoted, very briefly, the views of Sarah, Arzu, and an MPAC spokeswoman Catherine Hossain. I reproduce some excerpts here, so you can get an idea of what Muslim women themselves have to say about this issue (something it seems the rest of the media and others demanding that women stop veiling have little interest in):

Sarah Hussein, a student from Acton, West London, wears a full veil or niqab...: "The last two years have been a nightmare. I have had had abuse thrown at me so many times. When I was growing up I didn't wear a veil and then I made a spiritual decision to wear one -- I have experienced people's reaction to me when I was wearing the veil and when I wasn't, so I know this abuse is because I wear a veil. It is usually from white men in groups and it is when I am alone or with my family. They never say anything when my husband is there. I know it would be easier for me if I didn't wear my veil, but I shouldn't be dictated to as to who I am. I am not doing anything wrong, I am interacting with society and studying society."

Read these words carefully. It's all very well pontificating about the evil and oppression of a veiled woman, assuming that we know all there is to know about why a young modern Muslim woman might choose to wear it. But perhaps we should stop and think. Perhaps the gut-instinct, the cultural revulsion, the feeling "uncomfortable", is nothing more than the simplistic prejudice of seeing someone do things differently, in a way that one cannot understand. The task then is not necessarily to engage in a form of "liberal imperialism", commanding Muslim women to break free, throw off their veils, or ELSE! Perhaps the task is to build bridges of mutual cultural understanding.

Catherine Hossain is a nursery teacher and spokesperson for Ilford MPAC. She wears the hijab: "[Jack Straw] is creating a storm in a tea cup by saying some very 'headline-grabbing' things. I don't think it is far from the truth to say that it is for his own gain -- to become deputy prime minister... Talking about women taking off their veils is not going to help. It suggests that men are more integrated than women when there is no evidence for this."

Arzu Merali, co-author of a recent study into the Muslim community's reaction to veils and headscarfs: "Mr. Straw's abuse of power should not dictate to these women what they should wear. These women go to his surgery and are vulnerable and I suspect that they remove their veil because they feel they have to -- he is a powerful person. There is a perception that Muslim women are pushed around by Muslim men, but what Jack Straw is doing is no better than that. He is a bully."

However, the Independent on Sunday had these "Muslim views" at the bottom of a double-page spread that was taken up largely by a lengthy comment by Joan Smith in which she described how she "loathese the niqab and the burqa" as worn in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finds them "equally offensive on my local high street."

But Smith seems a little out of her depth. I have no doubt that in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Muslim women are forced to veil their face. But there are important caveats. The first is that, in predominantly Shi'ite Iraq especially, it is certainly not mainstream or traditional to wear the full niqab or veil (i.e. facial covering). Some women may choose to wear it. Others may indeed be forced. But the idea that the majority wear the niqab, and are forced to do so, is simply wrong.

However, there is undoubtedly a growing danger of women being forced to wear the head-scarf -- please note, that this practice of wearing a head-covering is also often referred to as "the veil" also, so the term "veil" needs to be properly defined depending on the circumstances. Look at US-occupied Iraq. The BBC reports that "UN officials in Baghdad say they are very concerned that religious extremists are intimidating women and girls into wearing the veil. In particular, some radical clerics have demanded that women -- even Christians -- wear the veil." (The veil referred to here, by the way, refers to the head, not the face). Similarly, The Guardian noted that the US-appointed governing council in Iraq, along with the dominant religious parties including those that now dominate the government, are responsible for climate in which Muslims girls "are being forced to wear the veil again."

And the same thing is indeed happening in US-occupied Afghanistan too. Violence against women there is not only as endemic as it was under the Taliban, it is explicitly condoned and actively facilitated by the Northern Alliance war-lord regime, with ministry officials policing women to ensure they comply with yet another national official dress-code.

I would like you to consider what was happening in 2003, as documented by Human Rights Watch, in western Herat, under the rule of Northern Alliance governor Ismail Khan. Khan was described by the Economist as "The west's favourite warlord", and "As good as it gets." The Economist goes on to praise Khan for promoting "open government" and other such "peaceful and enlightened" social programmes.

Perhaps Khan forgot the meaning of "peaceful and enlightened" when he was involved in what the 2003 annual Human Rights Watch report describes as follows:

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Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the 'System Shift' column for VICE's Motherboard, and is also a columnist for Middle East Eye. He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work.

Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New (more...)

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