Let’s face it – the niqab is ridiculous, and the ideology behind it weird

By Joan Smith | 22 September 2013
The Independent

The demand of a small number of Muslim women to hide their faces must not usurp the rights of others.

Here we are again, in the middle of another terribly polite discussion about the niqab. For anyone who hasn’t followed the debate, that’s the face-covering veil worn in this country by a minority of Muslim women. Should women be able to conceal their faces when they’re giving evidence in court? What about women who work in schools or the health service?

A judge has issued a confused ruling that a defendant should be able to keep her niqab on in court, but must take it off while giving evidence. The Government has ordered a review of whether NHS staff should be able to conceal their faces from patients, with the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledging he would prefer to see the face of the person who’s treating him. But he says it’s ultimately a matter for professional guidelines, not politicians.

Why so mealy-mouthed? The niqab is a ridiculous garment, adopted by a small (but growing) number of women and rejected by many mainstream Muslims. When I see someone wearing it, I’m torn between laughing at the absurdity and irritation with the ideology it represents. In secular countries, the notion that women have to cover their faces whenever they leave the house is rightly seen as weird, and runs counter to the principle of gender equality. Many brave women in the Middle East and Asia have died for the much more important right not to cover their faces, and I have little patience with women in this country who make a mockery of that struggle by trying to pretend they’re the ones suffering oppression.

The question judges and politicians are struggling with is what to do about it. I’m not in favour of the French approach, which is an outright ban on the niqab and the burqa; I’m not keen on banning things and it risks creating martyrs. It makes more sense to treat the face-veil as a political statement and insist on our right to make one in return. Covering the face doesn’t make anyone a better human being and the “modesty” argument doesn’t wash; if you wear outlandish clothes, whether it’s a face-veil or fancy dress, of course people will stare. Nor does the niqab discourage violence; evidence from Egypt suggests that veiled women are slightly more likely to suffer sexual harassment, probably because men regard them as easier targets than women in Western clothes. Does anyone seriously believe that women are safer in Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, where most women wear the veil (many of them against their will) in one form or another? Wearing the niqab or the burqa is self-defeating, exposing women and girls to more oppression rather than less.

Where I think the state is entitled to intervene is when a woman’s decision to cover has negative consequences on others, including her daughters; face-covering should never be a component of school uniform, let alone compulsory. Then there’s the example of a courtroom: when someone is giving evidence, she should be subject to exactly the same rules as the rest of us. Vulnerable witnesses need to have their identities protected but as a general rule the judge, jury, defence and prosecution should be able to see witnesses’ faces. I wouldn’t expect to be allowed to appear in court in a balaclava, and the public good of open justice takes precedence over demands for special treatment on religious grounds.

As for the NHS, I’m aghast at the prospect of being treated by a health professional in a niqab. Patients often have to discuss intimate matters with GPs and nurse-practitioners, from sexual health to domestic violence. If someone doesn’t trust me enough to let me see her face, I’m hardly going to feel comfortable about her carrying out an intimate procedure such as a cervical smear. Nor is it easy to imagine a man discussing the symptoms of prostate cancer with a health professional whose idea of “modesty” doesn’t allow her to expose her nose.

At one level, it’s hard to believe we’re having this debate. The UK is a secular society in all but name. Human rights law is clear about the right to manifest religion but it isn’t an absolute right, and can be limited when it conflicts with the rights of others. The demand by a small number of Muslim women to cover their faces in all circumstances clearly impacts on the rights of others, and requires a robust response. If a woman wants to wear the niqab in Tesco or on the 94 bus, I think we should let her get on with it. But when she wants to work with members of the public or becomes involved in the criminal justice system, that’s a completely different matter.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. It doesn't matter if you personally don't support women wearing a niqab. Nobody is forcing you to wear one. It's perfectly fine for women to choose to wear any sort of religious garments and definitely their right to in this country.

    • Not if they're using it as a mask to commit crimes. In this case, the religion of the criminal does NOT trump the right of the public to be protected from crime and to have criminal deeds addressed in court. Nor does it serve as an excuse for anyone involved in a court case to hide behind anonymity to circumvent the justice system.

    • It’s not fine if I am in need of a medical procedure and am not allowed to see who is treating me. If I buy food from a restaurant, I will not feel okay if I don’t know who is serving me. Sorry this just doesn’t seem right at all. Not fine with me.

  2. Agreed with afdasf.

    I say all this as an atheist, but if a medical practitioner wants to cover her face (or his, if it came to it), that is their right to do so, so long as it isn't stopping them from being able to perform their job. If you feel "aghast" because of some sort of overblown trust issue you have (really, you think you can tell if someone is trustworthy by looking at their face?!) that is your problem, not theirs, and they shouldn't have to be forced to go against their religious beliefs and move themselves outside their comfort zone (by essentially disrobing) just to satisfy your trust issues. I don't care how stupid that religious belief may seem to you or I. It's not our business to tell someone how to live their life.

    More importantly, your rights are absolutely NOT being impeded upon just because a woman decided to cover her face, but if you force her to remove it, you ARE impeding upon hers. That is not acceptable.

    So far as the courtroom is concerned, I'm sure some kind of middle ground can be found here. What if you have a third party (a lawyer, the judge, or a family member) confirm identity, if that is the question?

  3. ^ You do realise that if a medical professional is wearing this while treating you she basically suggests otherwise you would harrass her sexually? Does this not bother you? Are you ok with being perceived as an animal whose thoughts centre around fornication with strangers?

  4. Having been in Muslim countries and having gotten to know the culture, I can say the various covering are worn (generally) because it's taboo not to wear them over it being a religious issue. I doubt that women are "choosing" to wear the niqab without being pressured or encouraged to do so by either a husband or men in her family.

    I was told many times that it's a woman's choice to wear a covering garment – or not (usually by a man) and I was also told that if a woman doesn't wear something it will cause problems for her (told this mostly by women).

    Personally, In a healthcare setting I would refuse to be seen by a woman in a niqab, or a man also cloaked from head to toe. (and I work in the healthcare industry)

  5. It’s awesome how this article seems to be arguing against a culture that tells women what they need to wear by telling them what they need to wear. Way to create a rhetorical mobius strip there.

  6. It annoys me because I can't walk into a shop with my good up but a Muslim women aloud 2 walk in there with only there eyes on show, this is discrimination, and it's not her religion 2 wear it she's been made 2 wear it by a male in her life, because it's unsafe 2 not wear it coz Muslim men are sexual predictors!! I think it shld be banned aswell as Islam it and all other religions!!!

  7. I find the idea that someone might be put off by the possibility a nurse under a niqab is actually a man in disguise ridiculous and weird, but I'm not about to tell sexual assault survivors who they should and shouldn't feel comfortable with. However, outside of that particular situation, I don't see how the article's subtitle fits in at all as feeling uncomfortable with another culture isn't having one's right's violated… it's prejudice.

    Can we also talk about how limiting the ability of women to participate in society who choose to wear the niqab isn't exactly women's liberation and more along the lines of disenfranchisement? There's not church state separation without freedom of religion.

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