Thursday, 2 February 2017

Wear What You Want


Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) at Westminster featured two queries that served to highlight the everyday intolerance in certain Muslim majority countries.

One was from a Conservative MP who invited the Prime Minister to agree that while the Trump 'travel ban' was bad there are 16 Muslim majority countries around the world (including all of those on Trump's list) who don't admit Israelis onto their soil.

Fair point, I thought.

Next Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, a Scottish nationalist, asked the PM to join her in celebrating World Hijab Day to which Theresa May responded by saying that women across the world should be free to 'wear what they want'.

Now I agree with that sentiment, but if you ask me the real problem with the 'hijab' is that women have no choice other than to wear this head covering in countries like Iran.

In some Muslim majority countries such Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia things are even worse, of course, with women and young girls being forced to wear full face veils like the 'niqab' or 'burka'. 

  


Free Will (05/11/13)

The issue of burkas and niqabs - whole body veils - is back in the news again as a school in London, The Madina School inTower Hamlets, is reported as forcing girls as young as 11 to wear burkas as part of their official uniform en route to school.

Now by and large I'm a 'live and let live' kind of person, but there are times when extreme religious behaviour needs to be challenged and not accommodated - for example, in relation to Jehovah's Witnesses denying their child a life saving blood transfusion.

If an adult Jehova's Witness wants to do so, let them knock themselves out I say - because it's their own lives they're screwing with even if everyone else thinks they're crazy. 

But it's a different matter when it comes to children who can't speak up for themselves - of course.  

I've heard some people argue that wearing a burka or niqab is a personal choice that some Muslim women make - freely and without any coercion.

Yet who can doubt that forcing young girls to observe such a dress code is about anything other than habituating them into a religious practice - that they will be expected to follow for the rest of their lives.

Whether the state should intervene with rules and regulations is an issues of public debate and, broadly speaking, I agree with the argument that this is a relatively small 'problem' - which affects tiny numbers of women and young girls. 

So maybe it's best not to over-react which runs the risk of turning unreasonable people into martyrs for their religious beliefs - no matter how strange they might appear to non-believers. 

All the same this seems to me like the thin end of a wedge that may get much worse if we all just look the other way - for fear of causing offence.

To my mind, the wearing of burkas or niqabs is an completely anti-social and unfriendly practice which should not be acceptable in public places and spaces where people are required to interact with each other - as equals and fellow citizens.

And wearing a 'bag' over your head clearly makes that impossible.  


Burqa Ban (12/07/14)




Be honest, does any really think it acceptable for a creche worker to turn up for duty one day wearing a body length balaclava? 

No, I didn't think so not least because it would frighten the living daylights out of the children never mind the impact on relations with parents and other staff.

So I was pleased to learn that judges at the European court of human rights have upheld France's burqa ban and thrown out the ridiculous argument that this constituted a breach of a person's human rights.  

France's burqa ban upheld by human rights court

European judges declare that preservation of a certain idea of 'living together' was legitimate aim of French authorities.

By Kim Willsher - The Guardian

The French law, introduced in 2010, also covers balaclavas and hoods but has been criticised as targeting Muslim women. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Judges at the European court of human rights (ECHR) have upheld France's burqa ban, accepting Paris's argument that it encouraged citizens to "live together".

The law, introduced in 2010, makes it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place. While it also covers balaclavas and hoods, the ban has been criticised as targeting Muslim women.

The case was brought by an unnamed 24-year-old French citizen of Pakistani origin, who wears both the burqa, covering her entire head and body, and the niqab, leaving only her eyes uncovered.

She was represented by solicitors from Birmingham in the UK, who claimed the outlawing of the full-face veil was contrary to six articles of the European convention. They argued it was "inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience andreligion, freedom of speech and discriminatory".

The French government asked the court to throw out the case, claiming that the law was not aimed at the burqa or veil but any covering of the face in a public place, and also applied to hoods and helmets when not worn on a motor vehicle.

The court heard that out of an estimated five million Muslims living in France – the exact figure is unknown as it is illegal to gather data by religion or ethnic group – only about 1,900 women were estimated to be affected by the ban, according to 2009 research. French officials told the judges this figure had since dropped by half "thanks to a major public information campaign".

The complainant, named only by the initials SAS, was described as a "perfect French citizen with an university education …who speaks of her republic with passion".

Her lawyer Tony Muman told the ECHR last November: "She's a patriot" adding that she had suffered "absolutely no pressure" from her family or relatives to cover herself. While she was prepared to uncover her face for identity checks, she insisted on the right to wear the full-face veil, Muman said.

The European judges decided otherwise, declaring that the preservation of a certain idea of "living together" was the "legitimate aim" of the French authorities.

Isabelle Niedlispacher, representing the Belgian government, which introduced a similar ban in 2011 and which was party to the French defence, declared both the burqa and niqab "incompatible" with the rule of law.

Aside from questions of security and equality, she added: "It's about social communication, the right to interact with someone by looking them in the face and about not disappearing under a piece of clothing."

The French and Belgian laws were aimed at "helping everyone to integrate", Niedlispacher added.

The ECHR has already upheld France's ban on headscarves in educational establishments, and its regulation requiring the removal of scarves, veils and turbans for security checks.

Tuesday's legal decision came a few days after France's highest court, the cour de cassation, upheld the firing of a creche worker for "serious misconduct" after she arrived for work wearing a veil. The woman has said she will appeal to the ECHR.

Speaking Out (31 August 2014)

Here's an excellent article by Matthew Syed writing in The Times in which he argues that moral decrees from centuries old religious books should not be the basis on which people live their lives in the 21st century. 

Now Matthew makes a point of focusing on misogyny within fundamentalist Islam, but it is fair to say that other religions set out to control people's lives as well such as the Catholic Church in relation to contraception and abortion, for example.

But I couldn't agree more with Matthew's comment on the 'dehumanising absurdity of the burka' and his call to arms for all people of good will to challenge the everyday misogyny and other forms extremism in our midst.    

Muslims must tackle the misogyny in their midst


By Matthew Syed - The Times

Most British Pakistanis are appalled at the horrors of Rotherham, but they have to confront the attitudes that cause it

We are only beginning to understand the potency of Islamic fundamentalism, with its dangerous notions of received truth and moral superiority.

It manifests itself in more ways than jihadism. It also drives the attitude behind coerced marriages, female genital mutilation and the dehumanising absurdity of the burka. All these things, in different ways, demonstrate a medieval attitude to women among extremists. It is not racist to point this out; merely enlightened.

Some moderate Muslims, too, are held back by the dictates of their religion. My mum and dad went to a wedding in the United States this month. My dad’s nephew was getting married and it was, as is often the case with Pakistani marriages, a splendid two-day affair. But at the reception, mum was crushed to hear fathers marrying off daughters before they had completed their college education. When it came to sons, the presumption was reversed. “The man is the head of the house,” they explained. “Boys have to have an education. For girls, it’s a luxury.”

My paternal grandfather, Alamdar, was another moderate whose ideals were scuppered by the dictates of Islam. He was a brilliant man who rose through the police force in southern India before partition, eventually becoming chief of police. My dad used to look on wide-eyed as British officers saluted him. Alamdar wanted his five children (four daughters and a son) to be treated equally on his death, but his wishes were betrayed. Islamic law dictated that my father alone receive his estate. But for dad’s integrity, his sisters would have been left without a bean.

When we think of misogyny in Islamic communities, our minds often turn to places such as Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving and have to ask male guardians’ permission to work or marry. The vast majority of Muslims condemn this, and rightly so. But echoes of this attitude reverberate far wider. It is hard-wired into many Islamic institutions and customs, neutering the forces of progress. Moderate Muslims must be open about this if they are to defeat the fanatics.

The underlying problem is, of course, received truth. Extremists regard moral decrees stated more than 1,500 years ago as literally and eternally true. They see the suppression of women as a moral imperative. It is not that they lack empathy or humanity; it is that these traits are distorted by their grotesque interpretation of the Koran. It is a curious and haunting process. I have seen Christian fundamentalists tread a not dissimilar path. On the Todayprogramme yesterday, Kalsoom Bashir, of Inspire, a human rights organisation, talked about the “Raja complex” in sections of the Pakistani community, where boys are revered by their mothers and sisters and given unbridled control over family affairs. She argued that it can lead to a degrading attitude to women and may have been one of the reasons for the prevalence of Pakistani men in the sexual exploitation scandals that have come to light in Rochdale, Derby and, most recently, Rotherham. She may be right.

She didn’t mention Islam but the connection, to my mind, is clear. Religious presumptions of the moral and intellectual superiority of man morph, as a matter of historical inevitability, into customs where women are oppressed. I suspect that few of the Pakistani men involved in child sexual exploitation were Islamic extremists in the sense of wanting to become jihadists, but the connection is there in a subtler way. Moderate Muslims should be brave enough to say this too.

Does this mean there is a “deep-rooted” problem with Pakistani culture, as the report into the Rotherham scandal implied? It is here, I think, we need to introduce a bit of perspective. There are 1.2 million people in this country of Pakistani heritage. Five so far have been convicted in Rotherham (this is an affront to justice given the scale of the abuse). But suppose that ten times as many had been involved; or a hundred times as many. This would still represent a tiny fraction of the total.

Many of the Pakistani community are secularists, many are atheists, and many others are Muslims only in the most tenuous sense. They are like the children of avowed Christians, who pay lip service to the faith to please the family but don’t believe in a single verse of scripture. Even among those with outdated attitudes towards women, whether because of warped religious ideals or customs, only a tiny minority would dream of indulging in the sexual exploitation of children. The vast majority will have been repulsed by what has been reported. So while I worry about the corrupting power of Islam, I also worry about the indiscriminate tarring of entire ethnic groups.

Providing statistical context in the aftermath of a scandal often looks like appeasement. It shouldn’t be this way. In a few weeks’ time, when the Rotherham scandal has faded from the news, it would be tragic if there was a lingering presumption that Pakistani men in general have a warped attitude towards women.

It seems to me that we need to fight a dual battle. We need to stand up for our values, to be more muscular in the way we confront unacceptable religious practices. If we think the ritual slaughtering of animals is inhumane, we should ban halal meat. If we think (as I do) that the burka is an affront to civilised values, we should say so. But we should also recognise that Islamic moderates (even those who eat halal) are fighting in the wider battle against extremism. Their task is difficult enough, given the cultural baggage of their religion, without facing unfair persecution. They need all the help they can get. And we should never tarnish entire communities on the basis of the crimes of a few.

Nobody has a more healthy contempt for Islamic fundamentalism than my father but his hatred of stereotyping runs it close. “We can win these battles,” he said to me yesterday. “We can beat the extremists who want to destroy us. But we can also defeat those insinuate that everybody with brown skin is a suicide bomber or closet rapist. In fact, we are unlikely to win either battle unless we win both.”

Whole Body Veils (18 September 2013)


Hugo Rifkind gets to the heart of the debate about whole body veils with his opinion piece for the Times.

The issue has nothing to do with people's human rights or ability to practice their religious beliefs - instead it's about how citizens interact with each other in public places.

To my mind, any religion that insists a woman must wear a bag over her head in public   is crazy and offensive - but then I find lots of other things about religion offensive as well.

The difference with niqabs and burkas is that they have no place in the public spaces where people come together as equals - believers and non-believers alike - whether to work, teach, practice medicine or administer justice. 

So, if a fundamentalist Muslim wants to wear a whole body veil indoors, in a Mosque or strolling in the park - then knock yourself out, I say.

But in other areas of public life I think it's an unacceptable way to behave - 'just bloody rude', as Hugo Rifkind says.     

Veils shouldn’t be banned. Except sometimes

By Hugo Rifkind

A niqab is a barrier, worn to repel. It is un-British — but so too is a blanket ban on them being worn

The best contribution I have yet heard to the debate on the ethics of veils came a few months ago, on Radio 4, from the comedian Francesca Martinez. To avoid the glare of men, she noted, some women drape themselves from head to toe in material, save for the strip they cut away to see. She felt she had a more economical solution. “Keep that strip and get men to put it over their eyes,” she suggested, “and then you can wear what you like.”

Niqabs are very now. Last week, following a protest, Birmingham’s Metropolitan College un-banned the niqab after eight years. Yesterday, a judge in Tower Hamlets decided that a woman should be allowed to stand trial in a veil except for when she gave evidence, when she would be shielded behind a screen. Already, we know what a whole bunch of politicians think about this. All speak with a strange sort of detachment, as though the issue here were a grave and complicated one, with two rational sides. Rather than what it really is, a sexist and perhaps coercive belief that a woman in public ought to have her head in a bag.

Don’t flinch from this. By all means, let us debate the reach of the State, and the requirements of tolerance in a multicultural, multifaith society, and all that jazz. But at the heart of this lies the notion that a woman, by virtue of being a woman, ought to be invisible in a public space. That’s a notion to which, in my view, we ought to give a big old kick every time we happen to pass it. Few things are less British than the niqab, and few things should be less welcome to a Brit.

Although that doesn’t mean we ought to ban it. Well, except for sometimes, when we definitely should. Of course people shouldn’t be allowed to cover their faces in airport security or in court. I surprise myself with my own vehemence on this, but there is no doubt in my mind. Yesterday’s ruling in Tower Hamlets was hailed as a compromise, but it wasn’t one at all. It was a surrender to somebody who was attempting to reject centuries of convention in British courts.

Such situations, though, are rare. More often, I’d actually approve of a situation in which a woman has every right to wear a veil, but that right is not in any way protected from rival obligations. A bit like most clothes, in other words. A policeman, for example, has every right to march out of his house in a mankini as modelled by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, but that doesn’t mean a judge needs to get involved if the DCI sends him home to change. In most lines of work you should be able to wear a veil up until the point where your boss tells you that you can’t. And, if you work in any sort of people-facing public service, let’s be honest, your boss ought to be telling you that pretty damn quickly.

With teachers, this seems to be how it works already. Some may forget, but last time Britain grew terribly perturbed — yet, you know, understanding — about the niqab was in 2006, when a woman called Aishah Azmi was sacked from her post as a teaching assistant by a Church of England school for refusing to unveil while teaching. Much as I try, I can’t think of any good reason why a teacher should have her face covered. I suppose you might argue it beneficial for children to be exposed to people in veils, and thus grow to understand it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to wear, but I’d respond that it isn’t, thus it isn’t. Pretty simple.

Yesterday, the Home Office minister Jeremy Browne seemed to be suggesting that face-coverings should be banned among school pupils, so as to protect vulnerable girls who are compelled to cover up by relatives. I take his point, but given that there’s little evidence that this actually happens much — veils are very rarely worn by children — it does sound like he’s picking a fight.

If so, he should pick it properly. Personally, in an utterly non-tub-thumping way, I’d be quite happy to find headmasters sending kids home for wearing any kind of religious garb — yarmulkes, bindis, whopping great crucifixes, whatever — in just the same way as they might do if they came in dressed as cowboys, aliens or Krusty the Clown. For some, it would be a liberation from the dogmas of their parents, and for others a bit of early education about what it means, or should mean, to live in a country where priests don’t call the shots.

Is it hard to imagine this ever happening? I suppose it is, and for reasons that help to show why the issue of veils has the potential to throw so many people into such an angry, humourless, erratic tizz. The veil is a fairly unique form of cultural symbol, after all. Not everything about Britain ought to be multicultural, and there are some forms of civic interaction that frankly ought to demand that you take your funny hat off. Elsewhere, though, while I might object to the clearly sexist rationale behind, say, a Somali’s hijab, or the wig of an ultra-Orthodox Jew, at least these are people who want me to know who they are. The veil isn’t like that. It isn’t a symbol of multiculturalism but a stand against it. Whether worn voluntarily or by compulsion, it’s an opt-out. It is what it looks like, which is a barrier worn to repel. In the end, there’s no other way of saying this. It’s just bloody rude.

What pains me is that we’ve lost the knack of navigating this, or even comfortably talking about it. The grey, essential space between not liking something and outlawing it has almost disappeared. Why not first speak of engaging with those tiny parts of already small communities that wear them, and politely asking them not to?

It’s cowardice. It’s a lack of confidence in our own values and our ability to articulate them. We are like the neighbours who call the police about noise complaints, afraid to simply knock on the door. Not actually wanting to look each other in the face, even if we could.