By Sajda Khan
March 2, 2019
The face-veil has become the epitome of
European xenophobia. Burqa and Niqab are two terms which are commonly used to
describe a face-veil. The Niqab is a face-veil covering the entire face leaving
the area around the eyes uncovered. The Burqa covers the whole body including
the face with a mesh or voile around the eyes.
Once again, Britain’s obsession with the
face-veil of Muslim women has sparked controversy. Writing in the Telegraph, former foreign
minister Boris Johnson said that the attire was oppressive, that it is not in
the Qur’an and that he thought it was ridiculous that people choose to go
around looking like letter boxes and bank robbers. While Johnson faces an
internal Conservative Party investigation, let us be honest; he is not the
first and will not be the last to condemn the face-veil. Since the time of colonialism
and up until now, there has been a legacy of Western politicians condemning the
veil as sinister, misogynist, oppressive, a mark of separation, and the litany
goes on. Sadly this trend of Islamophobia has emerged within our society with
Politicians and people who hold public
office should adopt the British values of tolerance and respect in the language
they use; making belittling comments about the practices of a culture or
religion is a catalyst for the far-right to embolden discriminatory policies.
Muslims are already seen as a fifth column and alienated from society, and
comments like this do not help with integration but instead, reflect an
illiberal and closed society, leaving
minority communities susceptible to stigmatization and abuse.
There have already been an increasing
number of attacks on women for their visibility of being Muslim women, and as a
result, these women are either forced to curtail their freedom to choose to
dress how they wish or they are forced out of public life. This suggests that
there is no place in Britain for women who choose to wear the face-veil and
creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy.
Furthermore, it undermines our values which
include individual liberty and respect for other cultures and religions. A liberal
democracy is built upon the foundation of respect and upholding the rights of
others even if we dislike the choices that they may make. Tolerance is the
willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviours that one may
dislike or disagree with.
Muslim women choose to wear the face-veil
for a myriad of reasons. Some wear it as part of a religious or cultural
identity while others does so as a sign of empowerment, or even as a fashion
statement. It is true that in some parts of the world Muslim women are
oppressed and may be forced to wear the face-veil, and this should be opposed.
But to stigmatize women who choose to wear the face-veil is also antithetical
to the tenets of a liberal society.
Even within the Muslim community there are
some Muslims who are eager to denounce the face-veil because they believe that
it is not Islamic and a preposterous choice. Many of these Muslims may even
agree with Boris Johnson: that it is right not to ban the face-veil but it is
not prescribed within Islam, hence Muslim women should not wear it. They will
also argue that the face-veil is an erasure of women and that the ideology that
supports it is an antithesis of feminism. It is true that there are no verses
in the Qur’an that explicitly state that a woman must wear the face-veil.
However, let us not ignore the fact that Islamic law is not simply a literal
reading of the Qur’an. We have an entire epistemology: there is the Sunnah of
our Prophet Muhammad صلی اللہ علیہ و سلم (peace and blessings of
Allah be upon him), and the scholarly interpretations and opinions. Muslim
theologians have debated and differed on the issue of the face-veil ever since
the era following the death of Prophet Muhammad صلی اللہ علیہ و سلم (peace and blessings of
Allah be upon him). Some scholars have held the opinion that it is an
obligation to wear the face-veil while others have said a Muslim woman is not
obliged to cover her face. For many Muslims then, the face-veil is rooted in
Islamic tradition, but they will differ as to whether or not it is compulsory.
The point is though, whether or not one
believes the face-veil is a requirement, no one has the right to tell a woman
what she should or should not wear. In addition, people on either side of the
discourse should not promote an intolerant austere vision. Islam is not
monolithic; there are nuances and these should be respected, even if we choose
More importantly however, what seems to be
deliberately obliterated from the hysteria around the face-veil is the actual
voice of those Muslim women who choose to wear it. Arundhati Roy said: “There
is no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the willingly unheard.” So, whether it is Muslims or non-Muslims, let
us not disregard the individual choices that many of these women make and let
us not adopt an ethnocentric approach to the face-veil, because that is no
doubt, an affront to our British values.
I would say, the face-veil in Britain is
symbolic of Britain being a diverse, open and liberal society. It demonstrates
the ability of the British to be able to absorb differences and to accept
foreign customs. Societies are, no doubt enriched by cultural variation. The
presence of heterogeneous mores is a sign of pluralism and let us not forgets,
pluralism is one of the hallowed values of our country. Surely, an ethnocentric
approach is clearly an affront to our British values – values that demand a lot
more respect than this.
Finally, Muslim women seek fairness, not favours;
so, let’s not deny them the individual freedoms that Britain prides itself on.
Sajda Khan is a writer, and is currently completing her PhD on the Seerah
and its relevance to the West.