Why the Veil Should Be Repudiated

By Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin | Nottingham Law Journal, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

Why the Veil Should Be Repudiated


Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin, Nottingham Law Journal


In the global village, ideas, practices and policies cannot be kept within borders. In this section, I focus mostly on the UK, though I do refer to other countries and realities. My arguments rest on this premise: all of us in are in it together. We cannot be islands within islands.

But first, that question: should we outlaw veils?

No. Bans are cudgels. They punish or frighten veiled Muslim women or, worse, criminalise them, as in France. That would be deeply unjust and a violation. However, laissez-faire is either apathy or surrender--both forms of inexcusable disengagement.

There is a third way. I think it is perfectly fair and civilized to insist on dress codes that apply to all citizens in schools and other public service establishments, and, within limits, (1) the private sector too. In broadly liberal societies, restrictions are imposed for the greater good. Nudists cannot walk our streets with impunity, and women would not be allowed to work in a bank dressed like lap dancers or nuns. What Muslim females wear as they walk on streets or in parks and shared spaces is their business. But when talking to teachers in school, or cashiers in the bank, they must be obliged to show their faces. It is a difficult distinction and a tough call--but one that must now be made.

This issue cannot be left to Muslims to debate and decide. British citizens from all backgrounds have a stake in what is happening. (After all, conservative Muslims openly scorn western women who dress brazenly, and in their faith-based schools no child would be allowed to wear a skirt that didn't go to the calves or feet. Respect is demanded, not given.) Liberal Muslims would dearly like institutions and key individuals to take a stand on their behalf. Not to do so betrays vulnerable British citizens and the nation's most cherished principles, including liberalism. Worst of all, silence encourages Islam to move back even faster into the past instead of reforming itself to meet the future.

Within reason, some concessions can be made for British Muslims for whom the veil has become a test of acceptance--for example, permitting trousers instead of skirts, as is the case in most schools. Headscarves can be accommodated, but only for adult women--not for children. I would extend this rule to include Hassidic Jewish children and Sikh boys who turn up in top knots or mini turbans.

For many of us secular Muslims, hijabs concede that parts of a woman's body need to be hidden, that females are a sexual menace or in perpetual danger from males, all of whom are presumed to be predatory. Scarves are so widely worn now that we who object must compromise. At least some women are making them colourful and beautiful. Many of them would not be allowed into post-school education and employment if they showed their hair, so on this, they win. I will, however, continue to contest the idea that hair, if shown, is a sign of wantonness.

Encouragingly, scarved and cloaked women have found smart ways to subvert that prejudice. Creative hijabis turn scarves and gowns into beautiful fashions. Some of the best beauty blogs are by hijabis. (2) They really know how to make the face alluring and defiant. Jewellery too has become a mark of individuality and style. Sometimes the head is covered but feet are in killer heels and clothes tight-fitting. I find that awesome, even though it is a little hypocritical.

It is time to reclaim the right to openly talk about these garments and assert that it is not ungodly, imperialist, 'Islamaphobic' or self-loathsome to make the case against various forms of the veil.

Here are my main arguments:

RESISTING WAHABISM

Rigid, radical Muslim clerics and their backers are competing to gain control of, and stamp out, the diversities of worship and practice around the world, including here in Britain. In cities with Muslim populations, Shias are maligned, mosques are becoming factional and fractious, and inhabitants of various backgrounds have become wary and uneasy. …

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