First a British judge, then dedicated educationalists running a British college have been defeated by the aggressive guerrilla army of Muslim Salafists and their misguided allies. At Blackfriars Crown Court Judge Peter Murphy had ordered a 21 year old, veiled defendant to show her face . The accused was charged with witness intimidation and pleaded not guilty. Whatever the results of that case, she and her supporters certainly intimidated the judge, who backed down so the case could proceed. Birmingham Metropolitan College was similarly cowed and had to reverse a directive which forbad students from covering their faces. One hooded lady crowd sourced a protest against the college. Some overexcited student union members, Muslim objectors and online petitioners have forced a reversal of that rule. Shabana Mahmood, MP for Ladywood, Birmingham, welcomed the College capitulation. Happy days. Muslim women can now to go to courts and college in shrouds.
That all-covering gown, that headscarf, most of all, that face mask, affirm and reinforce the belief that women, if seen, are a hazard to men and society. These are unacceptable, iniquitous values, enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi and Iranian oppressors. They have no place in our country. So why are so many British females choosing to give those messages about themselves? Some think they are outsmarting anxious western institutions by covering up, winning dispiriting culture wars which will give them no advantage in our fast moving world. Young women in niqabs are either testing the state like teenagers do their parents or think their garb is political action- but for what? Many women, mothers in particular, have been brainwashed by proselytisers who want to spread conservative Islamic worship right across Europe and North America. They are well funded by sources based in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. And then there are those vacuous females who argue it is their right to be objectified, that they must be allowed to live as invisible creatures in a free democracy. I don’t know which of these dubious forces prevailed in the examples above. But I do know that this trend is growing fast and cannot just be ‘tolerated’ as a minority tendency, just one of many choices people make in this multifarious nation.
Toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument. I have written hundreds of times about the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Muslims, and other minorities and no doubt will have to again. It isn’t easy being a Muslim anywhere in the world- not in Muslim lands or the west. But when Muslims wilfully create problems and build barriers, anti-racists and egalitarians have an absolute duty to engage with them critically and in good faith. I know frank engagement is avoided because it gives succour to the EDL, BNP, Neocons and manic anti-Muslim atheists. I too have to think long and hard before penning columns like this one. In the end though, I don’t think we should abdicate these grave responsibilities because so much is at stake.
The woman before the judge must know that she or others like her will never be judges or barristers themselves. Will she make her daughters do the same? This wasn’t the system picking on her- a defendant in a micro mini would have caused as much disquiet. And the aggrieved college student, what future does she imagine for herself? She denies herself jobs in so many fields for the sake of what? They keep apart from fellow Britons by withholding proper human interactions, watching without being seen. It’s not right or fair.
None of our sacred texts command us to cover our faces. Various branches of Islam do not even require head coverings. These are manmade injunctions followed by unquestioning women. We are also directed always to accept the laws and regulations of the countries we live in and its institutions, as long as they are reasonable. For security, justice, travel, education and health identification is vital. Why should these women be exempt? We Muslims are already unfairly mistrusted and thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too.
This is a struggle between the light of the faith and dark forces here and also in post revolution Arab countries. The clothes symbolize an attempted takeover of the religion just when believers are looking for liberty, autonomy, democracy and gender equality. Malala Yousafzai doesn’t hide her determined face. Nor do our female Muslim MPs and Peers or civil rights lawyers. Some of the bravest human rights activists are Muslim women. Take Tamsila Tauquir awarded an MBE for her charitable work with Muslims and Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which I co-founded seven years ago. The two of them, with other idealists, have embarked on an ‘inclusive mosque’ initiative, with pop up prayers in various venues, where men and women, gays and straight people, humanists and modernists can pray and lead prayers together. There are many others trying to promote progressive Islam, which fits our times and needs.
Saudi Islam zealots must fear these developments and want to crush them. Whether they know it or not, fully veiled women are part of this reactionary mission. Our state must not aid and abet them. The judge and the college should not have retreated and handed them this victory.
The Independent, 16th September 2013