On not lifting the veil: a genderist postscript

I ought to resist the temptation to add to the torrent of mainly indignant comments on the question whether Jack Straw has the right to ask constituents wearing the niqab, the veil with a slit for eyes but otherwise covering the whole face and head, to lift the veil when they visit his MP's surgery for his advice and help (he has stressed that they are niqabfree to decline to do so if they wish, but that none has ever done so).  But one highly relevant point seems to have escaped the multitudinous commentatariat.  This has emerged with lethal clarity in the case of the Muslim classroom assistant (a kind of teacher's aide) suspended for refusing to carry out her classroom duties without wearing the niqab even when a male member of the school staff — such as the teacher she is assisting — is present.  The school should perhaps have spotted the danger signals when she was initially interviewed for the job:

Mrs Aishah Azmi applied for a job as a bilingual teaching assistant at Headfield C of E Junior School in Dewsbury. She reportedly understood that she was to be interviewed only by a woman member of the school's management.  She went into the interview without the veil (or niqab) she usually wore as an outward sign of her devout observance of the Muslim faith, wearing it in the presence of adult males. After a few minutes, the male head teacher entered the room, and Mrs Azmi apparently pulled the veil out of her bag and put it on. [Yorkshire Post, 17 Oct 06]

Here, surely, is the rub:  not just that the veil implies separateness (as Tony Blair remarked in his much criticised comment on the case), although it does, nor that it must hinder the teaching of children when they can't see their teacher's facial expressions as vital back-up to what she is saying, although it does that too, nor that the spectacle of an adult wearing a voluminous tent-like gown from head to foot with only a slit for eyes must be deeply frightening to many non-Muslim children, although it would have scared at least one of my children half to death.  The really objectionable feature of the niqab, as practised by Mrs Azmi and, one assumes, other niqab-wearers, is that it's worn only in the presence of men, with dire and quite unacceptable implications regarding the wearer's attitude to relations between men and women in a free society.  The woman who covers her face (as well as her hair and anything revealing the shape of her body) lest a male should see them, but who is happy for any of these gender-specific items to be seen by other women and by children, is proclaiming her fear that the revelation of her gender to a man, any man, is liable to madden him with lust and drive him to sexual assault.  She is saying that a non-sexual relationship between a man and a woman is impossible, because of the inescapably magnetic sexual attraction of women, all women, and the animal inability of men, all men, to resist or control their aggressive sexual instincts.  Such propositions are wholly incompatible with the mores of a civilised society  and we should not be afraid to say so.  They display an attitude which insults all women almost as much as it insults all men.

That the niqab culture reflects a woman's fear of all men was disingenuously confirmed  by some remarks quoted in a report in today's Times:

Hushna Begum, 31, wears a veil similar to Ms Azmi’s, with just her eyes showing through a narrow slit. She told The Times, however, that she thought nothing of taking it off in front of male clients while working as an interpreter.
"I have worn a full veil for about ten years, but when I was working as an interpreter I didn’t wear it, I just took it off,” she said. “Our religion is not that strict, so wearing a veil is a personal decision, but I think everyone has the right to wear it. I always wear mine outside because it makes me feel protected from men, not just white men, but all men. But when I was working as an interpreter taking if off just seemed to be the right thing to do.”  [My emphasis — BLB]

Of course no-one seriously suggests that the niqab should be legally banned in Britain, or indeed anywhere else.  People should no more be prevented from appearing in public in this particular distinctive form of dress than they should be prevented from shopping in Sainsburys dressed as the Queen of Sheba or even as Lady Godiva — even women.  But no-one should be allowed to insist on wearing a costume that prevents him- or herself from doing the job for which they are employed and paid, as the niqab obviously does in the case of teachers or their assistants;  and those who exercise their freedom to wear the niqab in other circumstances should be left in no doubt that the attitudes towards inter-gender relations that it implies are unacceptable to the great majority of their fellow-citizens and incompatible with full participation in British society.

Tailpiece: It hasn't been sufficiently noticed that the school which employed Mrs Azmi is a Church of England school.  Would a Muslim school in Britain have employed a Christian woman who insisted on wearing a prominent crucifix in and out of the classroom?  I merely pose the question, to which (for all I know) the answer might be "Yes, why not?".

Update, pm 21 Oct 06:  Phil of Existing Actually makes a very similar point,  supported by an extraordinarily revealing letter published in the Independent on 20 October.


5 Responses

  1. Baralbion says:

    I agree with all of that. Let’s not pretend this has anything to do with religion or human rights or freedom of expression. Mrs Azmi is just a foolish young woman who seeks to make herself look important in this way because she is unable to do so in any other. It’s a crisis of identity we all go through. Most of us grow out of it.

  2. Carl Lundquist says:

    The niqab seems to be more of an Arab cultural use than a religious one.   The Bebers for one seem to have reversed the injunction and have veiled men and unveiled women.  In Afghanistan the veil for women seems to be an affectation of those who have finally reached lower middle class status.   A wife in a burka is a sign that one’s woman need not toil in the fields.   Indonesians do not seem to affect it in any great numbers.  Nor do many of the other non-Arab Muslims.


  3. Brian,
    You may be interested to note that this problem has  arisen recently in both  Egypt and Tunisia


  4. Katherine says:

    A quick response to Carl Lundquist (which I appreciate might not be read, since I am posting this response a considerable time after the original post) on his point about Indonesia.  When I was travelling in Indonesia in 1998, both in Sumatra and Java, there was small proportion of women wearing a hijab.  I didn’t see anyone wearing a niqab.  The wearing of the hajib was much more common in the north of Sumatra than in, say, Jakarta.  This made sense, since the north of Sumatra is much more religious than the relatively secular capital city.

    When I was in Indonesia again in 2001 (although this time only in Java) however, I noticed a considerable increase in the number of young women wearing the hijab, in Jakarta and elsewhere.  It seemed to me that the wearing of the hijab, in Indonesia as well as in, say, Bradford was becoming more common amongst young women in response to was was being seen as attacks on Islam from the western world in, yes, Iraq and generally in the "war on terror".  The wearing of the hijab is coming to symbolise a defense of religion. 

    As a feminist, I can only view that as a bad thing and it is sad to me that what I view as an issue of gender inequality and repressive attitudes towards women has been bundled up into debates on the "assimilation" (shudder: shades of Star Trek and the Borg) of British Muslims.

  1. 2 May, 2007

    […] PS Fortuitously, Brian (who didn’t grow up in the 1970s) has been thinking along similar lines. […]