The political class in Britain has once again floated the niqab, a veil worn by Muslim women, as an issue that is “a good topic for national debate.” These were the words of Conservative MP Jeremy Browne, a Home Office minister in the current government. Members of the British Parliament have spoken on the issue in the past few days, after a judge allowed a Muslim woman to veil herself in court but not while giving evidence to the jury.
The noise surrounding the niqab in public forum is pointless, considering the small number of Muslim women who choose to wear it. Any directive to ban the niqab would dent the credibility of the UK’s self-proclaimed status as a bastion of freedom and human rights. Furthermore, this debate only serves the opportunists residing under Big Ben, as well as the fascists of the English Defense League (EDL), who try to promote their not-so-subtle Islamophobic tendencies in the name of women’s rights.
The niqab debate in is not new in Britain. Over the past couple of years, the veil has been sporadically debated at the national level. In 2010, a controversy arose when Tory MP Phillip Hollabone refused to speak to any woman who walked in his constituency office if she refused to take the niqab off. Instead he sought to remain in communication through written correspondence.
A human rights advocacy group called Liberty wrote a letter to the British MP, denouncing his decision and stating that it “would breach the 2006 Equality Act.” Under this act, “direct or indirect” religious discrimination of any sort is strictly prohibited, including in the sphere of public services.
Around the same time, Hollabone had introduced legislation that would ban the burqa and the niqab in public life. James Welch, the director of Liberty, had then stated: “Religion is a perfectly legitimate subject for debate but in the UK at least, it is not a lawful basis for discrimination. Here the struggle for religious freedom was vital to the struggle for democracy itself ... freedom nor integration is achieved by cutting people off from their elected representatives or arresting them for walking down the street.”
Three years on, the niqab debate is rife with similar arguments. Criticism from within and outside the Muslim community has been filled with angst and disappointment, considering the poor judgement some political leaders have shown in trying to politicize a non-issue.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a prominent Muslim academic and writer based in England, tweeted the following regarding the controversy:
In my interview with her, she further elaborated on the tweet: “We have had just in the last few weeks 3 stories about the face veils which I would refer to as storms in a tea cup in terms of how they have been represented in the media, and how those issue have been turned into a national debate,” she said. “It seems like our politicians could have very easily knocked the attempt to politicize this issue on the head." According to Cerrah, this could have been achieved “through highlighting the possible negotiations and discussions between those who wear the veil and the institutions, such as courts where this conflict arises.”
For many this nationalization of the niqab issue only helps to legitimize the blatant Islamophobia of hate groups such as the EDL. Cerrah agrees, and adds that "not only does it feed into their narrative, it renders it mainstream— when mainstream parties like the Liberal Democrats express such utter concern or contempt. The discourse demeans the women at hand, by referring to such women as wearing 'invisibility cloaks' or 'Bin liners.'"
“My concern is that there is a process of dehumanization that is extremely worrying, and hence reflects an increasingly mainstream Islampohobia,” she said. “It is actually easy to dismiss the extreme nutters of the EDL, but much more concerning when we see these political figures of the Tory or Liberal Democrat parties making such statements.
Earlier this week, a recent report asserted a link between the financial crisis in Europe and higher suicide rates, due to factors that include rising unemployment. As European nations such as the UK find themselves handicapped by deteriorating social conditions, the “national” discourse on niqab is undoubtedly as futile as it is unproductive.
It’s a deliberate and opportunistic distraction which will only undermine freedoms Britain claims to espouse. Its only outcome will be to further alienate an increasingly ostracized group, while continuing to fuel Islamophobic propaganda in the form of legitimate debate.