I don’t support a ban on all veil wearing in public. I am definitely not up for telling adult women citizens of a free society what they can and cannot wear in public.
Obviously there are some contexts when a person’s face needs to be visible for the sake of other people or for the purpose of properly doing a particular job – if that person is a doctor, nurse, teacher, witness in court, counsellor etc. (As we’ve seen in the media coverage this week, this is not actually a very controversial statement and it is agreed to be many women who do wear niqabs.)
However, if the question is whether or not the wearing of niqabs is divisive, then the answer must surely be yes. The veiling of the face is designed to be divisive – its purpose is to separate the woman behind it from other people. It is very obviously divisive between the sexes – both for what it implies about men and women. More than that, it absolutely prevents the sort of non-verbal face-to-face contact – at the school gates, at the bus stop, in the shops – between members of the same society which generates the social micro-interactions out of which cohesion is built. Today in the Sunday Morning Live green room before we went on, and while she was still unveiled, I was able to talk with and understand and connect with and like Shalina in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible if I had first met her veiled.
Yes, I agree that, in Britain, this is a very small issue affecting very few people and that coverage has been disproportionate in the media in light of that fact and yes, I agree that some participants in the debate have been motivated by prejudice and used this issue to fan the flames of prejudice.
But I totally reject that this is just an issue that should be ignored by society in general and ‘left to the Muslim community’ or ‘left to Muslim women’. We all have an interest as members of a shared society and it’s wrong to divide people up into ‘communities’ in that way or deny the universality of these debates.
And, although it is certainly case that many women – for religious, or cultural, or fashion-related, or lifestyle-related reasons – choose to wear veils, it is also the case that other women are compelled to do so, by direct pressure or more diffuse peer pressure or claustrophobic cultural assumptions. I know women who choose to wear a veil but I also know women – Muslims and ex-Muslims – who were coerced into doing so and struggle to break free from that was hard. People who care about human rights and sex equality should be finding ways to stand with those women, not turn away with the spurious claim that covering up is always a free choice, or that the rights of women in ‘communities’ other than ‘ours’ are not ‘our’ business.