Female emancipation masks intolerance in the "burqa debate"

With a growing wave of fear and suspicion against Muslims sweeping through Europe, Britain must hold fast to its traditions of tolerance.
Ghazal Tipu
15 July 2010

Though European, Britain stood somewhat apart from its counterparts in the twentieth century and enjoyed a tradition of celebrating diversity, multiculturalism and protecting minority rights. However, amidst a growing European xenophobia - the Swiss minaret ban, the banning of the burqa in Belgium, and the banning of the niqab in France - Britain finds itself susceptible to change and tempted to follow suit. The tide may now be turning as talk of banning Muslim female dress seeps into British public life.

Across the waters in France, the ban on the niqab is in full swing. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, said earlier this year that the full veil "hurts the dignity of women and is not acceptable in French society". His crusade against the veil has had overwhelming support; on Tuesday, the French lower house of parliament voted almost unanimously to ban the niqab. The ban may will not necessarily become law as it still needs to be ratified by the Senate and be approved by the constitutional court, but it enjoys wide support across French society.

Britain is no longer immune to this trend. In the “debate” there has been to date, politicians and the media have used burqa to refer both to the face covering and the long cloak. But let us get the words right. We must distinguish between two types of dress, one is a face covering, and the other a cloak which fully covers the body.  For the sake of this article, I will call the face covering the niqab and the long cloak the burqa.

In Britain, the recent spate of Muslim bashing comes in the form of a private member’s bill introduced by Tory MP Phillip Hollobone, which attempts to ban the niqab and burqa. What is notable is the targeting of the burqa, which ought to be an inoffensive garment comparable to other Christian and Buddhist dress.

Let us make no mistake this is British Muslims being targeted, rather than an attempt to emancipate Muslim women. It is astonishing backbench Tory MPs are acting like this so early into the new government’s tenure. The Tories ought to be reassuring minority groups that they genuinely care about protecting their rights. Cameron, who is forever reassuring us that his party has changed and is now at ease with modern Britian, will need to reassure us his party is fit to serve the diverse 21st century society we live in because at the moment Hollobone’s gesture is helping to mainstream an intolerant right-wing agenda.

Female emancipation is a thin veneer for what is really opportunism. In January 2010, UKIP called for a ban on the niqab, as a ploy to win votes from the BNP. With niqab wearers a small minority of British Muslim women, this is political opportunism at its most corrupt. Critics of the French ban say too that it is a ploy to attract supporters. On openDemocracy’s 50:50, Laura Pennie points out, importantly, that “The furore over the veil dehumanises Islamic women, turning them into symbolic territory over which men can thrash out their cultural differences”. Like Pennie I ask, if women’s rights are so important to these politicians, why is the same urgency not applied to eradicating gender based violence?

The media proves itself to be irresponsible on a daily basis, fanning the flames of bigotry and inflating this issue to suit its own agenda. Yesterday, the Daily Express made the baseless claim that “Demands to ban the burkha in Britain were growing last night as France voted to outlaw the wearing of Islamic full-face veils in public”. With no genuine public polls or discussion on this issue, this is classic British tabloid fare, purporting to reflect what British people think and want, but really peddling their own intolerance.

Muslim women’s dress is not oppressive, so long as it is the woman’s choice. The women I know who wear the niqab and burqa, wear it out of personal choice. And those who wear it, wear it primarily as an act of faith, but potentially as a political and social statement against a culture which commodifies women’s bodies.  It is an act which says “My sexuality and body is only for me, and those who I choose to share it with”. It is actually oppressive to deny women the right to make such a statement.

A ban on any kind of female Muslim dress is unacceptable, and will send a troubling message to an already disenfranchised British Muslim community. I would ask those who support it to consider how a ban would be disastrous for the psychological health of the Muslim community which already feels itself under siege. I believe many ordinary British people who concur with a ban, do so with good intentions, unaware of the deeper political agenda. They should not be naive regarding the grave precedent it would set.

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