No absolutes in niqab debate

Submitted by Matthew on 18 September, 2013 - 10:59

The ruling by Judge Peter Murphy which allowed a Muslim woman to wear her full-face veil in court except when giving evidence is sensible.

It is a compromise between an individual’s religious belief and a social necessity.

There are times when facial expressions are an essential part of communication or need scrutiny. Those occasions are not many but they do exist. Truth telling is something that human beings assess by body language, facial expressions in particular, and that is surely useful in a court room.

There are no absolutes here — for instance sight-impaired people can’t assess another person’s body language, but that should not exclude them from jury service.

In the case of Birmingham Metropolitan College the case for stopping female students from wearing the niqab was ridiculous. They said they wanted to create a “safe and welcoming environment”. They can do that by effectively excluding a small minority? By stigmatising students (including, so they said, students who wear hoodies)? They were forced to back down.

Compromises can help create a better environment in which to discuss issues about the hijab and niqab. But discuss this we must.

The niqab and hijab is not just another piece of clothing. Whether it is religiously sanctioned is a matter of debate among Muslims, but that is not what concerns me.

Even if chosen by the wearer, this female religious clothing is an artefact of social and sexual control of women. And that is not something we should tolerate anywhere in the world.

Women do not always have choice over whether or not to wear the hijab — in some parts of the world the hijab is an absolute rule, and defiance brings informal or formal punishment, social ostracisation, or much worse. And very young girls in the UK are dressed in head coverings by their parents without choice in the matter.

All of this should be a matter of a public debate. If we can do that while opposing bans and noxious Daily Mail-type hysteria over imaginary dangers posed by niqab-wearing women, so much the better.

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