Niqab, freedom and cultural tolerance

In the last few weeks Britain (or at least parts of it) can’t seem to stop discussing the place Muslim  tradition of women’s covering their faces should have in our society.  Judge Peter Murphy’s ruling that a woman on a witness stand must uncover her face, several rulings against Muslim teenage girls  banned from wearing the veil at school and the Birmingham Metropolitan Collage lifting a ban on niqab seem to be going in completely opposite directions.

I guess it illustrates fairly well how  people can’t make up their mind about their priorities on this issue – me included.

To be honest, I don’t like the veil. I don’t like burqas and niqabs and personally I think that women who choose to wear them have to have a problem with themselves. Just like I think women wearing clothes so revealing there really is little point in wearing them at all have to have a problem with themselves. I don’t discriminate only one side of the spectrum.

But..

But it’s not my choice what they should or shouldn’t put on. I do believe that, essentially, people should be able to wear whatever they want. In their homes, on the street, when doing shopping or going on holidays. I may don’t like what they’re wearing, but it’s not really my problem.

They may have to put up with weird looks and silly comments, as it seems that singling out those who don’t conform is in our nature, but they should have a right to do it! I don’t say it’s good they will be pointed at or laughed at! But pretending it’s not going to happen sounds like self-delusion to me.  If you saw someone wearing a colander on their head and a huge plastic pasta bag for a dress you’re going to stare (see the nice religious tolerance twist?). So if you’ve decided that your cultural/religious beliefs compel you to wear something most people find strange, you have to be ready to face he consequences.

I quite enjoyed reading the few recent ‘social experiments’ run by various journalists: Rosie Kinchen in The Times or Radhika Sanghani of The Telegraph. Although both of them wrote that wearing niqab was, to certain extent, liberating, the hostility or indifference they encountered does make me think that wearing it really separates the woman from society. No facial expression or body language makes everyday communication much harder on both sides of the veil.

When we see a woman covered from head to toes walking down the street in a western city, our first reaction is “Why?!”.  I think we feel that their presence here should give them the same liberation and freedom as we have, and it is hard to comprehend why someone who has a choice would choose to cover themselves so completely. In an attempt to understand we turn to religious texts and authorities and find that not all of them agree that the requirement to wear niqab or a burqa are actually of religious origin.  They are definitely connected with particular Islamic groups but cultural and political factors also come into play.

Although I am quite torn when it comes to any drastic measures restricting the freedom of outfits, I don’t feel comfortable with women wearing niqab in courts, hospitals and definitely not in schools. I’m not sure what the solution is. The problem seems to be so deeply rooted in political correctness and religious tolerance discussions that it seems we are loosing sight of the real problem – is there a real threat behind women wearing burqas or niqabs? Or do we really want those out of our streets just because they make us feel uncomfortable?

One thing seems certain. We, Westerners, don’t understand it – me included. And we feel threatened by things we don’t understand. All the explanations about security and body language are just rationalisations of our more deeper fear of that unknown, not understood, but maybe also not understandable.

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