For something as relatively rare as the niqab is, it is surprising that the garment has become a lightning rod for the debate over the role of Muslims in society. In Belgium it was estimated that around 30 people wore the garment when the government passed a law to ban it. In France the official estimate was that 367 women wore it, but the debate was somewhat out of proportion to the 0.015% of the population that were affected. In Britain, this debate flamed up again after a U-turn by a Birmingham college over banning the burka.
The call for a national debate on the niqab is likely to promote a great deal of rhetoric. The last opinion poll found that 2/3 of Britons were in favour of banning the headdress, and this figure is likely to increase given any debate will occur within Britain’s hideously Islamophobic press. The number of people opposed to the wearing of the niqab is the result of, as it was in France, a wide coalition of people. Those who want to see the niqab banned range from the knuckle-dragging BNP and EDL, from the now mainstream UKIP, to traditional conservatives and liberals, all the way to feminists who see it as a form of female oppression.
Given the variety of groups opposed, the arguments against the niqab are varied. Many are depressingly rooted in overt Islamophobia or xenophobia. Others are fearful of security concerns, clearly motivated by the wave of niqab criminality that hasn’t happened. But the one argument that has gained traction, certainly in more liberal circles, is that the niqab is a form of oppression and banning it would help to liberate women from their repression. This has been argued by feminists such as Julie Bindle, who says that “the niqab is a clear, physical representation of a patriarchal culture of a fundamentalist minority that treats women as second-class citizens.” But this argument has also been appropriated by those with historically little interest in feminism: for example Nigel Farage’s argument that the niqab “oppressed” women marked his one and only contribution to the discussion on gender equality.
Given the influence of this argument, it instructive to analyse the consequences of this thought. If, for the sake of argument, we accept the premise that the niqab is a form of female oppression, it does not necessarily follow that banning it is in the best interests of women. Indeed, the debate seems to have missed the point entirely. Whatever problem exists is not the niqab per se, but the religious-cultural teaching that women should not be seen by men other than her family. The niqab was not invented as an end in itself, but as a response to this idea. The teaching poses a fundamental problem: if a woman cannot be seen by men other than her family, how does she go about her daily life? Whether we agree with the teaching or not, for many women it exists, and we cannot ignore the underlying cause while banning what is effectively the symptom of the teaching. The burka was not designed as a form of female oppression, but it was designed in order to allow women to lead a normal life. Within the strict context of this teaching, the niqab is not a form of oppression but the precise opposite: it is a form of liberation because it allows women a freedom of movement that would otherwise be denied to them.
Looking at the problem in this way reveals the dangers of banning the niqab. Whether we like the sight of it or not, whether we agree with the teaching behind it or not, we must accept that the niqab gives women a freedom that would be severely curtailed if it was banned. If a woman cannot wear the niqab she is essentially posed with a dichotomy: she can defy the teaching and go out in public showing her face, in which case she would likely face social ostracism from her family and community, or she can effectively become a recluse, only leaving the house by scurrying into a car when they believe no-one is looking, and losing the social opportunities she would have otherwise had. The idea that either of these options is in the benefit of women is preposterous. Of course, many brave women do refuse to wear the niqab and go in public with their face uncovered, but that should be the choice of the individual: they should not be forced into it.
The effect of banning the burka without challenging the underlying religious-cultural beliefs would be essentially to put the problem out of sight, and out of mind. The streets would be free of people wearing the garments (as they are for 99% of Britons every day regardless), and liberal minded folk can pat themselves on the back for being progressive, all the while being divorced from the consequences of their actions. The test of whether banning the niqab is a good idea is the net benefit it has on people, and I, for one, do not believe that the self-satisfaction of Islamophobes and liberals alike is worth the increased suffering for the women the ban is allegedly designed to protect. If people are serious about helping women, rather than just making themselves feel better, the approach should be to challenge the teaching that women should not be seen by men outside their family. Until then, the niqab may not be the most pleasant sight for many, but for all its sins it allows women to educate themselves, to socialise, and so hear different views. The idea that denying women this freedom should be done to liberate them is just plain wrong.