‘This focus on the niqab is a distraction’ – Salma Yaqoob on the veil ‘debate’

Salma addressing rallyThis focus on the niqab is a distraction

By Salma Yaqoob

Morning Star, 30 October 2006

THE debate on Muslim integration continues unabated. Since Home Secretary John Reid’s comments about mythical Muslim “no-go” areas over a month ago, the Muslim community have been the subject of an avalanche of commentary from politicians and the media. Overwhelmingly negative and one-sided, most of this “debate” is thinly disguised Muslim bashing.

I was pleased, therefore, to be approached by the Morning Star to give my thoughts on a more genuine debate that has taken place on the issue of the veil in the letters page. Given the Star’s impeccable record of opposition to US imperialism and racism, I know that whatever the differences that may arise, I am having a conversation with friends.

Most of those who have written in support of Jack Straw’s comments have no time for either his record as foreign minister or his opportunism. But they do think the wearing of the veil is a legitimate topic for discussion. What is wrong with having a debate about religious strictures regarding Islamic dress for women, especially when such strictures have been used as a tool for women’s oppression?

To a significant degree, I agree with them. There is nothing wrong with having an informed discussion or critical debate about the veil or any other aspect of Muslim life. Indeed, how can non-Muslims understand lived Islam without such a dialogue? And how can Muslims and, especially, Muslim women, tackle the abuses of Islam within the community without such discussion and debate?

In understanding why some Muslim women wear identifiable Islamic dress like face veils or head scarves, it is important to understand the concepts behind them.

Their use flows from the primacy of marriage in Islam and denotes a code of behaviour between the sexes in recognition of that fact. The idea is to maintain the exclusivity of the relationship between husband and wife such that the degree of physical intimacy and exposure is limited in all other interactions between men and women. In this way, the aim is to de-emphasise sexuality in public interactions, while encouraging sexuality in private ones.

In a world where women have to endure objectification as sex objects, many Muslim women feel empowered by this de-emphasis of sexuality in their relationship with men.

As Karen Armstrong observed in the Guardian last week, “The veiled woman defies the sexual mores of the West, with its strange compulsion to ‘reveal all.’ Where Western men and women display their expensive clothes and flaunt their finely honed bodies as a mark of privilege, the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.”

It is also, however, a regrettable but undeniable fact that imposition of Islamic dress is used to fetter the potential of some Muslim women to develop as full and equal human beings. Such actions are rooted not in the Koran, but in reactionary cultural practices disguised by pseudoreligious authority. And there is a challenge for Muslim communities to addresses this.

Unfortunately, the comments of Straw and other Labour figures have done nothing to help us promote genuinely progressive dialogue to this end.

Under the guise of generating a national debate about Muslim integration, new Labour is really seeking to shift the responsibility for this increased threat of terrorism at home away from its disastrous foreign policy and onto the Muslim community. And, in so doing, it has no reservations in stoking up prejudice.

Investigative reporter Peter Oborne expressed the incredulity of many when he wrote: “Labour has made the extraordinary decision to place the politics of religious identity at the centre of public discourse, in the same sort of way that Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party does in Austria and Pim Fortuyn’s List Party did in the Netherlands.”

This deliberate attempt to play the race card has potentially disastrous consequences. You can almost hear the BNP crowing when it states that “Those who, for years, have courted the Muslim vote, are now outdoing the BNP in raising awareness of the growing threat of Muslims to national security.” Meanwhile, Muslim women wearing the veil are being attacked, racist thugs have rampaged through a Salford mosque and beaten up members of the congregation, a mosque in Dudley has been picketed and a west London family has been shot at while shopping.

To those who believe that there may be some positive side effect to Straw’s original comments, I say think again. When the mainstream starts to articulate arguments normally associated with the far-right, multicultural Britain is not being strengthened, it is being weakened. The beneficiaries are only those who want to espouse the politics of fear, intolerance and racial hatred.

To those who genuinely want to support Muslim women in their fight for equality, I say that this focus on the niqab is a distraction. Probably not much more than 1 per cent of Muslim women wear it and the majority of them in Britain do so out of religious conviction, not compulsion.

The Equal Opportunities Commission points to more traditional barriers. In a report on the Muslim girls and education, it concludes that girls from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds – 90 per cent of whom are Muslim – are making remarkable advances. They have overtaken white boys at GCSE level and are catching up with white girls despite coming from poorer backgrounds. The problem that they face is when they enter the workplace, where they are faced with a “brick wall of discrimination.”

My own experience as a councillor is that the biggest obstacles that Muslim women face are poverty, unemployment, racial discrimination and lack of decent housing and not the imposition of Islamic dress or any other culture issues.

For those of us who are trying to overcome conservative barriers within Muslim communities, this current climate makes that job more difficult, not less. These constant attacks are creating a siege mentality. In this climate, criticism, from whatever quarter, can be presented as giving succor to Islam’s enemies. I got a personal taste of this last week, when I was denounced during Friday prayers in at least one Birmingham mosque for having said on Question Time that the imposition of Islamic dress in Saudi Arabia was wrong.

Right now, we need unity between Muslims and non-Muslims to defend the model of multicultural Britain that we enjoy, with toleration of religious and cultural differences at its core. The stronger the anti-racist culture we create in the country as a whole, the greater the space we create within Muslim communities for progressive currents to tackle reactionary cultural practices.