July 13, 2009
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent (UK)
To deny face-to-face interaction is to deny our shared humanity
I am a Shia Muslim and I abhor the burqa. I am offended by the unchallenged presumption that women covering their heads and bodies and now faces are more pious and true than am I.
Islam in all its diverse forms entitles believers to a personal relationship with Allah – it cuts out middlemen, one reason its appeal extended to so many across the world. You can seek advice from learned scholars and imams, but they cannot come between your faith and the light of God. Today control freaks who claim they have a special line to the Almighty have turned our world dark. Neo-conservative Islamic codes spread like swine flu, an infection few seem able to resist.
The disease is progressive. It started 20 years ago with the hijab, donned then as a defiant symbol of identity, now a conscript's uniform. Then came the jilbab, the cloak, fought over in courts when schoolgirls were manipulated into claiming it as an essential Islamic garment. If so, hell awaits the female leaders of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Soon, children as young as four were kitted up in cloaks and headscarves ("so they get used to it, and then later wear the full thing," said a teacher to me who works at a Muslim girls' school) and now for the graduation gown, a full burqa, preferably with dark glasses.
White liberals frame this sinister development in terms of free choice and tolerance. Some write letters to this paper: What is the problem? It is all part of the rich diversity of our nation. They can rise to this challenge, show they are superhuman when it comes to liberty and forbearance.
They might not be quite so sanguine if their own daughters decided to be fully veiled or their sons became fanatic Islamicists and imposed purdah in the family. Such converts are springing up in Muslim families all over the land. Veils predate Islam and were never an injunction (modesty of attire for men and women is). Cultural protectionism has long been extended to those who came from old colonies, in part to atone for imperial hauteur. Redress was necessary then, not now.
What about legitimate fears that to criticise vulnerable ethnic and racial groups validates the racism they face? Racism is an evil but should never be used as an alibi to acquit oppressions within black and Asian or religious communities. That cry was used to deter us from exposing forced marriages and dowry deaths and black-upon-black violence.
Right-wing think tanks and President Sarkozy of France scapegoat Muslims for political gain and British fascists have turned self-inflicted "ethnic" wounds into scarlet propaganda. They do what they always have done. Self-censorship will not stop them but it does stop us from dealing with home-grown problems or articulating objections to reactionary life choices like the burqa. Muslim women who show their hair are becoming an endangered species. We must fight back. Our covered-up sisters do not understand history, politics, struggles, their faith or equality. As Rahila Gupta, campaigner against domestic violence, writes: "This is a cloth that comes soaked in blood. We cannot debate the burqa or the hijab without reference to women in Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where the wearing of it are heavily policed and any slippages are met with violence." What happened to solidarity?
Violent enforcement is evident in Britain too. A fully veiled young chemistry graduate once came to my home, her body covered in cuts, tears, bites, bruises, all happily hidden from view. Security and social cohesion are all threatened by this trend – which is growing exponentially.
As for the pathetic excuse that covering up protects women from male lasciviousness – it hasn't stopped rapists in the most conservative Muslim nations. And what a slur on decent Muslim men, portrayed as sexual predators who cannot look upon a woman without wanting her.
We communicate with each other with our faces. To deny that interaction is to deny our shared humanity. Unreasonable community or nationalistic expectations disconnect essential bonds. Governments should not accommodate such demands. Naturists can't parade on the streets, go to school or take up jobs unless they cover their nakedness. Why should burqaed women get special consideration?
Their veils are walls, keeping them in and us out. We need an urgent, open conversation on this issue – which divides the Muslim intelligensia as much as the nation. Our social environment, fragile and precious, matters more than choice and custom should to British Muslims. If we don't compromise for the greater good, the future looks only more bitter and bleak. Saying so doesn't make me the enemy of my people.