Muslim women who choose to wear the face veil or niqab are facing a new tide of bigotry. Some politicians declare that it should be illegal for Muslim women to cover their faces.
Tory MP Philip Hollobone has put forward a private members bill to ban face coverings. He has boasted that he won’t meet a constituent if she is wearing a niqab.
He said, “I would ask her to remove her veil. If she said: ‘No’, I would take the view that she could see my face, I could not see hers, I am not able to satisfy myself she is who she says she is.”
He wants a law such as that imposed in France and Belgium where women wearing the niqab in public places can be fined.
Now Liberal Democrat home office minister, Jeremy Browne, has joined the Islamophobic fray. He said there should be a “national debate” about whether the state should intervene on the issue of young women who he claims “feel a compulsion” to wear the veil.
The small minority of Muslim women who wear the niqab have regularly been a target. Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai Brown wrote this week that fully veiled women are part of a “reactionary mission”.
A college in Birmingham tried to ban students entering their building if they wore a niqab. But the ban was overturned last Friday after protests.
This week a judge insisted that a woman lift her veil to give evidence in a London court.
This led the Sun newspaper to run its front page with the triumphant headline “unveiled” in support of the judge’s decision.
The debate about women who wear the veil is steeped in racism yet is sometimes spun as a fight against the oppression of women.
But the state or powerful politicians telling women what they can and cannot wear is imposing oppression, not fighting it. Nor can opposing the veil be portrayed as an attempt to encourage integration.
What if the minority of women who wear a face veil were banned from wearing it in public? They may then feel unable to take part in life outside the home and retreat into isolation.
All women have the right to choose how they live and what they wear.
Some people assume that when women wear the hijab or niqab, they must have been forced to by a male relative and they are therefore victims. But this is simply prejudice. And it denies the women any agency of their own.
The reality is many women want to proudly identify themselves as Muslims. They want to defy the rise in Islamophobia resulting from the “war on terror” and a decade of imperialist wars.