The Tories have declared war on multiculturalism and their latest attack is on the minority of Muslim women who wear a niqab or face veil. Last week Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a review of NHS uniforms to ban niqabs claiming it was a “professional” question rather than “political”. But Unison, the biggest union in the NHS with around 430,000 members, told Socialist Worker, “On the ground this isn’t a problem. “We are deeply concerned about the impact culturally and ethnically of such political interference.”
Christina McAnea, Unison’s head of health, told Radio 4 that she was not aware of any member ever coming to the union about the issue. She had also “never heard of an employer bringing it up”. Unison’s policy is that the issue of appropriate uniform should be determined locally and “may be different in different hospitals and in different departments. “For example there is no proven infection issue about wearing a veil or a turban.” Hunt’s statement came in the same week that Preston police published a photo of a niqab-wearing woman with her veil removed after she was found guilty of fraud.
In a separate case another judge made a woman lift her veil to give evidence in court. The “unveiling” of these women was celebrated in the pages of the Sun newspaper. This resurgence of a moral panic about the niqab is part of rising Islamophobia in Britain ever since the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May. Talat Ahmed of the Muslim Council of Britain said, “Every time we discuss the niqab, it usually comes with a diet of bigoted commentary about our faith and the place of Islam in Britain.”
There is a multitude of reasons why Muslim women choose different forms of dress. “For some it is rebellious,” said socialist and IT worker Nahalla Ashraf. “I know young women who wear the niqab whose mothers do not. I wear a hijab but my older sister doesn’t.” Those denouncing such women are not confined to the right.
Some feminists perpetuate sexist and racist stereotypes by arguing that veiled women are never making a genuine choice and entrench their own segregation. In reality it is banning the niqab that would isolate many women who feel uncomfortable without it.
Women’s bodies are political battlegrounds. Women are criticised for revealing too much as well as covering up. There is nothing liberating about being told what to wear, whoever does the telling. Socialists stand on the side of the oppressed, we don’t demand people behave or dress in a certain way before we defend them.
Mahnoor moved to Britain from Pakistan seven years ago and lives in Sparkhill, Birmingham. She told Socialist Worker about her experience of wearing a niqab.
“I’ve been wearing niqab for over 20 years. My sister and I put it on when we were 13 or 14 in Pakistan. We started wearing it because boys were being mean to us—touching us and pinching us on the bus. They stopped doing that when we wore niqab. It made us safe.
Now because I am used to wearing niqab, I would not want to go out without it on. Some Muslims wear jeans and don’t cover up, some cover up with niqab. This means some people ask “why do those people wear niqab?”
They don’t understand there are differences between Muslims, just as there are between Christians. I feel a bit uncomfortable when I go somewhere where I’m the only person wearing niqab. I’m comfortable inside but I see other people looking at me and thinking, “Why is she wearing that?”
Some places are good though—I went to the safari park and went on all the water slides and had no problem! Two years ago I did an Esol and maths course. The teacher asked if I would take my niqab off because she thought I’d learn better. There were two men in the class so I said, “No, I feel more comfortable wearing it.” The teacher said that was fine.
One of the teachers there was a man, so he never saw me without my niqab on. I went back to the adult education centre this year to ask about another course. The male teacher was there, and he recognised me from two years ago! So when they say no one can recognise you if you wear niqab they are wrong.
Being able to do the Esol course was very important for me. Now when I go to my children’s school I talk to the teachers. I can help my children with reading and writing. I am thinking of doing the childcare or teaching assistant course.I wouldn’t be able to do this if I hadn’t been allowed to do Esol wearing my niqab.’
Thanks to Helen Salmon
In 1969 Sikh conductors and drivers working in Wolverhampton won the right to wear turbans and long beards to work. Tarsem Singh Sandhu, who had been suspended, worked for London Transport while the dispute continued (pictured). This victory came after a long struggle involving their union, the Transport and General Workers Union. In 1982 Sikhs won protection as a distinct group under the Race Relations Act.
Feminist writer Julie Bindel wrote in the Daily Mail that the niqab is “a symbol of the relentless subjugation and control of women”. She denounced the impulse to “dictate what women should wear and how they should appear”. She doesn’t see a contradiction between this and herself saying women should not wear the niqab.
At least 17 hospitals in Britain ban frontline staff from wearing the niqab, including Barts, the Royal London and Bradford Royal Infirmiry. But some also specifically allow the veil, as a Daily Telegraph report pointed out. For example Wirral University Teaching Hospital Foundation trust states that veils “may be worn if required for religious reasons”.
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