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Wednesday, September 18, 2013 

It's not over till the tremulant sings.

There are few more terrifying lines to come out of a politician's mouth than "we should have a national debate [about this]".  It's the ultimate sanction for every ignorant pub bore in the land to get on the phone to 5 Live and share their wisdom with the world, usually in the most belligerent and arrogant terms.  It's an invitation to newspapers and columnists to do much the same, publishing their informed stupidity for the man on the street to hastily flip over on the way to the sports page.  And of course, it's also the perfect subject for many tortured blog posts, none of which reach any firm conclusion and will go unread by everyone except the writer's dog.

Yes, we are yet again discussing the veil.  Or the niqab, as few still want to give it its proper name.  That saying the veil is confusing because it encompasses all the different types and styles of hijab Muslim women wear doesn't seem to matter, as niqab is obviously an alien word.  Nor do we ever seem to get any sense of perspective: the number of women who wear the niqab in this country is probably in the tens of thousands, if that.  Those who wear it also tend to be clustered in localised areas, due to either those who emigrated from one country choosing to settle in the same area, or the mosque they attend.  Despite living close to an area with a sizeable Pakistani diaspora, I think I've probably seen only one or two women wearing it over the years.  It really isn't anything approaching a major problem or issue.  It may be in those few communities where many do wear it, but making it into something it isn't doesn't help in the slightest.

We keep returning to the subject because it excites opinion about "the other" in our midst.  I disagree with those who refer to it as mark of separation, as I don't believe that many of those who wear the niqab do so to cut themselves off from the world at large; we however do see it as such because it so goes against our sensibilities about how we communicate and interact with each other, to say nothing about the aesthetics of shrouding yourself when plenty take the first opportunity they get to shed unnecessary clothing.  It also feeds into the whole tendency some have to instantly begin complaining about how if we couldn't live as we do here back in their "home land" that they shouldn't be able to import their ways either.  That this confuses governments and states, often authoritarian and completely unrepresentative, with the people they rule over naturally doesn't enter into the equation.

The Heresiarch superbly covers just about every argument and counter-argument there is for and against either tolerating or putting restrictions on the wearing of the niqab.  My view is the classically liberal, boring, one that mostly it should be decided on a case by case basis.  In the specific instance of "D", as she is being referred to, I think Judge Peter Murphy has been too willing to accede to what looks like special pleading on her behalf.  It might be different if "D" wasn't charged with intimidation, but I see no reason whatsoever why she should be allowed to cover her face when not giving evidence when she is in an enclosed space in a court of law.  She's not in public, she's facing a serious charge and the jury and judge should be able to see her reactions to the evidence given against her if they so wish.  She could still wear a hijab, so it's not as if she's being asked to completely discard her religious beliefs, just her specific interpretation that modesty means a complete face covering.  I don't accept that would in any way infringe her rights under the HRA or ECHR, as France and Belgium have both banned the wearing of the niqab in public completely, and as yet there has been no ruling on whether that is in breach of Article 9.  As a letter in the Graun points out, it seems ridiculous that we can be tying ourselves up in such knots over this when judges and the police continue to persecute the naked rambler in what has turned into an absurdly wasteful battle of wills.

On the other controversy over the weekend, that of Birmingham Metropolitan College dropping its ban on the niqab almost as soon as it was introduced, it's not quite as clear cut.  I have no problem with schools banning the niqab, whether for pupils or teachers, but when it's a 16+ institution where attendance is by choice, being more forgiving of personal beliefs or idiosyncrasies in dress ought to be the way to go.  You can understand the safety aspects of a ban, but that's hardly an insurmountable problem when everyone will soon get used to who does and doesn't normally wear a niqab.  Such a policy would surely also further understanding rather than the opposite; giving those who choose to wear it the possibility of only attending Islamic institutions doesn't help anyone in the long term.

The thing that most annoys is that as before, this entire episode was began by a politician claiming that they were speaking up for those who are being forced into wearing the niqab.  Apart from there being little to no evidence for this being the case, even if such a statement was accurate it rather ignores the fact that far more women and girls will have little to no choice when it comes to wearing the hijab.  One of the most depressing sights I've seen in recent times was a double page spread of photos of London schoolchildren in the Graun, and the number of girls pictured that were already covering their hair, despite not having yet reached 10 years of age.  We don't however question the hijab as opposed to the niqab, as we mostly accept it as an inherent part of Islam (internal differences considered), personal dislike for the practice or religion in general aside.

What we really don't need is the front page of the Sun DEMANDING action, even if those DEMANDS weren't completely outrageous.  Legislation isn't needed, unless it really does become a major issue in courtrooms, where hopefully Judge Murphy's compromise won't necessarily set an overall precedent.  Banks and other places can come up with their own policies without parliament intervening, as the Border Force or whatever it's called now already has.  Within reason we ought to be able to walk around in public wearing what we please; just as I often wear a hood in the winter and usually cover my mouth as well, which some claim intimidates them (although I'm just about the least intimidating person to walk on a pair of legs), so if someone wishes to only have their eyes visible out of adherence to a scripture written hundreds of years ago, they can.  If it does no harm to anyone else, live and let live.  And tone down the rhetoric.

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A side-effect of these laws that no-one seems to be considering is that a complete ban on the niqab necessarily involves removing the rights of everyone to cover their face in public, as has now happened in France and Belgium. Is it a coincidence that this law is DEMANDED by a notorious mouthpiece of British plutocracy at the same time so many of our other mechanisms for privacy are being broken?

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