Why does the niqab generate such heated debate in the UK? The choice of what to wear in British society seems subservient to an orthodox secular agenda in society.  This agenda is at loggerheads with faith based values and from time to time a tussle between the two will be witnessed and presented for judgement and legal justice to ensure that all women living in British society are liberated from the shackles of veiling? Most recently we heard of the ruling given by Judge Murphy at London’s BlackFriars Crown Court that a niqab would not be permissible while the defendant gave evidence. If this controversy was not enough, another niqab headline was unfolding at Birmingham Metropolitan College where the college authorities did a U-turn on their niqab ban for students.

The very specific diasporic context of the niqab debate is not particularly studied in the immediate reportage but instead becomes a synecdoche for a group of people who can never reach modernity. It is not an issue that is representative of most Muslims but it takes on the guise of just that and requires a politics of positionality from those in representative positions to speak on behalf of their communities. Women’s liberation and/or lack of it seems to be the driving force behind the media investigations. It reignites a comparison between secular politics and its engagement with religion in Britain and France, their respective models of integration and multiculturalism. For the viewing and listening public in Britain the niqab confirms the extremities that Muslim women occupy  in the public sphere, they are depicted as the subaltern victims of oppressive religious practice. They bring to our minds the horrors that have been experienced by a Mukhtaran Mai or a Malala Yousafzai, marked targets whom the west has rescued from oppressive Islamist practices. The niqab wearer unsettles us as she is a minority within a minority, yet her dress code has the power to mobilise political and public opinion from national debates to newspaper polls. She inspires an outdated feminist practice to save her from oppression, and there are practical reasons of national security as she disturbs the state’s security agenda.

 In the recent debate, the niqab has become an emblem for moral outrage and is shown to be in direct conflict with law and society in Britain according to the press. Paradoxically, most revealing was the statement quoted in the Independent by a niqab wearer at Birmingham City College, “ The ban has been lifted - I have got what I wanted”. The individual who wishes to practice her piety has in this instance won. Freedom of choice is after all what we value most in a liberal economy yet we want everyone regardless of faith to abide by a secular code. When some others step out of line we as secularists feel that they have questioned our integrity as citizens and we have failed in our mission to modernize. This messiness of religion bleeding into the secular unleashes our Freudian unconscious and we cannot imagine the niqab wearer who may not be a victim but also an agent or possibly even an individual. If we make the niqab our twenty first century fetish then our identity politics are destined for a continuing twentieth-century clash of civilisations. The silver lining to the niqab controversy that rages on across Europe is that the makers of the multi media Pakistani cartoon  “Burqa Avenger” couldn’t have asked for a better publicity campaign than that which is taking place in Britain now. It is perhaps the imaginary that is needed to take us beyond the fixed stereotypes of who we are and who we think our enemies might be in the contemporary world.

Amina Yaqin


Last Updated on 19 January 2014
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