Try ploughing the fields in a niqab

Iram Ramzan has a piece in the Sunday Times reminding us that criticizing the niqab is something a great many Muslims do, so we’re not automatically being More Virtuous by defending it as A Woman’s Choice.

I was surprised at the furore last week when Boris Johnson wrote that Muslim women who wear the face veil “look like letter boxes” and compared them to bank robbers. Quite rightly, he doesn’t think we should ban the niqab in all public places, as Denmark has done, but described them as “absolutely ridiculous”.

There are many Muslims — including many of my relatives — who hate the niqab and what it stands for, and will use much worse language than “letter box” about them: words like “ninja” and “bin bags” come to mind.

Of course, context matters, and context includes who is saying it as well as when and where. Outsiders do need to be careful not to come across as Trumpian assholes, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay silent, much less that we should endorse the erasure of women as a Choice.

In Kashmir, where my grandparents came from in the 1950s, the veiling of the face is an alien concept. Instead, women drape a loose scarf on their head, which forms a part of their colourful garments. Try ploughing the fields and milking the buffaloes while wearing heavy black robes.

When I went trekking with a group last year in northern Pakistan, we saw a woman dressed in a black niqab. One of our porters, native to the region, asked us: “What is this monstrosity? Why do they dress like that?”

The rise of this garment is partly down to Saudi Arabia spreading the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam through donations to schools and mosques. You will rarely see the niqab in rural areas in the subcontinent but more often in the cities where Islamist satellite channels hold sway.

Saudi Arabia, where domestic servants imported from the Philippines and Sri Lanka are treated like dirt and women are treated like infants. We don’t want to be getting our customs and way of thinking from them, thank you, and by “we” I mean everyone.

Feminists, politicians and lobbyists will talk about the discrimination women face in the workplace, the gender pay gap and the need to break the glass ceiling. Yet many are shamefully silent when it comes to the presence of a piece of clothing that really is a threat to women’s freedom.

The face veil is not a mere item of clothing, but a symbol of subjugation. It is based on the idea that women are such dangerously alluring creatures they must be fully covered in the presence of adult males, an argument that is as offensive to men, who are portrayed as ravenous beasts, as it is to the women it affects.

It’s as offensive to men, but it’s physically hobbling and uncomfortable to women only.

It is even more important that we challenge the preaching of modesty codes for women. But how do we do that if the debate is constantly shut down? Too often, valid concerns about the veil have been written off as “racist” or “dog-whistle politics”.

It’s not easy, but it must be done.

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