| ||It was inevitable that the resurfacing of the niqab/burqa issue in the press, initiated by UKIP’s announcement of its intention to ban these items of clothing, would see Joan Smith (pictured) of The Independent proffer her blinkered views couched in her familiar secular gender equality framework. |
She writes in her column today:
‘The niqab and the burka are symbols of an ideology, not a fashion statement, and we shouldn't be afraid of making a robust ideological response to them.
‘Here is mine. One of the most fundamental human rights is equal access to public space. Islam doesn't demand that men cover their faces before they go out, but its more extreme advocates place special conditions on how women dress outside the home. It's a typical example of patriarchal practice, based on the notion that women should be under the control of their male relatives at all times, and it's incompatible with any notion of universal human rights. It limits women's contact with non-relatives and maintains barriers between people who have different ethnic and religious backgrounds. (Of course it does. That's what it's for.)
‘In effect, a woman in a niqab is wearing a mask, signalling her deliberate separation from people unlike herself. It's hard to think of another form of dress which is so highly politicised – or so rejectionist of mainstream culture.'
‘This is the point missed by liberal defenders of the niqab and the burka. I'm aghast when they say it's about personal choice, as though that removes the subject from the political arena; one of feminism's most influential slogans – "the personal is political" – exposed that as nonsense four decades ago.
‘No one is saying that women cover their faces for a single reason: a fairly small number believe their religion requires it, some come under family pressure, others adopt it for the political reasons I've outlined above. Whatever the motive, the symbolic meanings – separation, rejection, an acceptance of shame – remain the same. I don't want to ban the burka but I do reserve the right to say, as politely as possible, that wearing it in the 21st-century is preposterous.’
Proving herself as adept at interpreting Islam as Nigel Farage, Smith makes the ridiculous claim that:
‘Niqab and the burka are symbols of an ideology’ and ‘Islam doesn't demand that men cover their faces before they go out, but its more extreme advocates place special conditions on how women dress outside the home. It's a typical example of patriarchal practice, based on the notion that women should be under the control of their male relatives at all times…’
It is commonplace to presume, as Smith does, that religious edicts are always the pronouncements of men and that women following religious codes of practice are submitting to patriarchal influences.
Is Smith’s description of the niqab as ‘a typical example of patriarchal practice’ her own projection of it or something she’s come to learn from listening to and gathering the views of Muslim women who wear the niqab? It’s an important point when you consider that many women who choose to wear niqab say they do so not because of male pressure, but often in spite of it. The choice of wearing niqab for many Muslim women is a decision made and choice exercised to define themselves and their religious identity, whatever their families and male relatives may make of their decision.
Does Smith intend for ‘equal access to public space’ to be defined solely in accordance with a secular feminist framework (her preference) with no regard for the frameworks that other citizens apply to their presence and movement in the ‘public space’?
And though she may be ‘aghast’ at liberal defences of the niqab, their value and virtue lies precisely in their recognition that to impose moral frameworks on other citizens under the guise of a false universalism is oppressive.
As Human Rights Watch stated in its response to President Sarkozy's comments on banning the burqa in France: ‘Muslim women should have the right to move around dressed as they choose, to make decisions about their lives and religion, whether we understand or support those choices or not.'
Smith’s remark that the Muslim woman wearing the niqab is adopting a symbol of ‘deliberate separation from people unlike herself’, and that it is ‘highly politicised – or so rejectionist of mainstream culture’, infers more about Smith than reflect anything known to Muslim women who wear the niqab.
It is not ‘politicised’ on the account of women who wear niqab, but on account of those that seek to make an issue of it.
It is not negatively framed by Muslim women as ‘rejectionist of mainstream culture’, but positively embraced as an expression of their Muslim identity.
And it is not intended as a ‘deliberate separation from people unlike herself’, but as the right, the liberal right, to express one’s identity, religious or otherwise, through one's choice of dress.
Smith is entirely at liberty to ‘reserve the right to say, as politely as possible, that wearing [niqab] in the 21st-century is preposterous.’ Just as British Muslims reserve the right to reject attempts by those, like Smith, who are not adherents or scholars of their faith to tell them what it prescribes and to rebut their presumptions and prejudices as equally preposterous.
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