A Note on the Niqab
Islam is so passive. I don’t know what Islam you’ve been talking about [B]. Recently, perhaps due to Facebook’s overtly partial organizational algorithm or perhaps due to the well-intentioned, yet misguided efforts of those in my friends lists of a far left wing or theocratic inclination, I found myself continually stumbling across a particularly grotesque yet entirely unsurprising attempt by the obnoxiously prolific BBC three to normalize that most egregious of crimes against the sound moral conscience, the monotanization and de-individualization of the female of this species. The video in question ingratiatingly titled, “Things not to say to someone who wears a burqa,” which interestingly does not at any point include a woman actually wearing one, ventures to utilize the free adoption of hijab by a few select individuals, in this case by women clad mostly in niqabs, to present the practice as something entirely benign and harmless. Of course their sample of interview participants and worldly locations is, to say the least, geographically invariable. Alas, there is some utility to be found in this video, namely that it quite effectively sums up the most popular apologetics employed by individuals who share the conclusions of those who produced it. And so I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss the topic of the niqab and burka in general and more specifically, address the two most prominent cases in their defense. The most telling portion of the video by far, and the part that most enthused me to construct this response, is that in which the question, “Why do you wear that?” is discussed. This is, after all, where the heat of the debate surrounding the covering of women truly lies. What is the motive behind the adoption of the cloth? Well, the first answers shown by one of the women is, predictably, I am wearing this for God. I am wearing it for God This is revealing. Upon reading the Quran, it is difficult to ignore the blatant repression of women promoted by its God. There is further misogyny, however, and a number of unnecessarily introduced theological complications implicit in the declaration that it is God’s will that women cover their faces in public, an injunction that you will not find in the Quran itself. Firstly, if it is the case that a woman’s standard of dress is different to that of a man’s in the eyes of the almighty, then we have two possible options by means of an explanation. Option A is that God is sexist and purposefully endowed women with more of a need to cover up than men. Option B is that God is a non-existent entity created by man (as in men) as a projection of his most abundant iron age characteristics, including, naturally, the subjugation of women. Neither option is a compelling justification for the sacrifice of one’s identity. Secondly, there’s another issue here regarding the views of this unidentified and unidentifiable woman regarding those women who decide not to adopt the veil. If she is of the genuine opinion that it is necessary for her to wear a niqab in order to be looked upon favorably by the supreme leader, is this judgment not therefore administered to all women? The god of the Quran is unforgiving at the best of times and makes it clear that those who contradict his prescriptions, myself unapologetically included, are in possession of a one-way ticket to the darkest pits of the underworld. If this woman’s code of dress is, as she claims, contingent upon the wishes of God, the necessary corollary is that those women who refuse to abide by it themselves are looked upon by this God with distaste and therefore, condemned to a similar fiery fate as my own. And herein lies the most salient argument against the promotion of such propaganda. If young, impressionable girls are taught, implicitly or explicitly, that in order to please the being that will ultimately decide their fate, it is advisable to cover their skin from head to toe, these girls will be led to believe that such a choice, provided they are lucky enough to call it a choice, of course, should be seen as desirable. In other words, they will begin to want to cover themselves despite this want being grounded in a clear case of false consciousness. It’s not just Muslim women who are modest. There are so many different religions and different types of people who practice modesty in different ways. The second argument presented, whose appearance marks the extinguishment of all tangible defenses of the barbaric proposition, is that regarding modesty. In order to retain a humble front, it is asserted, it is necessary for some individuals to remove any possibility for visual analysis by the predatory world in which they live. This, along with, of course, also evoking the question of what this belief says about the modesty of women who decide to show their face, clearly identifies archaic male insecurities as the basis for this contemptible practice, which originated at a time when women were seen as little more than the sexual property of their husbands, and, therefore, covered up in the same vein that one covers up one’s personal belongings in a parked car lest somebody happened across them. There is also the piercing irony of the attraction of gazes of attention elicited by the wearing of a traditional garment. Attention, which is in fact lamented in the video, and yet this point seems to evade those doing the lamenting. The stares that I get the comment that I get in the street… modesty in this context, by definition, is behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency. Now let’s consider what this means. Impropriety is improper behavior or character, indecent, not conforming with generally accepted standards of behavior. Well, as for the latter part, I don’t think that showing one’s face at all outrages to generally accepted social standards of society. And as for the former, well, if the niqab is necessary to retain modesty, then we are left with the conclusion that to show one’s face is improper and indecent. Again, I happen to disagree. This notwithstanding and before anybody so much as draws the breath needed to accuse me of fascism and cultural imperialism, it obviously goes without saying that once the aforementioned desire to don the veil is developed, nobody is within their rights to force a woman to remove it for the very same reasons that nobody has the right to force her to wear one in the first place. The prospect of banning an item of religious expression or state control of a woman’s choice of clothing certainly outrages my internal sense of moral decency, except of course in cases where a ban is appropriate, such as certain occupations in the public sector in education or instances of forced adoption. Still, given that the origins of the desire to dress in such an otherwise perplexing and repressive manner are so clearly coercive in nature, I find it damagingly irresponsible for secular individuals to make such an erroneous exception for Islam where they would otherwise admonish such a clear case of these subconscious indoctrination of women and girls not only into a bizarre religious practice, but also the victim-blaming mindset that underpins it. There does also exist, of course, the claim that wearing a niqab or burka is not an islamic practice and is instead an expression of modesty for modesty’s sake or is strictly cultural, and not, in fact, to impress any Middle-Eastern deity. This is easily dismissable. With specific regards to the video, you will notice that the woman in it who claims that her wearing the niqab is cultural and not Islamic is the very same woman who in response to the question, “Why do you wear it?” says that it’s an act of worship and that she’s doing it for God. It’s cultural. It’s not really Islamic. It’s an act of worship. I am wearing it for God. If they really were simply nothing more than a reasonable expression of modesty, then the niqab and burka would not be idiosyncratic to Muslim women. As a matter of fact, this exact exclusivity is what seems so indicative of their needing to be some religious persuasion involved in order for any person to wish to wear a cloth on their face every day. This should not come as a surprise. I am unreservedly in favour of any person’s right to wear whatever they want. But I am also unreservedly repelled by any ideologically driven attempts to decide what women should want. A legal ban on the practice, like Belgium’s, which was just upheld by the European court of human rights last month, is not the answer. It misses the point. Let’s stop polarizing this issue into pro-ban versus pro-burka. Let’s stop having fatuous arguments over moral relativism, and let’s turn our attention away from our own political pursuits and towards those women and ingenuous girls who actually deserve it. I’ve been Alex O’Connor or Cosmic Skeptic. You can find me on social media here. Thank you for watching, don’t forget to subscribe, and I’ll see you in the next one.