There was an interesting item on British women who choose to start wearing the niqab – the Islamic full veil – on last night’s Newsnight programme on BBC2 (available for the next week on iPlayer). I say ‘British women’ advisedly, as the three young women interviewed persistently referred to themselves as ‘British’ and never once as ‘English’, despite the fact that their accents betrayed an English background.
The women claimed that it was entirely consistent with their identity and rights as British-Muslim women to wear the niqab. But it would have sounded incongruous if they had said wearing the niqab was an expression of English identity. Another, older, woman interviewed, who now wears only the hijab (head covering) but used also to wear the niqab as a young woman, argued that the niqab dangerously and needlessly reinforces divisions between Muslims and the rest of British society (yes, not even she uttered the ‘E’ word) at a time when tensions between the two communities are running high.
For me, it seemed rather that the niqab-wearing women featured in the programme were hiding behind their Britishness just as much as they were hiding behind the niqab. Both are an expression of difference and separation from English society and identity. This is an illustration of how British multi-culturalism (discussed in my previous post), which is the doctrine that makes plausible the women’s claim that the niqab is an authentic expression of British identity, in fact reinforces the divisions between migrant communities and cultures, on the one hand, and mainstream English society on the other. If the women had tried to appeal to the Englishness of the niqab, there would have been no hiding place.
This does not mean that women should not have the right to wear the niqab and the burka in public. Indeed, the whole point about those garments is that they are what such women choose to wear in public as opposed to at home, when one of the women said she wears Western clothes. I thought that was a rather striking admission, which should have been brought out more in the interview. English people would perhaps be less suspicious of devout Muslims if they were more aware of the extent to which, in their private lives, Muslim families identify with aspects of Western – and specifically, English – culture. Wearing the niqab could then perhaps be seen as an authentic expression of English-Muslim identity – a means by which young English Muslim women try to negotiate the contradictions of upholding their faith in a highly visual and sexualised Western culture – rather than as an aggressive assertion of a British-not-English Muslim identity.
Indeed, it was significant that all of these women, including the older one, had chosen to take up the niqab when they were at an age when non-Muslim English young women would be exploring their sexuality and having their first relationships. ‘Taking the veil’, as used to be the term for Christian women entering the convent, is a way for such women to abstract themselves from the pressures to have multiple sexual relationships, and to make themselves attractive, slim and sexy, that many Western women find so oppressive. I’m sure many English women would identify with that and would be more sympathetic if the Muslim women could be more honest about the psycho-sexual and cultural aspects to their decision to wear the niqab, rather than emphasising the fact that it was purely an expression of their faith, which non-Muslims could not relate to.
Ironically, after watching the Newsnight interview, I then listened to the ‘Word of Mouth’ programme on BBC Radio Four, which was all about the importance of body language as a complement to speech. The programme came to mixed conclusions: emphasising the importance of body language, in that we do all use visual cues and associations to make sense of what other people are saying to us, although voice and words alone can convey much of the same information and strength of emotional expression. In a sense, women who wear the niqab and burka are removing themselves from body language and making themselves pure voice. Indeed, the women implied that wearing the niqab had enabled them to find their ‘true voice’: to be respected and listened to for who they are – as British-Muslim women.
The question, though, is can they be truly known and loved not just by, in and for themselves, but by the English people around them as anything beyond the public wall of their British-Muslim identity: as women with a name, a face and bodily expression? As one of us?