We must oppose the veil ban today or wake up in an intolerant society tomorrow

Last Friday Phil Hollobone’s bill to ban the face veil from all public places in the UK got its second hearing in Parliament, writes Ibrahim Khan.

The whole niqab debate has been accompanied by a chorus of the usual Islamophobic diatribe vomited up by the red-top newspapers and the Daily Fail. Questions have been posed on national TV morning shows and interviews, and politicians have literally fallen over themselves to be quoted saying something non-committal but generally anti-veil in order to benefit from the 67% who believe the niqab should be banned according to a recent YouGov poll.

But in all this cacophony of thinly-disguised xenophobia, the most important voice has been drowned out: the voice of the women affected.

Now I’m not going to bore you with the standard back-and-forth of the face veil argument. We all know how it goes already. On one side you have the freedom of choice and freedom to practise a religion, and on the other you have concerns over ability to communicate, national security, and female oppression.

But this debate – which will doubtless rage over the next two weeks – misses a fundamentally important part of what is at stake here: real flesh-and-blood women will no longer be able to dress in the way they want. This is no abstract discussion over rights. It actually affects people.

Tiny minority

The reason why we as a society miss this important part of the picture is really quite simple. Only 0.1% of the British Muslim population wears the face-veil and so hardly any of us personally know a niqabi. For us this debate is just an academic discussion about what it means to be British and it doesn’t really affect us.

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But for my mother and sister this debate is a direct assault on their autonomy as human beings. So let’s talk about them, let’s talk about the tiny minority of niqabis living in the UK today who will actually be affected by this bill.

My mother, a retired doctor, sees the niqab as a basic part of her identity and she is fiercely proud of her choice which she made independently when she was 17. My sister, a university student, puts on her niqab before she leaves the house as unthinkingly and as naturally as we put on our coats when going out. For her its completely normal.

Every day they go out into society, interact with teachers, friends, neighbours, and business clients. People are initially apprehensive but quickly relax when they realise they are just regular human beings under that veil – just like people were initially apprehensive when a black man would approach them 30 years ago, but quickly relaxed when they spoke to him.

French example

Now let us imagine for a moment that Phil Hollobone gets his way and the niqab is banned in all public places in the UK. What would that mean for niqabis like my mother and sister?

Well we don’t need to use our imagination for this as unfortunately we have the living example of France with us right now. In a study carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative which interviewed French niqabis affected by the niqab ban, the consequences are clear and shocking.

Out of the 35 interviewed initially, 27 still continue to wear the niqab post-ban. All of those who wore the niqab after the ban described their movements as severely limited for fear of being stopped by police or harassed by members of the public. They described how they felt like prisoners in their houses with their amount of socialisation drastically reduced and their family life affected deleteriously. They describe how they have been verbally and even physically assaulted by members of the public, sometimes in groups, following the ban.

Niqabis are regularly derided by the media
Niqabis are regularly derided by the media

Let me spell that out: If the niqab ban goes through in the UK, my mother and sister, like most other niqabis, will not give up wearing the niqab. But they will be held as prisoners in their own homes due to the laws of the land that we acquiesced to.

They will be unable to do everyday tasks like taking their kids to school, going to the GP, and running their businesses. They will become hugely dependent on their spouses and their relationship with their children will suffer. If on the rare occasion they do venture out, they will run the risk of assault and arrest – all for that one small piece of cloth over their face.

Instead they will sit at home and watch bitterly as politicians on the media talk about the great emancipation of women that has taken place and how it now helps these women to stand up to their spouses, make their own choices, and live life freely. The irony would be laughable if the threat wasn’t so real.

Last week an elected representative of the people proposed in all seriousness to make this suffering a reality. Although the bill didn’t pass due to lack of sufficient support, the groundwork has been laid for a future attempt. That is why this should concern all of us.

If we don’t speak up now, we may find in a few years time that we have sleepwalked into becoming an intolerant and illiberal society – and I don’t know about you, but that’s not a future I look forward to.

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