The British Niqab ‘debate’ unveils societies' latent racism


How many of you remember a whole raft of politicians, feminists, liberals and right-wingers standing as one to declare: One of the reasons we should invade Afghanistan is to save Muslim Women from the Taliban. One of key reasons for liberating Afghanistan, we were told, was to ensure Afghan women can be ‘given a voice’.

Back in 2001 the former Prime Ministers’s wife Cherie Blair and Overseas Development Minister Claire Short were the biggest cheer leaders in focusing their attention towards Muslim Women. Thirteen years later and countless lives lost, the Taliban are reemploying their male dominated will on society. In the last few weeks alone the Taliban  have assassinated two female security personnel. It begs the question: was the war in Afghanistan really about women’s rights? If so why are they now being abandoned?

The same is true about the mock outraged debate in regards to the veil or the Niqab. To watch the news, or listen to the radio stations one would think that the foundation of British society is under threat by a few thousand Muslim women who prefer to wear the veil. Horrorified shock jocks give over hours of airtime urging their listeners to be as outraged as they are about the 'affront to our society' and to women’s liberation in general.

This ‘national’ debate came about after a small number of women at Birmingham University requested to wear the veil during their lectures and another woman requested to remain veiled during her court case. Birmingham University reviewed its initial decision to ban the veil on security grounds and will now allow it, and the Judge found a compromise in the court case arguing that if the defendant gives evidence then she must remove it.

So, where’s the national debate? Why do certain politicians and media people want to talk about this issue ad nauseum? The answers are simple: by focusing on this extremely narrow issue which only effects a few thousand women, some people can write or talk about what they see as very negative elements of Islam. The fact that it effects so few people is besides the point, they know that all Muslims are tainted by this debate. And that is the sole reason for its disproportionate coverage.

The detractors would say, ‘but it’s a legitimate debate to be had.’ Others would say, ‘ its about protecting Muslim women from oppressive  Muslim men’. Both are just excuses. If this a legitimate debate, why isn’t there a  legitimate national debate that Muslim’s numbering many tens of thousands are amongst the poorest, deprived people in the United Kingdom.

Equally the rates of infant mortality is the highest within British Bangladeshi families; Somali men have the highest rates of unemployment, and Stop and Search for Muslims are three times the national average. Why are these issues not for public debate? If it was about Muslim women, why then are organisations such as the Southall Black Sisters having their funding cut by local and National Government?

Where’s the outrage when Asian women’s organisations that support women’s rights are closing on a daily basis? And if its about women’s rights in general, why are we not completely outraged by the main stream sexualisation of young girls, by men in powerful media postions? Lastly, in the fairness of seeing all sides of a community, when was the last time you heard a debate about Muslim women or the Muslim Community that was anything but negative?

If our outraged shock discjockeys, politicians and feminists really cared about Muslim women, they would be writing articles and holding programmes about the deep inequality gaps which persist in jobs, education and housing. Sadly these very genuine debates do not pander to prejudice like the veil debate does.

Simon Woolley