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Muslim Women Who Wear Face Veil Speak Out Over Niqab Ban Debate

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Pictures of women wearing the full-face veil were splashed across the front pages of national newspapers on Monday as politicians debated the right of Muslim women to wear the niqab in public.

But, by-and-large, it's white, secular, middle-aged politicians and journalists doing the talking, not the so-called 'niqabis'.

Women wearing the face-veil need to take a more active role in public debate, according to Shalina Litt, 34, radio presenter and community activist from Birmingham. She has been wearing the face veil for around five years, having left a career in the music industry to dedicate herself more fully to Islam.

"Women have the choice to wear hardly anything if they want to. And that's fine. There are not many niqabis, unfortunately, who are willing to speak to the media about this issue, to explain how they feel," she told HuffPost UK.

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A Muslim woman wearing a Niqab walks in the British northern town of Blackburn

The debate over the face veil, which is banned in France and Belgium, was reignited after a decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to drop a ban on the wearing of full-face veils, amid public protest.

And on Monday, Nick Clegg admitted he has concerns about Muslim women who wear the full-face veil in classrooms or going through airport security, after fellow Lib Dem minister Jeremy Browne suggest the state should ban the veil being imposed on young women by family pressure.

At the same time, a judge in London ruled that a woman standing trial must remove her veil while giving evidence, but allowed her to wear it for the rest of the proceedings.

The Deputy Prime Minister said he would oppose banning the veil entirely, though Browne called for a national debate on the controversial issue.

"I'm very happy to have a debate," niqab-wearer Sahar al-Faifi, 27, a molecular geneticist from Cardiff told HuffPost UK.

"I welcome debate and people asking me questions about it. But any national debate must include the voices of Muslim women. I don't believe Britain would ever ban the niqab but there should be debate in a free society.

Litt said: "My message to Jeremy Browne and Nick Clegg, and to other MPs speaking on the subject, is that, for me, the primary job of an MP is to make Britain a safer and better place. And what harm is a woman in a niqab doing?

"Women who wear the veil don't tend to commit crime. Islam demands we obey the law of the land in which we live. That freedom of choice is what I love about being British."

Al-Faifi has worn the face veil since she was 14. "I began it as an act of worship, but it has come to have a deeper meaning for me, as a message to show I am not oppressed. My sister and my mother do not wear it. It is a totally personal choice, to bring me closer to God."

The lack of women in veils appearing in public life is one of the reasons why there are so many misconceptions, Litt believes. "I do know it's a difficult choice for me to communicate. People can barely grasp why a woman would choose to cover their head, let alone their face."

Although the majority of Islamic scholars agree that hijab is necessary, only a minority of them say that the niqab is. But for Litt, it's a way of showing more dedication to her faith.

"For me it is an act of devoted worship, and of obedience to my Lord. Some people pray more, some people fast more, I chose to be more modest as a way of showing my faith. I take this opportunity to be more modest, when it is presented to me.

"I personally find it a liberating experience, when I sit down with an interviewee, suddenly they aren't looking at my clothes or face, or judging how I look but listening to what I say. It's a real bonus."

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Women wearing a Niqab shop in Whitechapel market

For al-Faifi, the experience has not been universally positive. "I've experienced a lot of racism, in the city centre, passing by a supermarket, although never at university, never at work. But you do expect it, when you go outside those spaces, because of a lack of education, and a lack of mutual respect.

"I do think Muslim women need to be more vocal, express their views in public and engage in debate and discussion about it."

The debate this week has been fuelled by the case of a Muslim woman, who will be allowed to stand trial while wearing a full-face veil but must remove it while giving evidence, according to a new ruling by a judge.

Lawyers for the woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, had argued that it would breach her human rights and be counter to Britain's tolerance of Islamic dress to remove her niqab against her wishes.

Litt said she agreed with Clegg and Judge Peter Murphy at London's Blackfriars Crown Court, that there were shades of grey when it came to certain situations, like wearing the veil in schools, airports or in court.

Most Muslim women, she said, use their judgment and work out what they feel comfortable with, and what is appropriate, on a day-by-day basis.

"When I go into a bank, I am prepared to remove the veil, likewise if I go into an airport. It's nice if an institution is accommodating enough to let me show my face to a woman, not a man. But if it can't be helped, then I would lift the veil.

"There are certainly some women who only wear the niqab in the street, not at their workplace. Most Muslim women live in the real world, and assess the situation and what they feel comfortable wearing on a case-by-case basis. It's not black and white."

The argument that wearing a niqab shows a more determined dedication to Islam is disputed by Muslim journalist Yasmin Albhai Brown, who wrote in the Independent: "None of our sacred texts command us to cover our faces. Some branches of Islam do not even require head coverings. These are manmade injunctions followed by unquestioning women.

"We Muslims are already unfairly thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too."

SEE ALSO:
  • Protests Planned Over College's Ban On Muslim Students' Veil
  • Nick Clegg Criticises Banning Veils In College

And writing for The Telegraph, Conservative backbencher Sarah Wollaston said it was a "perverse distortion of freedom if we knowingly allowed the restriction of communication in the very schools and colleges which should be equipping girls with skills for the modern world" and said the face veil was an issue feminists should rally against.

Al-Faifi says she completely denies that there are any Muslim women in Britain coerced into wearing the veil.

"This is a totally negative, ridiculous portrayal. The niqab is not compulsory, it's recommended but a woman has total freedom of choice," she said. "That's the authentic reading. It's predjudice to suggested it is all forced by a father or husband. We are in a free, democratic country, any women can choose to take off her veil and be protected by the law. No-one can force you to do anything in Britain."

Litt said she did think some women might be forced by family to wear the face veil, but said she viewed that coercion as totally un-Islamic.

"You cannot judge a book by its cover, I can't see behind the veil," Litt says. "Some people might be wearing the veil for cultural reasons, because their family demands it of them. But that is not Islam. That's culture.

"Nothing should be imposed on women, they shouldn't be forced to get their chests out, or forced into prostitution either. It's important to give women the freedom and opportunity to make that choice. The law should protect them.

"With my daughters, it would be their choice. It's my responsibility to teach them a deep understanding of the five pillars of Islam, of devotion to one God, to charity, to pilgrimage, to fast on Ramadan and praying five times a day. Those values come first, the five pillars don't even mention what you should wear, that comes later."

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