What do British-born Muslim teens who don the face-obscuring niqab have in common with Justin Bieber and other modern young men who display their underwear to the world? At first glance, nothing. The former cover up from head to toe in depressing black cloth, not flashing so much as an ankle at their fellow citizens, while the latter are sartorially slovenly, not caring a damn that the rest of the world can see what colour and brand-name their boxers are.
Yet something fundamental binds these two cultural tribes together: a penchant for anti-social fashion, an urge to pick out and put on clothes that express one's disregard for the world and its inhabitants, that say a big fat "screw you" to other people. The niqab girls do that by sticking themselves in conversation-killing cloaks; the underwear boys do it by effectively mooning at everyone they walk past.
Following last week's decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to reverse its ban on face-covering veils, and this week's claim by Lib Dem Jeremy Browne that we need a "national debate" about the veil, Muslim veils have once again become the subject of heated, often unhinged debate. Easily the most striking thing about the debate is how both sides treat some young British Muslim women's decision to wear the niqab as a very serious thing rather than the frivolous fashion statement it truly is.
On the anti-veil side, people made generally uncomfortable by Islam insist these black-clad women are a sure sign that our society has been invaded by alien beliefs and elements, by gruff foreign men who can't get their heads around the Western idea of women's lib and thus think nothing of stuffing their daughters / sisters / female friends into oppressive garments. On the pro-veil side, handwringing white liberals who would stick their heads in their Aga stoves if their own daughters ever went about dressed like Darth Sidious tell us that wearing the veil is a deeply rooted part of Muslim women's culture and so we mustn't ever interfere with it. In fact, we should smile gently at any niqab-wearer we walk past in order to make them feel more welcome in our lands.
What both sides share in common is a view of the veil as a fundamentally foreign thing - whether a wicked foreign thing or a cute, exotic foreign thing. Both are wrong. The veil as worn in Britain, particularly among girls who were born here, is not an expression of foreignness or of deeply held religious beliefs, but rather of fashionable alienation, of anti-social coolness; it's a two-finger salute to the surrounding world. And that makes it very Western indeed. All young people these days, from hoodie-wearers to the vulgarly tattooed, use fashion to express a knowing sense of detachment from the mainstream world, and the British-born niqab gangs are no different.
The idea that British-born Muslim girls are being forced to wear the veil just doesn't add up. Very often, even these girls' own mothers don't wear the veil. Unlike some of their covered-up counterparts in certain Gulf states, veiled British-born Muslim women drive, work, study, wear high heels, go out on their own, shop. Boy, do they love to shop. Walk through Selfridges on any day of the week and you'll see veiled British girls giggling as they admire the latest Fendi bag or Rimmel lipstick. British-born veil-wearers bizarrely describe their free-willed donning of the black cloak as a form of self-empowerment, the polar opposite of what the forced wearing of the veil symbolises in parts of the East - the disempowerment of women.
There's a palpable streak of narcissism among British-born niqab-wearers. In certain Islamic countries, the full face veil has the effect of making women anonymous. In Britain, it has the opposite effect: it makes you stand out from the crowd and turns you into an object of intrigue. It is about inviting not repelling society's gaze. It's about saying, "Look at me, I'm mysterious", the opposite of being modest. It's not that different to when a punk dyes his hair purple or a goth puts on black lipstick and nine-inch platform shoes - it's about sending a message to the rest of society that says: "I'm different to you; I'm cooler than you."
Veil-wearers often talk excitedly about the "barrier" their robe erects between them and the madding crowd. In the words of one, putting the veil on "creates [a barrier] between myself and the harsh, frenetic world [of] nosy passers-by, noise and crowds". What really motivates this desire for sartorial separation from the mob is not some profound sense of piety or religious duty, but rather the same thing that drives "chavs" to put on face-obscuring hooded tops or young middle-class people to get covered in tattoos that were once the preserve of the workless or sailors - an instinct to advertise one's disdain for one's surroundings, to make an ostentatious display of one's practised, manicured sense of alienation. There's nothing foreign or religious about this. The urge to put on some kind of veil doesn't come from some dusty backwater in the East but rather from the super-fashionable politics of identity here at home.