The right to autonomy, self-determination, freedom, liberty, call it what one may, is a core component of a democracy - democracy resembling a house of cards; take a fundamental piece out and the whole structure will eventually collapse in on itself. Of course not immediately, but through an incremental trend, our often commendable democracy will gradually become a contradiction of founding principles we once treasured. This rather dire notion begins, what I hope will be a rather illuminating piece on why recent efforts to revisit the 'veil ban debate in public places and schools' will not bode well, if passed.
Conforming to a superficial society?
Due to the heavy influence of the media in our globalized world, many images are becoming standardized; for example, society's perception of what a woman should look like. The recent Feminist formation of campaigns such as 'Armpits for August' challenges these traditional values, and rightfully so, as one should never have to compromise their individuality for idealism. Just like "Armpits for August"; challenges superficial norms and values of society, the niqab adopts the same principle through modesty. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, believes the niqab is "deeply offensive" and is "making women invisible". The reason I have singled out Dr Wollaston is because it may be the reserved views of many, but the primary reason is to applaud her comments in aiding the normalization of Islamaphobia. This is because I honestly find it deeply offensive that one could even categorize an optional religious practice as "deeply offensive" given the sanctity those women regard the niqab with. These women still have a voice, personality and life, dismissing or devaluing one's visible status due to their clothing is superficiality of the highest level. It is easy to lose the ability to fully grasp the notion that perhaps, women who cover up or dress modestly, do so in liberation as not to be oppressed by societal norms to bare all and validate media sexualisation of women. On the point of empathy, if we could imagine wearing the niqab for even 5 minutes in a professional environment, say academia or work for example, can you begin to contemplate the dramatic change in lifestyle? Aside from the childish stranger stares and occasional taunts, the barrier placed between the wearer and communicator is not an easy thing to live with. Yet these women take this path all for the sake of religious enlightenment and spiritual connection with their creator. Whether you're a Muslim or not, it is hard to dismiss the commitment of these women to stand for what they believe in, and not have respect for their modesty and admiration for their continued contribution to society be it in the workplace, academia or paying taxes. Friends who wear the niqab do so to have a consistent physical reminder of the afterlife. This self-elected religious pursuit is their form of jihad (personal struggle) and is a very humbling notion indeed; hence Wollaston's labeling of such a pure form of worship as 'deeply offensive' is in itself... Deeply offensive; given the sanctity these women give the niqab. Furthermore, to contemplate that one's clothing determines a woman's 'visibility' or not is preposterous, as niqab wearers do so through their own autonomy, so to suggest one loses their individuality through a piece of cloth is outrageous.
The question of autonomy and societal tolerance...
Logically, as long as X's autonomy does not affect Y's autonomy and vice-verse, individuals are autonomously capable to do as they please. The main issue with the niqab as put forward by Jeremy Browne, home office minister, is security concerns; ludicrously claimed that wearing the niqab can serve as a disguise to get away with crimes. Well how many niqab wearing Muslims have been prosecuted as criminals? A statistic nowhere near significant enough to mitigate. Similarly, cant large sunglasses, fake moustaches and wigs also hide ones true identity? Should we ban all such apparel as a result of their criminal potential? If security issues can be overcome in the case of the Sikh Kirpan (and rightfully so) there should be little controversy over the niqab when considering Islam does not make the niqab compulsory upon women, and for those who wish to adorn the veil, Islam permits the removal of it for identification or security purposes. Therefore complying with the 'law of the land'; a principle emphasized greatly within Islam. The accommodating nature of Islamic regulation aligns itself with the rule of the law, so there is no need to endorse such an Islamaphobic policy, which in turn maximizes the chances of a 'clash of civilizations' that Samuel Huntington once controversially spoke about. The only difference being that this "us VS them" mentality would be fuelled by Western preferentialism. This is evident in the increase of Anti-Muslim hate crime in France after the veil ban. Therefore, the only realistic threat posed by the niqab, as argued by Jeremy Browne primarily, is scripturally overcome. So instead of making it easier for this minority of women to practice what they so passionately believe in, by educating our youths and promoting respect or at the very least, tolerance of these women's choice of attire, we opt to make a mountain out of nothing? (Because there is a niqab orientated solution to any security concern, thus there isn't even a molehill!) Those threatened by the niqab are merely misinformed of the reasoning behind the adornment of it, if one takes the time to educate themselves of the rationality behind the niqab; its partnership with the word "threat" will swiftly diminish. In statistical terms, the number of women wearing the niqab is so small it shouldn't even arise on the political agenda, given the current climate of much higher and relevant priorities. Regardless of the number, it is only fair to accommodate all individuals whether they compose a minority or a majority to be able to fully exercise their autonomy given it doesn't affect another. Personally, I do not believe the niqab is necessary but at the same time I believe in the power of the individual in self-determination, the state should not be allowed to dictate what one should wear and similarly what one should not wear.
De-integration on the horizon?
Every great historic tragedy began with some form of differential treatment, take slavery for example or even Nazi Germany - yes, this is bordering a slight exaggerated comparison but given the heavily legislated and regulated globalized world we contemporarily live in, this is the 21st Century example of a disaster brewing. Since the ban in discussion was passed in France, there has been an increase in 'Muslim hate' or Islamaphobic crimes and language, and whilst there are no official figures for this (inevitably due to the lack of concentration in such a specific research group) this is proven by various human rights organizations. Furthermore, the EDL, despite being ill-organised and incoherent, represents a reality check to track the state of Islamaphobia in the UK contemporarily. Since its creation it has attracted dissatisfied, misinformed individuals who give meaning to the famous saying; "Ignorance is bliss". Though it is clear an "Us VS Them" disenfranchisement has the potential to become an actual phenomenon soon, if politicians are not careful. It would be a deep shame and pity if the UK were to backtrack on much historic integration between the richly diverse religious and cultural groups it homes. The government should, theoretically at least, lead by example and even debating this notion implies a possibility of it passing which in turn normalizes intolerance of individual autonomy. The selectivity is also becoming hugely apparent, particularly when considering the Sikh Kirpan isn't deemed as controversial as cloth? (Both of which are legitimate examples of state needed compromise to accommodate minorities to ensure they can freely practice their autonomy as equally as non-religious, be it through special exemption!)
"We must stop the veil being imposed on young women!" Wait, where...
Protectionist rhetoric used by Browne is worthless considering these women do not need to be saved from anything as they elect to do as they please. Restricting what doesn't need to be restricted will only lead to mass discontent (evident in the mass petitioning against the Birmingham Metropolitan College ban) due to illegitimate interference with the private sphere. Banning one form of religious attire is only the first step, and indefinitely will not be the last. Such interference with individual autonomy, on a physical level, will not stop until it is all-reaching and there is no room left for compromise. Niqab wearers dress so at their own discretion, and as for security concerns; Islam accommodates the veil to be lifted under certain circumstances, so there is no need to ban something only worn by a minority in the first place, and which doesn't even infringe upon existing legislation. All this political rhetoric is, is a justification for suppression in the name of oppression - which in itself is an abomination and "deeply offensive".
But what about...
In regards to the monstrous Jubel Miah case; a 21 year old heroin addict who terrorized his 17 year old wife into wearing the niqab as a condition to attend college, it would be rather condoning of the audience's intelligence to list the many variables of vulnerability to oppression, asides from the niqab. For those who have used this case to argue that the niqab oppresses women through coercion; banning it will not deal with the underlying issue of domestic violence which in itself is a complicated area of prevention. Therefore, banning the niqab for the protection of the coerced few is deep injustice and only a short-term solution. And this case is not an accurate representation of the lives of the remainder of niqab wearing women who elect to dress the way they do, thus generalizing based on one worst case scenario is unjustified. Furthermore, on the point of dealing with domestic abuse surely each case should be dealt with on an individual basis opposed to applying weakly correlated variables from extreme cases.
So what next?
Islamaphobia is a real phenomenon and the fragility of the situation means we must be wary of extending such a social cleavage further for risk of potential exploitation. I believe, and I hope my article has reiterated this; there is no reasoning great enough to justify the outright banning of such religious attire. How can we voice our support for freedom of expression yet attempt to pursue policies of great religious discrimination which will subsequently override individuality? Such means will not only stifle efforts of preaching tolerance and respect, but in the long-term; peaceful coexistence.