It's interesting to see the rise in male and female journalists indulging in burka cosplay as part of investigative journalism, which brings a new meaning to the term undercover journalism. At the risk of being accused of paralipsis, I don't want to enter the currently framed niqab debates fully - one key reason being that I believe males should tread carefully when commenting on female issues. But I do want to use the niqab to open up discussions that consider a wider phenomenon, which is driving the quest for cultural authenticity.
Niqabis are women who wear the face veil, as opposed to hijabis who wear a headscarf but have their faces uncovered. They are the people the media would have us believe we worry about frequently - a peculiar and exotic creature of Orientalism.
Dust (also known as Sooraya Qadir) Marvel Comics
But this is really about those Ninjabis: the young Muslim females, as they are more affectionately termed in Muslim youth culture - well they're the new punk rock aren't they?
Punk in the mid 70's and 80's was the consecration of a sub-culture, anti-establishment, counter-culture, typified by the Sex Pistol's song 'God Save the Queen' and the mantra 'No Future'. Johnny Rotten later explained his lyrics:
"You don't write 'God Save The Queen' because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you're fed up with them being mistreated."
Also, on a wider level, there's punk fashion. Punk at its heart is about tribalism and authenticity, and outing the poseur - those that have the rituals and symbols, but lack the street cred. So if the niqab phenomenon is like punk - isn't it just as nuanced and complicated?
Whilst some were married to the cause full-time, some punks also held down white-collar jobs during the week and let their hair up at the weekend. Is it the same with niqabis? Also, a point not being picked up enough is that some Muslims try them, wear them now again, and quite a few probably move on. Just like other fads and fashions - Hippies, Rockers, New Romantics, Goths, Hip-hop heads, Grungers and Emos. Likewise, faith is not much different - it too goes up and down with the seasons and the trials of life. So should we be taking a more longitudinal standpoint on all of this?
'Rebel': artwork created by courtesy of Saba Barnard
I'd like to shift the focus to the notion of society - as most of the debates consider what impact the niqab has on community cohesion. For many parts of the world society have become synonymous with nation - but is that the reality? Some social psychologists have argued that the concept of a nation is a Western one, originating from circa 19th century - where boundary setting has become more about political expediency, rather than separating neighbouring societies. Also, post-industrialisation has led to the rise of the brand and the greater importance of cross-identities - personal, organisational, collectives, and national brands that are self-defined, fluid, and collaborative.
Therefore, within this paradigm, should we be looking at the rise of 'Brand Islam' more as a culture? Is it really about simply religious or legal necessity and permissibility? Shouldn't we be unveiling the role of women beyond objectification and symbolically? That means firstly encouraging agenda-free intellectual dialogues with a wide cross-section of individuals. And secondly, following the trend of more recent cultural theorists, arguing a view of culture(s) as a collective fingerprint, where there are no good and bad elements of a particular cultural group - it just 'is'.
Of course the niqab is linked with Islam - it's a religious symbol and a cultural artefact. Also, geopolitical events mean that many mild mannered Muslims are now those rabbits caught in the headlights. But how about also looking at the bigger picture - the rise of transnational phenomena. Globalization is bringing us together on more level platforms, with a convergence of needs and wants. However, it's also clear that another by-product and coping mechanism of all this is that we are becoming more cultural and tribal. That desire to be unique, conspicuous, authentic and linked into the permanence of a withstanding ancient cultural heritage.
So allegorically, could we also look at the rise of tattoos and DIY tattoos - it's got to be something more than us following the pied piper tune of Brand Beckham and others? Even David Dimbleby has one now.
As a way of understanding how we can make sense of our social ties, I'd like to introduce two sociological categories - the German words: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.
Gemeinschaft [community] - This is an ascribed status; comprising of a fundamental shared set of values, beliefs, norms, customs, rituals, kinship, behaviours and artefacts that individuals possess, and which binds them to one another - from the sacred to the profane, and through to the mundane. The bonds of Gemeinschaft represent a community of fate, where both good and bad fortune are shared.
Gesellschaft [society] - This is an achieved status built on secondary weaker relationships, where larger associations never take precedence over an individual's rational self-interest. Globalization, business, organisations, employment, and citizenship are examples of these societal relations.
In practice, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft work together, forming a blended reality, which changes according to time and context. Both are open to abuse and over-engineering: the creation of artificial and fictitious qualities run the risk of eroding either category, or swinging the pendulum the other way. So can Big Brother or a nanny state ever boss a community?
Relatively speaking, we are only talking about a sliver of the population. The 2011 Census in the United Kingdom had the Muslim population at 2.7 million, which is 4.8% of the total population. It was reported that the UK had around 100,000 converts to Islam, 40,000 more than in 2001 - 66% of whom were women. There were an estimated 5,200 conversions to Islam in 2011, making it the fastest growing religion in the UK between 2001 and 2009 - with the Muslim population increasing almost 10 times faster than the non-Muslim population.
Then, within this sliver of the population you have the niqabis and ninjabis. So this isn't really about statistics, most would agree it's more about the cultural and societal implications of a growing trend. This renders it a highly contentious and subjective issue, open to conflations, which may or may not be valid, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has pointed out.
Is the niqab debate really a way to put Muslims in their place, as they seem to be taking over? Is it about sending a clear message, to say who's boss - through attacking a symbol, used by only a very small minority, but who's symbolism evokes a fear in Muslims of Islam being attacked; which will rally Muslims together, cause bickering internally, alienate, and then separate for maximum effect?
Now this isn't just about Muslim bashing, because the student population is also facing a backlash from those in authority against a fear of free expression. The internet is a tool of empowerment from the Arab Spring, right through to flashmobs, consumer YouTube reviews, and viral vine videos. We have a window to the world and how we cope with being Alice peering through the looking glass will always bring opportunities and challenges. This all seems to be a lot about power.
I'd like to take a moment here to mention the work by Professor Reina Lewis, who led a publicly funded research project at the London College of Fashion and has coordinated several events. They uncovered a new trend among women - who, motivated by their religion, faith and personal preference are making the art of dressing modestly fashionable. This is also very much a community that is online, social, and not just about modest clothing - as the shy and modest also purchase more revealing items online, which are meant for the eyes of a select few behind closed doors.
In conjunction with this, Professor Lewis was the editor for a recently released book titled: 'Modest Fashion - Styling Bodies, Mediating Faith'. The book discusses the emergence of this growing niche market for modest fashion amongst and also between Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith groups as well as secular dressers.
When I talked to Reina, she said that,
"The majority of news media rarely allows room for a nuanced debate. Muslim fashion is rendered illegible or hypervisible by the changing macro-political news cycle."
And this comes back to some of my original thoughts. Is the niqab debate more about divide and rule by sectors of the community, both non-Muslim and Muslim - when it should be about understanding and protecting the rights of females? And accepting that whilst Muslim some dress might appear to offer or impose a one size fits all policy, or make everyone seem the same - one argument of rationalism doesn't fit all.
I'm reminded of Monty Python quote from the film the Life of Brian: "We're all individuals". Now this is not me poking fun at religion - far from it. Instead, I'm arguing that all parties would do well to listen, think and discuss more - but that this can only happen when the spirit of spirituality is respected.