1. This is a free country
Unless people are committing a crime or outraging public decency they can wear what they like. Other than that, no-one should be telling people what to wear. Difficulties arise when there are no precise rulings or new situations arise. Legal action is sometimes necessary to achieve inclusion of those who are different e.g. when the Sikh turban was permitted instead of a motorcycle crash helmet in the 1970s.
2. It's OK to wear the hijab
Whatever a Muslim, or Jewish, or Christian, or Sikh, woman chooses to wear on her head is her own decision. Wearing a niqab harms no-one and does not, in itself, cause any problem. If there are security issues there are usually procedures in place to address them. Muslim women have not suddenly appeared wearing the niqab in 2013! It has been suggested that the niqab is a sign of oppression and that women have been forced to wear it, with little or no evidence being offered. It is worth noting that:
- A very small minority of women wear the niqab
- Within close Muslim families women will cover differently, from niqab to hijab to entirely bare-headed
- Families and friendship groups of women are usually very comfortable being with each other and this spectrum of hair-covering decisions
- The niqab is an article of modest clothing
- Forcing women not to wear the niqab will not solve the problem
3. Why are we so keen to ban?
As soon as an issue like the niqab enters into the public arena there is no shortage of self-appointed commentators who begin to use the language of 'banning'. This highlights the sensationalism accompanying what passes for discussion of public issues and the limited ways in which they are explored.
4. Are we talking to the women themselves?
Talking to women wearing the niqab is very important. The Christian Muslim Forum has worked with professionally active women wearing niqab, we have been pleased to welcome them as presenters and participants at our events. The niqab has not prevented our conversations!
5. What does the law say?
Judge Murphy's ruling for Crown Courts acknowledges: 'There is a pressing need for a court to provide a clear statement of law for trial judges who have to deal with cases in which a woman wearing the niqaab attends Court as a defendant ... this is a question which may be expected to arise more and more frequently, and to which an answer must be provided. I have found no authority directly on point in our domestic law.' (p.4)
6. We're not experts on Islam
I do not class myself as an expert on Islam. It is a feature of conversations on the niqab that non-Muslims take the opportunity to state that Islam does not require a woman to cover herself. If we are committed to honest dialogue and conversation we need to hear Muslims speaking for themselves.
7. This creates more negativity towards Muslims
There is no shortage of negativity towards Muslims, witness the recent attempt by the English Defence League to march through Whitechapel to object to the presence of local Muslims. There have also been a series of attacks against Islamic centres in the weeks following the appalling murder of Lee Rigby which, as the anti-hate monitoring organisation Tell MAMA has reported, continue at a higher level than before his death. With the niqab issue, Muslims are again under the spotlight, seen as unwelcomely different and difficult.
8. This creates more negativity towards Muslim women
Those who have a problem with Muslims have problems with Muslim women and what they wear. Some 'anti-Muslim' groups describe Islam as an oppressive religion which subjugates women. This inevitably leads to violence and attacks on Muslim women by non-Muslim extremists. Their apparent focus on women's rights has not led to better regard for women but the opposite, suggesting that they are actually motivated by hatred and misogyny.
9. Let's make Muslims, and anyone else who is 'different', feel welcome
Niqab-wearing Muslim women are always welcome at our events. The challenge for our society is to become hospitable and mature enough to cope with difference.
10. It's time for some proper national conversations
The Christian Muslim Forum is ready to host honest conversations on issues like this. Instead we have excessive negative media interest, sensationalising of people's lives and encouragement of fear, hostility and prejudice. My colleague Anjum Anwar regularly graps the nettle for public conversations on sensitive issues in lunchtime dialogue sessions at Blackburn Cathedral and also on her CommUNITY Platform show on Ummah TV. What is missing is for others in society to open up the conversation and encourage calm reflection.