The Niqab in Britain - our response is hard-wired
From Father Silas:
I have an acquaintance who, now in his 40s and living in London, was raised in a Christian family in Syria. He recalls that when he was growing up, relatively few Muslim women in his city wore religious dress, and even fewer wore face-veils. Now, he says, a majority do. What, he wonders, has happened to make them ostensibly more devout over such a short period?
The reason, he has concluded, is linked to the sense that Muslims in Syria (and probably elsewhere) have that their culture and traditions are under threat from Western influences. Not principally by political pressure or military activity; but by the ubiquitous commercial, materialistic and secular forces that seem to wash continuously from west to east like a cultural jet-stream. Their dress is an assertion of their identity, for the survival of which they fear.
If this is true, it might be assumed that niqabed Muslim women in the West are similarly motivated. They are, after all, a minority, living in the very midst of the culture that they may fear is poised to overwhelm their own. If the tables were turned, might not I want more boldly to proclaim that Christian belief and identity which is inseparable from my ethnic heritage? I might indeed; but it is worth reflecting that in some Muslim countries I would not be permitted to proclaim it too loudly or openly (or perhaps at all), on the grounds that, there, my religion is simply wrong; and that something which is wrong must not be flaunted.
“We are a free country and people should be free to wear whatever clothes they like in public or in private,” says David Cameron; and most of us would agree instinctively. We do not contemplate legislating for Jews to be allowed to wear a yarmulke only at home or in shul, or even for almost-naked girls to be forced to cover up in public. Why do we argue about banning the burka?
The answer, I think, lies in what constitutes culturally acceptable appearance and behaviour in our own cultural setting. Because we tolerate public expressions both of extreme modesty (eg in the wearing of the niqab) and extreme immodesty (eg wearing practically nothing) in women, it is assumed that we tolerate anything; that we are, if you like, perfectly tolerant. We are not. Being a free country is not the same thing as being a cultural vacuum. Because we seem to have abandoned many of our former social requirements does not mean we have abandoned them all.
The plain truth is that, in Britain and much of the West, it is not culturally acceptable for the face to be covered. The sight of a covered face evokes a deeply embedded response – a prejudice, if you like – which involuntarily associates it with criminal intent or activity. This is not to say that I suspect your average niqabed Bond Street shopper of plotting to rob the Hermès store or to bomb Parliament. It is a reflex controlled, metaphorically, by the spinal cord rather than the brain, and is (for the moment at least) hard-wired. We can prevent ourselves from acting on this response, but we cannot prevent it taking place.
Seen from this perspective, the current debate as to whether the niqab represents either the oppression of women or their right to choose is displacement activity. While they may be valid questions, they are not what is fundamentally at issue. What is at issue is the western hard-wired response to the publicly covered face. Are we capable of being re-wired? Should we even consider calling in the electrician? Or should we take the French route – framing our law to reflect our cultural requirement?
What’s the betting we won’t be brave enough to ask the real questions?
Father Silas is an undistinguished (he says) priest and deacon of the Church of England who loves it in spite of everything.