I agree with Cathy Nugent (“No absolutes in niqab debate”, Solidarity 296, 18 September 2013) that there must be debate of the issues surrounding the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College and of Judge Peter Murphy to back down over the wearing of the niqab in college and in court.
I am surprised that the left went along uncritically with the student protests supporting the challenges by the women involved. Claims to wear the niqab in such places are made, and supported by others, on the basis of “a woman’s right to choose” and of promoting religious “tolerance”.
The misappropriation of the “woman’s right to choose” slogan by right-wing religious forces has confused many on the left. Politicised religion stands for the subjugation of women — it is not simply a case of supporting an individual woman’s right to express herself or wear what she likes.
I live and work in Tower Hamlets. When George Galloway stood against Oona King here in 2005, he cynically and opportunistically took up the cause of a secondary school student who demanded to wear the niqab in class. The student, thankfully, did not win and the furore died down. However, during the period, some female Muslim students in the school complained to teachers that they felt pressured by members of the newly-formed Islamic Society to veil up. Hizb ut-Tahrir stickers began to appear on school bags, adding to the oppressive atmosphere.
Bolstered by this, two members of the society wrote to the then head teacher complaining that the cleavage of a member of support staff, a midday supervisor, could be seen. The head, who had considered herself a left winger in her past, who had been politically active during the 1970s women movement, responded by attempting to introduce a “modest” dress code for women. There was no mention of a code for men.
The supervisor, who had worked for many years with teenagers, in schools, and was much respected and loved, found herself staring in the mirror every morning, fretting about how she looked, suddenly self-conscious about her body, and utterly unsupported by management.
This was an attack on that woman, from the right, by Islamist activists attempting to change for the worse the culture and atmosphere of their place of learning for everyone who learned, taught, and worked there.
The fear of being considered an “Islamophobe” has the effect of preventing political activists from speaking and thinking clearly. It has meant failing to make solidarity with women in religious communities who want to stand up to conservative clerics and “community leaders”.
Political Islam has gained strength in East London, helped along by Galloway’s Respect and their sometime-bedfellows, the SWP. Why would we, the left, revolutionary socialists, side with right-wing religious forces against the women of our class? We should challenge, not “tolerate”, religious ideas.
This does not mean that we support state bans on religious clothing or the forcible removals of veils. We would not have supported the use of state force to prevent Catholics worshipping in Stalinist Russia. Suppression of religious practice from above tends to have the effect of driving people more firmly into the arms of religious reactionaries.
We should, however, challenge the ideas of those men and women who think worship is a human ideal, or that women should be defined as good or bad depending on how much of their bodies they allow to be visible. It means also that we recognise where those ideas come from and on whose side we stand.
I believe that there are times when wearing a veil is not appropriate and we should not be afraid to say so: classrooms, hospitals, and doctors’ consulting rooms for example. There are also times when the wearing of the veil has no damaging effect to anyone other than the wearer, and a ban would therefore be wrong.
Going along with the left consensus, based on a bourgeois-liberal “tolerance” of religious ideas and forces that we would do better to challenge, serves no-one.