By Amy Fisher
The furore over Jack Straw’s comments on the niqab has generated hundreds of column inches from liberal commentators at The Guardian. Many, including David Edgar, quite rightly rail against state bans on religious clothing and stand up for the right to wear whatever you choose. As Edgar says "if we want to have a leg to stand on when we stand up for The Satanic Verses or Behzti or Jerry Springer, we must defend to the death the right to wear it [the niqab]". However, the issue of choice is much more complicated than this.
The spectre of the silenced, oppressed, helpless Muslim woman was raised by the right as a justification for war in Afghanistan. That’s not an accurate image, even of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban; there were for instance women who risked their lives to do such things as organise schools for girls. When socialists critically examine the reasons behind people's choice to wear the hijab, niqab or any other form of veil, we are not painting veiled women as uniformedly brainless drones passively following the demands of their brothers, fathers and husbands, although doubtless sometime women are intimidated into wearing the veil by male (and female) family members.
It is the choice to wear the veil must be examined. The same feminist commentators who are keen to point out that women who wear short skirts and dye their skin unnatural shades of orange are acting under wider social forces when they make their choices are unwilling to frame the choice to wear the niqab as anything other than an act of perfect free will. The privileging of religious identity under New Labour must be partly to blame for this squeamish attitude to criticising religious choices.
The increasing prevalence of the niqaab is explained by those who wear it and those who vehemently defend it a desire to be "pious". Socialists are not in favour of trampling over anyone’s religious feeling, or forcing someone not to be pious. But should this reality immediately remove the niqaab and other forms of ultra-modest clothing from the realm of acceptable criticism? It should not, because this issue is more complicated than that. Women covering their faces in the presence of men is not a politically-neutral religious symbol that socialists can ignore. Nor is it a personal religious act that has no meaning other than its religious meaning, such as wearing a cross.
Veiling explicitly relies on the idea that women's bodies are shameful and tempting. According to feminists who come from a Muslim background, women in Muslim countries, according to local custom and under some interpretations of Islam, are seen a highly sexually alluring. Women therefore court sexual assault by revealing their faces. The veil stands for the repression of female sexuality, for the idea that sex or even sexual thoughts outside of male-controlled marriage are sinful.
For socialists, and even liberals, to refuse to condemn the ideology behind the veil is a betrayal of our secular and feminist principles.
As Catherine Bennett points out in the Guardian, the veil also represents "the disabling of girls by their clothing", a barrier to full participation in society. A case could be made that women chose to wear restrictive corsets in the 19th century, or to have their feet bound; such arguments would, of course, be ridiculous, and irrelevant to feminist criticism of the practices.
And aside from the women who choose to take the veil, for whatever reason, there are the implications for other women. If wearing the niqab is a symbol of piety, of "good" Muslim women, what pressures does that place on women who choose not to wear it? And what of the thousands of women, worldwide, who are forcibly veiled? Standing up for the right of British women to wear what they like rings a little hollow if it's not accompanied by a similar call for women in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan to share that freedom.
Socialists should defend the right to religious freedom, but we mustn't be afraid to criticise repressive religious practices either.