Sarah Wollaston: Veil debate should be wake-up call for feminism
Politicians need to set clear national guidance on where women should be allowed to wear veils, says Sarah Wollaston MP.
This past month should be a wake-up call for feminism. Birmingham Metropolitan College has lifted the ban on students wearing the niqab and Blackfriars Crown Court has similarly allowed a defendant to give evidence whilst fully veiled.
In my opinion it is time for politicians to stop delegating this to individual institutions as a minor matter of dress code and instead set clear national guidance.
There are serious consequences for women if they are hidden from view in our courts and our classrooms. For individual campaigners this may be a free choice but what of those who, once the niqab becomes an accepted norm, are pressured into compliance as a badge of piety or purity? It would be naive to think that a thirteen year old would have complete freedom to reject family or peer group pressure.
Much of our communication is through facial expression and that is lost behind the niqab. It would be a perverse distortion of freedom if we knowingly allowed the restriction of communication in the very schools and colleges which should be equipping girls with skills for the modern world. We must not abandon our cultural belief that women should fully and equally participate in society.
Once we accept the wearing of face coverings for pupils it will be hard to resist similar demands from teachers and what then of other public sector workers like doctors or nurses? The creeping acceptance of this form of sexual segregation has wider consequences for community cohesion as the niqab acts as a barrier to casual interaction and conversation.
Campaigners insist that the niqab is ’empowering’ for women. Only in the same way perhaps as an invisibility cloak but if that is the case why is it not worn by men? Such nonsense hides the reality that in cultures where it is not a choice but a compulsion, women have no meaningful power whatever.
We should not apply different rules within our justice system based on cultural background. Would I as a secular woman be permitted to hide my face as a defendant in court? There are good reasons why some witnesses are permitted to give evidence by video link but they apply equally to male and female witnesses regardless of cultural or faith background. Would we really want a situation where any defendant could choose to remain invisible whilst giving verbal evidence to their jury?
Those students who exercise their personal freedom to embrace the niqab may feel a sense of victory but they risk limiting the life chances of others. Women should be clear that the burka is a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation.
It is no coincidence that this month the Crown Prosecution Service has decided that sex selective abortions should be a matter of professional misconduct rather than criminal liability. In my opinion another sell out with implications for wider society. Where it is tolerated female foeticide harms all women by reinforcing misogynist attitudes that daughters have less value than sons.
We must be bold in resisting those who would allow the niqab to masquerade as personal freedom. In my opinion, to allow it in our schools harms women by colluding with a view that they should be out of sight; that attitude has no place in an open modern society. Sometimes you have to force people to be equal.
Sarah Wollaston is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Totnes