Former Conservative cabinet minister Ken Clarke recently made his contribution to the ongoing niqab debate, which has been dominant throughout the media for over a month now, He put forward his view on the importance of seeing the face in a courtroom, as one may expect from a former justice secretary and barrister. However the manner in which his comments continued are an exact example of what is wrong with this entire debate. What he further went on to add, was an analogy of the Muslim woman’s garment being like a “bag” which was most “peculiar”. Ken Clarke unsurprisingly did what others have done, regarding the issue of niqab – singled out the dress code of the Muslim woman as something which did not fit in with the society that he lived in. Just like MP Sarah Wollaston who called for “a wake-up call for feminism”, and the Telegraph’s, Dalrymple who said, “The niqab is symbolic of a strong desire not to integrate in Western society”. Comments such as these have shown that the niqab debate has not been just about dealing with a specific security or legal dilemma as it was first pitched. Rather it has really been about asserting a very public view on how a practice of the Muslim community is unpalatable and unacceptable in British society. It would be naive to think that the attack on the niqab is simply a criticism on this particular mode of dress. The claims that have been made about the niqab being forced on women, taking away their rights, taking them back to the dark ages, disabling them from participating in public life; have all been common attacks placed upon a whole host of Islamic rules and laws pertaining to women – not just the niqab. We know gender segregation was only recently under attack in universities, shariah courts have been under scrutiny, all under the claim that they are oppressive to women and have no place in British society. It is and has been Islam, under attack by politicians and the media – we cannot be sidetracked by a discussion on the semantics of how to dress into thinking otherwise. It becomes even more apparent when the issue raised as a public national debate affects less people than could be crammed into the Houses of Parliament. As Muslim women we must be fully aware of this agenda of trying to change the Islam we practice as a community into one which fits the Western secular mould, particularly when it is done through an attack on Muslim women. Sisters, it is our duty to eloquently respond to such myths with the following.
1. Continue in our adherence to Islam despite the attack: As Muslim women whether it is the niqab, hijab, jilbab, we adorn these garments not because Parliament has given us the all ok to do so, but because they are worship to Allah SWT. Therefore when we voice the basis upon which we wear the Islamic dress, we must be honest and brave to explain that we do it as an act of submission to God and for no other reason.“Indeed my prayer, my acts of worship, my living and my dying are for Allah Lord of the worlds.” [Anam162]. As Muslims we do not argue that we wear niqab because we have the freedom to do so, because as Muslims we do not believe the basis of our actions should be our desires or freedoms. Our every action rather is shaped by what Allah SWT requires of us, and with what he is pleased by. We have seen in this secular society, the results of when people act on the basis of their own desires and freedom – promiscuity, individualism and social anarchy. As Muslims we want no part in this. “Have you (O Muhammad) seen him who has taken as his ilah (god) his own desire (Hawah)?” [Furqan 43]. Rather we should point out that it is our total adherence to the Islamic values and practices which ensure that as a community we remain honest, trustworthy, look after our families and neighbours without compromise.
2. Voice the attack on Islam, not get pinned down by the attack on niqab : Instead of debating the suitability of a garment that has been worn by women in British society for decades and never before caused a national problem, we need to bring the debate to the real issue – the attack on Islam. We need to question why politicians and media feel it is acceptable to criticise and attack Islam in the manner that they do. Why are Islamic practices a problem when they are just different, like the practices of many other communities in Britain? We see that the complete Islamic way of life which shapes views from dress to politics is seen as a threat in Britain and globally across the Muslim world; as former Prime Minister Tony Blair said very openly he felt that there was a “problem within Islam”. This is what this current niqab debate is about and this cannot be put behind a smokescreen.
3. It is secular politicians who are fuelling tensions and attacks, not Muslims: Muslim hate-crime monitoring group Tell MAMA have stated that Muslim hate crime disproportionately affects Muslim women and has only risen in recent years. One must question what is providing the fuel for such anger and animosity on the streets of Britain and it is clear to see that such outrageous comments by politicians and the media are. The case of the niqab wearing Muslim woman in France who was attacked in June and as a result lost her unborn child, shows the effect similar rhetoric along with the ban, had in France. Such public negativity towards the niqab validates the view for movements like the EDL and the like to believe, that Islam and Muslims are a real problem. So it is comments by irresponsible politicians which have caused increased tensions and hostility between Muslims and the wider society, not the niqab or any other Islamic practices for that matter.
4. Highlight the contradiction and real intolerance of secularism, from which this attack arises: For a society which prides itself on values of freedom for all, that claims that secularism by taking God out of the sphere can cater for all different types of people and not one majority; this debate proves this all wrong. There is no real freedom; there are no real rights of minorities that are protected. Rights are at the whims of the group of people who decide so in Parliament. Their views, prejudices all shape rules and laws and how they are made. Who is to say that today we may be debating the suitability of niqab in society, but tomorrow it won’t be jilbab or even hijab that is a perceived problem for politicians? Therefore secularism actually cannot ensure the protection of the rights of minorities. And when it comes to the claim that secularism is tolerant, the niqab phobia, again has smashed this claim. What type of tolerance is bred in a society where influential’s and politicians, who people look to, barrage the media with their negative views about the practices of a minority community? Where the idea of freedom of speech allows them to heavily insult Muslim women and how they dress from a platform where their views are amplified? All this creates is great intolerance against Muslims in society. The fact that secularism gives the total licence for this type of attack to occur in the public domain, shows that in actual fact secularism openly licences intolerance of minority communities. My dear sisters it is the secular society that should be on trial, not the niqab or Islam.
5. Opportunity for real dawah: Although the Muslim community is indeed facing testing times, it also an opportunity for reward! An opportunity to, not just defend Islam, but actually present Islam as the real alternative for the problems that this very secular/liberal system creates, whereby it claims to cater for minority citizens but in reality does not. Contrary to this the Islamic Khilafah Systems view on minorities is fixed as it is a view from the timeless Quran and Sunnah. The Prophet SAW said “Whoever harms a dhimmi harms me” (Tabarani).It is well documented how Caliph Umar ibn Al Khattab when he walked into Jerusalem, safeguarded all the places of worship for the non-Muslims, not allowing them to be desecrated or taken over by Muslims. The Islamic governance had an unchanging view about the importance of protecting the rights of minority communities. This could not change according to the whims and desires of even the majority community, as it is the law of Allah and his Messenger. As Muslims we do not just have a responsibility to shield Islam and our community, when it is fiercely attacked, but we must also engage with Non Muslims, to dispel the propaganda surrounding Islam and the shariah that they are continuously being subjected to. “He it is Who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth, that He might cause it to prevail over all religions, though the polytheists may be averse.” [Taubah]
Women’s Media Representative