My Face Is Not Your Property 14 September 2013
I feel silly even having to write those words. For as long as I can remember, both my Muslim faith and my British upbringing taught me one thing – I am in control my decisions. I can choose what to wear, how to dress, what to eat, where to go. Choice and autonomy; these are my human and spiritual rights. Why must I reaffirm this most basic principle?
Every now and again, privileged white men seem to consider it their prerogative to discuss my choices. In 2006, Jack Straw stated he felt ‘uneasy’ speaking to Muslim women and who wear the niqaab. I can understand why, patriarchy suggests it is the right of men to see women. I choose not to acquiesce to this particular form of patriarchy. As much as I am sympathetic to his discomfort, it is not enough for me to forgo my basic rights.
More recently, Tory MP Philip Hollobone tabled a parliamentary bill trying to outlaw the veil, also revealing he refuses to meet with Muslim constituents who wear the niqaab. He is an elected member of parliament, who first disempowers Muslim women like myself because of an item of dress by refusing to engage with us, and then further abuses his power as an MP to try and force a piece of legislation to remove our right and our choice to dress how we choose.
And the whole thing has been blown up again in the media with Birmingham Metropolitan College’s ban of the veil (a ban which was subsequently reversed, thankfully).
I’m left wondering, how can something so personal to me, my choice to wear a veil, be subject to so much discussion, so much debate? It is a horrific feeling, to have your personal choices discussed by strangers.
Perhaps one of the worst aspects of the whole debate is the way women who wear the veil are silenced. It isn’t that we’re barely included in the discussions about the niqaab in the media, which is bad enough. No, it is much worse. Our opinions are discounted by undermining our very agency. Women who wear the niqaab are silenced not by ignoring our voices, but by claiming our voices are not our own. Rather, we’re constantly painted as either brainwashed by religion or oppressed to the extent that our opinions must be considered the same as those expressed by a person under duress.
Imagine for a moment, that a deeply personal, spiritual decision you make is discussed publicly by others. Imagine that you’re not given the opportunity to speak and express yourself. Then when you do speak, everyone considers your opinion invalid since you’re somehow an unreliable witness. There is nothing so suffocating and disempowering as this experience, and it is this that is the true oppression of women who wear niqaab.
Do I need to explain why I choose to wear it? In reality, each woman is different and each wearer of the veil dons it for their own reasons. For me, it is an expression of love for God. The early Christian saints of the British Isles would sometimes withdraw into caves in the wilderness, seeking God alone in seclusion. My niqaab is similar for me, a way for me to devote myself wholly to God. And it is empowering, I cannot express how powerful I feel being released from the constant disciplining gaze of male observers, who try and fail to impose their own notions of femininity upon me. These are my reasons, and mine alone. Others will have theirs.
So let’s not kid ourselves. The debate about the veil is not about me and my womanhood, nor is it about some supposed oppression I face from Muslim men (for the record, most of the Muslim men in my family would prefer I didn’t wear the veil). The debate is about xenophobia and patriarchy. It is about distracting the public from wider issues, issues that really matter.
Why is it then that these men (and it almost always is men) are so eager to speak about women’s rights on the issue of the niqaab and yet are so silent about the two women every week who die as victims of domestic abuse in Britain? Why are they so silent on the pay gap between men and women? Why do they ignore the way in which welfare cuts disproportionately affect women? If they want to be feminist crusaders, start with those issues.
As for my face, it’s my property, it’s my choice, and it is not open for debate.
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