WHEN Saima, my late mother’s maid, first joined our staff, she used to wear the full burqa.
But after a bit, when she saw that neither my mother, nor her relatives and friends who visited the house covered themselves, she felt relaxed enough to take her black, all-encompassing garb off when she was indoors.
When I got to know her better, I teased her about this: “Saima, why don’t you cover yourself in the house when men often visit? And other members of the staff are male, so how come you cover yourself outside the house, but not inside?”
Her reply was entirely sensible: “I don’t wear the burqa for religious reasons; but if I don’t wear it outside, men say lewd things and stare at me.” This says less about her faith than it does about our society, with all its difficulties and dangers for women.
Just how dangerous was made clear in the recent Human Rights Commission report that highlighted the violence, rapes and honour killings rampant in Pakistan. Instead of improving, things are getting worse, largely because perpetrators of crimes against women almost invariably get away unpunished.
I was reminded of Saima by two recent cases involving the full niqab in the UK.
In the first, a college in Birmingham first banned the full, face-covering veil, and then backed down in the face of protests. In another, a judge barred a young woman from covering her face in court, but then relented with the proviso that she must allow the jury to see her face while she was giving evidence.
While the full burqa has been banned in public places in France and Belgium, Britain has resisted calls to follow suit. Even the Conservative-led coalition government is against the state getting involved in this debate.
Teresa May, the home secretary, declared that women should be free to decide what they want to wear. This statement followed a call for a national debate on the subject by a junior minister in her department.
The entire discussion has put liberals and feminists on the spot: on the one hand, they defend the right of women to dress as they please. But they also deplore Muslim women being forced to cover themselves up by family and social pressure.
However, the reality is that in most cases, many young Muslim women born and raised in the UK choose to wear the hijab or headscarf, and more rarely, the niqab or the full burqa.
In most cases, this attire is worn more as a badge of identity than a religious duty.
In fact, Islamic texts call upon women to dress modestly, but not to envelop themselves from head to toe, leaving only the eyes visible. This is why burqas and niqabs are relatively rare across the Muslim world. Working women, especially in the fields, simply could not function in them.
When writing about the subject at the time the French debate on the full veil was going on, I thought I should try this garb myself. Accordingly, I donned a black burqa that had a mesh over the eyes, and covered my entire body.
My whole world shrank to a small rectangle; my movements were restricted; and I felt hot and claustrophobic. As I wrote at the time, any man who makes his wife, daughter or sister wear this attire should put it on himself first.
But wearing the full veil in male-dominated, violent countries like Pakistan is very different from putting it on in liberal societies like the UK.
In the former case, the garment is for self-protection, while in the latter, it is mostly about identity. And even though the number of women wearing the full burqa in the UK is tiny, the outfit does arouse irrational anger. As Maleiha Malik, a professor of law, wrote recently in the Guardian:
“Today’s debates about, and treatment of, veiled Muslim women are akin to the way heretics, lepers and Jews were treated in mediaeval Europe… [In the post 9/11 era] Political elites have exaggerated, rather than alleviated, understandable popular anxieties about Muslim religious differences in ways that often make reasonable debates impossible…”
While political correctness makes it difficult for my British friends to be openly critical about veils when discussing the issue with me, they do express one reasonable concern. Why should many young Muslim girls at school be deprived of pursuits like games, swimming and dramatics due to their constraining outfits?
Apart from depriving them of healthy activities, their parents also prevent them from sharing these experiences with non-Muslim friends, and thus diminishing the benefits of a liberal education. So while young women from other migrant groups are represented on the stage and the sports fields across Britain, few Muslims are.
Does this matter? Yes, if you are born and brought up in a country that you now call your own, and where you would like to be gainfully employed.
Maleiha Malik proposes an internal debate on the veil within Muslim communities. However, given the divisions that exist among Britain’s three million or so Muslims, it is hard to see how a consensus can be developed on this, or any other, subject.
I often wonder why this is not a political issue in the United States which also has a substantial Muslim population. I suspect one reason could be that the unemployed there do not enjoy the same benefits they do in much of Europe.
Here, if you can’t get a job because you insist on wearing the full veil or an unkempt beard, you can go on the dole.
For a liberal like me, this is a lose-lose debate: on the one hand, all my instincts say women should be free to dress as they choose; on the other, I don’t want to see young Muslim women being marginalised and stigmatised because they insist on antagonising the mainstream by their extreme attire.