The great burqa/niqab/hijab debate

To ban or not to ban? And what to ban?

From the Independent:

The parliamentary leader of the ruling French party is to put forward a draft law within two weeks to ban the full-body veil from French streets and all other public places.

Extreme? Right-wing? The article continues:

Some senior figures on the left have supported the idea of a legal ban. So has Fadela Amara, a left-wing campaigner for the rights of Muslim women who entered Mr Sarkozy's government in 2007 as minister for urban development.

Most moderate Islamic leaders have sharply criticised the burqa but suggested that it was such a limited phenomenon in France that legislation was unnecessary and might alienate moderate Muslims.

The burqa, per se, is an Afghan tradition allowing a woman only a narrow gauze-covered eye-opening. It is little found in France. The Arab equivalent, the niqab, which has a narrow opening at eye-level, is only slightly more common.

A study by the French internal security services last year suggested that the total number of women wearing both types of full-body veil in France was around 2,000 -- out of a total French population of adult, Muslim women of about 1,500,000.

Two questions immediately come to mind:

1) In the middle of the worst economic crisis in living memory, how can France's ruling conservative party justify focusing its legislative energies on banning an item of clothing worn by 0.1 per cent of the French population of adult Muslim women (or 0.003 per cent of the French population as a whole)?

2) Why did the "French internal security services" commission a study on the burqa/niqab? Is it now deemed to be a national security risk? Do French intelligence agencies have nothing better to do with their time? No other threats to deal with, apart from 2,000 Muslim women with covered faces?

Then there is the matter of the clothing itself and distinguishing between the various types. I'm no fan of the burqa or the niqab myself, and have yet to be convinced of the Islamic legal reasoning behind either garment, but I do recognise the difference between the burqa and the niqab, on the one hand, and the hijab on the other.

Does Yasmin Alibhai-Brown? In her short comment piece on the Indie's news story, and in support of the French ban, she writes:

The use of the burqa has grown like a virus across the continent. Children as young as four are now dressed in hijab.

I like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I admire her columns and the clarity and passion of her arguments, even if I don't always agree with her. But if even she cannot distinguish between the burqa and the hijab, two very different garments, how then can she criticise journalists and politicians, on other occasions, for misunderstanding Islam and Muslims?

Yasmin says she endorses the French approach:

I don't like the way the French state or its right-wing parties operate but sometimes there are some good unintended consequences.

I would ask her: isn't this exactly what pro-war liberal lefties said when they got into bed with George W Bush over the Iraq war and the removal of Saddam? And we all know how that turned out . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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