Have you ever met a woman in a niqab? Has one ever harmed you?

As politicians call for a "national debate" on the niqab, Aisha Gani speaks to women who choose to wear a full-face veil to discover why they do so.

Struggling politically? Want to fill columns? Start a debate about the niqab. It’s another opportunity to roll out the veil puns and plaster that stock image of a Muslim woman in a black niqab, her heavy eye make-up emphasised.

Sometimes I think that we are obsessed. Why do we insist on telling woman what they should and shouldn’t wear? As a British Muslim woman who wears the hijab (headscarf), I don’t think covering my face in public would be safe, appropriate or is necessary for me. But I have close friends who wear niqab, and I don’t want to judge them. I am no scholar. What other women believe and wear is up to them, they don’t have to justify themselves to me. There is so much hostility based on what we think the niqab represents. One of the first things that came to mind when Jeremy Browne made his comments was this: has anyone actually spoken to any of the women who choose to wear niqab? So I decided that I would talk to as many as possible. 

It’s been argued that women who wear a full-face veil are excluding themselves from society. Psychology graduate Nadia, who started wearing niqab a few months ago, tells me that opportunities are not taken away by a piece of cloth, but by how other people react to it. “From my understanding of feminism, women should be able to do want they want to do. The niqab isn’t imposed by men. I do it for God.” Tayabbah, 20, is an English student at King’s College London and tells me that no one should take her right of wearing a niqab away. “I’m not harming anyone. It is a choice I made and a choice I have to deal with.” 

These are determined young women. And they are hardly conforming – they are a minority within British Muslims, and no one forced them to wear a niqab. Several say they are the first ones to wear the niqab among their family and friends.        

“I found niqab liberating,” Muslim convert and mother-of-two Khadija Sallon-Bradley tells me. “When I turned 12, I started wearing make-up. There’s this notion that is if you’ve got it, you flaunt it - and it’s driven into you that if you don’t look good, you won’t be spoken to by boys. So much has to do with appearance and you are bombarded with images of perfect and skinny girls and it makes you very self-conscious. I had so many insecurities.”

She started to question her role in society, what was expected of her, and went through a feminist phase as a teenager. Khadija adds that although she converted at 18 and started wearing hijab at university, she couldn’t “ditch the concealer”. By wearing the niqab, she felt right and that people wouldn’t judge her just by her face any more, and that there are many ways to communicate.

LSE Sociology student Rumana, 24, has dreams of being a social worker. “I want to work with vulnerable women, deal with victims and inspire other niqabis. I don’t want to cut off my career choices. I don’t want to accept that.” Although Rumana concedes that physically she has put up a barrier, her intention is not to be cut off from society. She does not deserve to have “letterbox” shouted at her, she says. “You can’t see me, but I make sure you hear me. I make sure my character and personality comes through. I’m not just a walking Qur’an.” She tells me that she makes an extra effort to contribute to seminars, to say hello and so on. She does compromise when she has to and has given evidence in court. I can’t help thinking, is this chatty young Muslim someone who should be excluded and shunned for what she chooses to wear?

If these women didn’t want to be a part of society, you wouldn’t see them in the street in the first place, would you? In the past, I didn’t understand why some Muslim women would wear extra covering, but that’s because I never asked. These women have done their research, and feel compelled to wear the niqab. In most cases, they deal with the situations they are in pragmatically and with courage. When it comes to security and identification, whether they are sitting exams, going to the bank or travelling abroad, women who wear niqab have either worked out an accommodation or have compromised. 

When I go out to eat with a friend who wears niqab, we’ll choose a restaurant where she feels comfortable. It’s not an issue. The first thing I associate with my friend with is her love of baking, her football obsession and the way she laughs, not what she wears. She has never imposed her way of doing things on me.

Women who wear the niqab shouldn’t be dehumanised or othered. I am sure that my friends who wear it don’t appreciate how (largely) white middle-class MPs and commentators - who have little interaction with those who wear niqab - feel as though they have to act as a knight in shining armour to liberate Muslim women from their oppression. The women I spoke to don’t need a saviour, nor do they want anyone to view them with a patriarchal eye, as though Muslim women are meek creatures without agency. The fetishisation of a covered woman and the language of de-veiling is not only orientalist, but it can be creepy. I am reminded of the recent leak of Lady Gaga’s Burqa lyrics. It’s so wrong.

This is Britain, and pluralism is something to be celebrated. I have come to appreciate the diversity in Islam, and Muslim women are not homogenous. We have different inspirations and different styles. There has been a huge fuss about the niqab, and I think it would be more helpful to understand and appreciate the contributions of these women instead of marginalising and scapegoating them. Will it make us feel better to ostracise them?

Perhaps we should question ourselves and what makes us feel so insecure about difference. Have you ever met a woman in niqab? Has a woman in niqab ever harmed you?  

A veiled woman in Cairo. Photo: Getty
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation