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: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.