Wednesday, September 18, 2013 

It's not over till the tremulant sings.

There are few more terrifying lines to come out of a politician's mouth than "we should have a national debate [about this]".  It's the ultimate sanction for every ignorant pub bore in the land to get on the phone to 5 Live and share their wisdom with the world, usually in the most belligerent and arrogant terms.  It's an invitation to newspapers and columnists to do much the same, publishing their informed stupidity for the man on the street to hastily flip over on the way to the sports page.  And of course, it's also the perfect subject for many tortured blog posts, none of which reach any firm conclusion and will go unread by everyone except the writer's dog.

Yes, we are yet again discussing the veil.  Or the niqab, as few still want to give it its proper name.  That saying the veil is confusing because it encompasses all the different types and styles of hijab Muslim women wear doesn't seem to matter, as niqab is obviously an alien word.  Nor do we ever seem to get any sense of perspective: the number of women who wear the niqab in this country is probably in the tens of thousands, if that.  Those who wear it also tend to be clustered in localised areas, due to either those who emigrated from one country choosing to settle in the same area, or the mosque they attend.  Despite living close to an area with a sizeable Pakistani diaspora, I think I've probably seen only one or two women wearing it over the years.  It really isn't anything approaching a major problem or issue.  It may be in those few communities where many do wear it, but making it into something it isn't doesn't help in the slightest.

We keep returning to the subject because it excites opinion about "the other" in our midst.  I disagree with those who refer to it as mark of separation, as I don't believe that many of those who wear the niqab do so to cut themselves off from the world at large; we however do see it as such because it so goes against our sensibilities about how we communicate and interact with each other, to say nothing about the aesthetics of shrouding yourself when plenty take the first opportunity they get to shed unnecessary clothing.  It also feeds into the whole tendency some have to instantly begin complaining about how if we couldn't live as we do here back in their "home land" that they shouldn't be able to import their ways either.  That this confuses governments and states, often authoritarian and completely unrepresentative, with the people they rule over naturally doesn't enter into the equation.

The Heresiarch superbly covers just about every argument and counter-argument there is for and against either tolerating or putting restrictions on the wearing of the niqab.  My view is the classically liberal, boring, one that mostly it should be decided on a case by case basis.  In the specific instance of "D", as she is being referred to, I think Judge Peter Murphy has been too willing to accede to what looks like special pleading on her behalf.  It might be different if "D" wasn't charged with intimidation, but I see no reason whatsoever why she should be allowed to cover her face when not giving evidence when she is in an enclosed space in a court of law.  She's not in public, she's facing a serious charge and the jury and judge should be able to see her reactions to the evidence given against her if they so wish.  She could still wear a hijab, so it's not as if she's being asked to completely discard her religious beliefs, just her specific interpretation that modesty means a complete face covering.  I don't accept that would in any way infringe her rights under the HRA or ECHR, as France and Belgium have both banned the wearing of the niqab in public completely, and as yet there has been no ruling on whether that is in breach of Article 9.  As a letter in the Graun points out, it seems ridiculous that we can be tying ourselves up in such knots over this when judges and the police continue to persecute the naked rambler in what has turned into an absurdly wasteful battle of wills.

On the other controversy over the weekend, that of Birmingham Metropolitan College dropping its ban on the niqab almost as soon as it was introduced, it's not quite as clear cut.  I have no problem with schools banning the niqab, whether for pupils or teachers, but when it's a 16+ institution where attendance is by choice, being more forgiving of personal beliefs or idiosyncrasies in dress ought to be the way to go.  You can understand the safety aspects of a ban, but that's hardly an insurmountable problem when everyone will soon get used to who does and doesn't normally wear a niqab.  Such a policy would surely also further understanding rather than the opposite; giving those who choose to wear it the possibility of only attending Islamic institutions doesn't help anyone in the long term.

The thing that most annoys is that as before, this entire episode was began by a politician claiming that they were speaking up for those who are being forced into wearing the niqab.  Apart from there being little to no evidence for this being the case, even if such a statement was accurate it rather ignores the fact that far more women and girls will have little to no choice when it comes to wearing the hijab.  One of the most depressing sights I've seen in recent times was a double page spread of photos of London schoolchildren in the Graun, and the number of girls pictured that were already covering their hair, despite not having yet reached 10 years of age.  We don't however question the hijab as opposed to the niqab, as we mostly accept it as an inherent part of Islam (internal differences considered), personal dislike for the practice or religion in general aside.

What we really don't need is the front page of the Sun DEMANDING action, even if those DEMANDS weren't completely outrageous.  Legislation isn't needed, unless it really does become a major issue in courtrooms, where hopefully Judge Murphy's compromise won't necessarily set an overall precedent.  Banks and other places can come up with their own policies without parliament intervening, as the Border Force or whatever it's called now already has.  Within reason we ought to be able to walk around in public wearing what we please; just as I often wear a hood in the winter and usually cover my mouth as well, which some claim intimidates them (although I'm just about the least intimidating person to walk on a pair of legs), so if someone wishes to only have their eyes visible out of adherence to a scripture written hundreds of years ago, they can.  If it does no harm to anyone else, live and let live.  And tone down the rhetoric.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009 

Veiled abuse revisited.

You might, if you've got a very long memory, recall that the Sun and Express were absolutely certain that Mustaf Jama, the Somalian sought in connection with the murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky fled the country by wearing a niqab while using a stolen passport.

Jama was today convicted of his role in the murder after being seized in Somalia and deported back to this country. As for him wearing a niqab to escape, Jama denied that he had, and it played no part whatsoever in the prosecution case. It does indeed seem, as a spokesman joked at the time, that he may have been equally likely wearing a pantomime horse costume as the Islamic robe.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009 

A handy cut out and keep guide for hacks: Islamic dress.

For all those out there who are still terribly confused about what and what isn't a burqa (also spelled burkha, burka, etc), as Daily Express and Star journalists clearly are, let septicisle solve your problems:

This is a burqa. It's clearly identifiable by how there is not even an opening for the eyes; rather, it has a mesh through which the wearer can see (badly). These are mainly worn in Afghanistan and by the most conservative adherents of Islam, mostly apart from Afghanistan in parts of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The numbers wearing them in this country probably number in the very low hundreds (could even be dozens or lower), if that, with a similar number in France, where the current controversy is brewing.

These are niqabs. They're clearly identifiable by how there is only an opening for the eyes. These are more widely worn than the burqa, across the Sunni Islamic world (the Shia mainly settle for the normal hijab, if any head covering is worn) although again almost only by the more conservative adherents. The numbers wearing them in this country probably number in the low thousands, if that, with a similar number in France, where the current controversy is brewing.

Next time in the handy cut out and keep guide for hacks: what is and what isn't a disease.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007 

Scum-watch: Veiled exclusives.

Light blogging today as I've just had a thoroughly enjoyable visit to the dentist, but I can't pass up highlighting the Sun's sheer joy at seeing that Alan Johnson, the education secretary, has laid out the potential banning of the wearing of niqabs by pupils in school. Of course, it's even better when they're given the news as an exclusive and splash it all over the front page:
VEILS will be banned in schools to help pupils learn and to keep them safe, Education Secretary Alan Johnson has ruled.

His decision will affect thousands of Muslim girls who wear clothing like the full niqab.

He will publish details of his guidance to headteachers in the Commons today. The wearing of full-length robes may also be affected.

Thousands? Really? This is what has always been so perplexing about the whole debate on full veils - the numbers of women who wear them in this country is incredibly low. Only towards the end of the article does the Sun give a ball-park figure:

The ruling will be used to scupper any counter-bid by Muslim parents. It is estimated that 2,500 girls wear full-length Islamic dress in class in England and Wales.

Even here it's not clear whether this figure refers to girls who wear the niqab or who the wear the jilbab, as the Sun willfully conflates the two by bringing
Shabina Begum into the equation.

I actually think that the decision is a good one - some girls may indeed be troubled by the implications of the ban on their own interpretation of their religion, but they can still wear the hijab in school and the niqab outside of it if those are their wishes. I would rather that no one felt the need to cover their hair or body because of what any religion teaches, but the problems posed by the niqab are such that their limited banning in schools is justified. What I don't agree with is the condescending tone taken by the Sun leader, which seems to know better than Muslims themselves about the teachings of the religion:

WHATEVER arguments there may be for the veil, schools are not the place for them.

So we welcome Education Secretary Alan Johnson’s classroom ban.

He cites security, safety and the need for teachers to see a response on the faces of their pupils.

But he could equally have argued veils are divisive, provocative and have no justification under the teachings of Islam.

Divisive? Possibly, but the aftermath of Straw's comments on the niqab showed that it's more the tabloid press and Express readers that find them provocative and divisive. Actual women who wore them and spoke out showed that the casual assumptions made about veil wearers were far from the actual truth. As for no justification, that's a question that ought to be left for the Muslim community itself to debate, not for a tabloid newspaper which has done so much for community relations to state unequivocally.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006 

Scum and Express-watch: Veiled abuse.

Especially considering that Stephen Wright has now been charged with the murders of all five prostitutes, today's tabloid reporting on the man has been an absolute disgrace. As well as being linked to other alleged deaths, he's been accused of being a cross-dresser, and a ex-wife has jumped at the chance to grab some money from both the Sun and the Mirror. If this now doesn't cease, as you hope and expect that it will, then the attorney general should start looking into doing something other than simply kindly asking the editors to mind what they print, as they have up to now took no notice whatsoever.

It's the veil though that is once again causing "outrage" in both the Scum and Sexpress. There has been absolutely no evidence presented by anyone that
Mustaf Jama actually did manage to flee the country wearing the niqab, but as is as usual in the gutter press this doesn't matter one jot, as neither the Scum nor Express have even bothered reporting the statement from a police spokesman that Jama may have been wearing a pantomime horse costume for all they knew.

The Express front page also hints that the farce has continued, suggesting as it does that someone wearing the niqab was able to get on board a plane without first having her identity checked. They present no evidence of this, and clearly haven't tested whether someone wearing a niqab would now have their identity checked, presumably because this would a: cost money that Richard "Dirty" Desmond would rather be paying himself (having made £52 million last year) and b: it's easier just to pretend that the same old system is carrying on as normal, even though the adverse publicity would suggest that airlines would be extra vigilant as a result; and with the number of flights being canceled due to the fog enveloping many parts of Britain, staff not dealing with keeping passengers informed would be more free to make extra checks on the reduced number of those actually boarding flights.

Nonetheless, the Scum has decided to start up another of its usually incredibly successful campaigns:

THE Sun today launches a campaign to close the veil loophole making a mockery of Britain’s airport security.

We told yesterday how a member of the gang which killed WPC Sharon Beshenivsky sneaked out of Heathrow by donning a Muslim niqab, with just a slit for eyes.

Now we are calling on Home Secretary John Reid to turn passport control at every airport in the country into a veil-free zone.

MPs too are urging action after it emerged that hard-pressed staff carry out only RANDOM passport checks on passengers leaving Britain.

We want these checks to be COMPULSORY with veils lifted in a private area.

If more resources are needed they must be found. Otherwise criminals — and terrorists — are sure to exploit the weakness in future.

You mean exploit the weakness to flee the country? I thought you lot were all for deporting these people?

Seriously though, this is making a humongous mountain out of the tiniest of molehills. I can't find any figures even detailing the number of women who actually wear the niqab in Britain (if anyone has any then I'd appreciate seeing them) but I doubt it numbers more than the low-to-mid tens of thousands. The Express however, seems to have a different idea. In today's article it suggests that "dozens of veil wearers passed unchecked through ... airports", but of course doesn't provide any evidence to back up this claim. The numbers of niqab wearers which pass through airports every day has to be assumed to be extremely low. The suggestion that women would even have to lift their veils for their identity to be ascertained is ludicrous. Talking to them while examining their passport should be enough on its own to make sure the wearer of the niqab actually is female, and at the same time the colour of their eyes, the facial features that can be made out etc, could be checked. Only then if there are any doubts would it be necessary for the woman to actually lift her veil. Rather than every single niqab wearer having to lift her veil, taking up extra time, this would a much sensibler and more realistic scheme to follow. Whether we would want to check every niqab wearer entering the country rather than exiting is a different matter.

Both Mr Davis and Mr Malik called for an inquiry into how gang member Mustaf Jama, 26, an asylum seeker, fled disguised as a Muslim woman with a stolen passport.

And the reason there won't be one will be because the police are hardly likely to present their seemingly less than overwhelming evidence that he actually did. Better to blame an item of religious dress that's been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons, as well as airport staff, than to recognise their own failings in letting Jama get away in the first place.

Then we get down to the real reason that the newspapers are so angry about this. Sharon Beshenivsky's friends and relatives have been quite reasonably expressing their anger about the failure for Jama to be deported. Having come to Britain in 1993 as an asylum seeker from Somalia, Jama had been imprisoned for a number of crimes, but instead of being deported as is meant to be the case for someone here on a visa or otherwise from overseas, it has been determined, rightly in my view, that it's not safe for anyone to be forcibly deported back to Somalia.

Even the Sun hints at the anarchy which has ensued across the country since 1991, describing it in the campaign article as "war-torn" and "lawless". There are no such caveats though in the Scum's leader column, which is mainly an unwarranted attack on the Labour immigration minister:

Absurdly, they are allowed to stay because it would breach their human rights to send them home.

Well yes, generally sending someone back to a country which they fled from in fear of their lives, especially one which now appears to be close to total war, where according to the CIA factbook major infectious diseases are also listed as being of very high risk, could "absurdly" breach their right to life. The various elements of human rights law which can on occasion seem absurd have to be balanced against the benefits that they have also given us: such as protecting the right to protest, the right not to be held indefinitely without charge, and requiring the setting up of inquests into deaths where the authorities themselves may be implicated in the death. While no one may be happy about Jama not being deported, would we feel the same way if we knew that an asylum seeker who had committed a minor crime had been deported and ended up being tortured or killed in their home country? Would the Sun also deport asylum seekers convicted of crime or those here on visas/illegally under similar circumstances back to Zimbabwe, Iran or North Korea?

Meanwhile, over in the Express, the Tory MP David Davies (not David Davis, the shadow home secretary, although he has similar views) was more than happy to do the Express's dirty work for them in suggesting the right to wear the niqab should be curtailed:
Fellow Tory David Davies said the manner of Jama’s escape furthered his belief that the Government must begin examining ways to discourage or even outlaw the wearing of the full veil in public.

“Many European countries, and indeed Muslim countries, have taken steps to ban the wearing of the veil in public,” said the Monmouth MP.

“One example is Tunisia. They take the view that the wearing of the veil is not stipulated by the Koran, it is a political act.
Davies is echoing previous arguments made by the Express itself, but let's take them apart again anyway.

The only European country heading towards a total ban in public is the Netherlands, and whether it will ever actually pass is in doubt. France has a ban on the wearing of all religious symbols in state buildings; several municipalities in Belgium have banned the wearing of the niqab or burqa in public; a similar ban to the one in France exists in several German states. As for Tunisia, what's the government there like? Democracy is it? Err, no. A quick trip over to Wikipedia reveals:

Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in office since 1987, the year he deposed Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup. The constitution has been changed twice to allow Ben Ali to remain in power: initially from two to three terms, then from three to five. The ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years, known previously as the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD). The RCD still dominates political life.

Facing virtually no opposition, the President is elected to 5-year terms. He appoints a Prime Minister and cabinet, who play a strong role in the execution of policy. Regional governors and local administrators also are appointed by the central government. Largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected. There is a unicameral legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies, which has 182 seats, 20% of which are reserved for the opposition parties. It plays a growing role as an arena for debate on national policy but never originates legislation. The Chamber virtually always passes bills presented by the executive with only one minor change. The judiciary is nominally independent but responds to executive direction, especially in political cases. The military is professional and does not play a role in politics.

Tunisia is noteworthy for its lack of public political discourse. Tunisia's precise political situation is hard to determine due to a strong level of silence and lack of transparency maintained by the government. There is compelling evidence that dissidents are routinely arrested, for crimes as minor as viewing banned web sites. There are currently six legal opposition parties all with their own newspapers. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists, in its 2005 country report on Tunisia, details a persistent record of harassment, persecution, imprisonment, and physical harm perpetrated on journalists critical of the government. Even Western journalists, when writing on Tunisian soil, are not spared this fate[1].

David Davies was also recently taken to task by Unity.

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