The Niqab Debate: Which Way Will The UK Swing?

Although based on English law, our own legal system discriminates so much against minorities that it is shameful. Since a lot of the discrimination (or persecution) is on the basis of religion to balance the scales we hope to post on the sad predicament of our own country soon. But it is interesting to observe that Islamic dress like the niqab is the subject of a great deal of attention abroad. Muslims make up 4.8 per cent of the UK’s population and only a small number of women wear the niqab or burka. 

As Pakistanis (and as “Muslims”) we are intrigued by our former coloniser’s obsession with us and so this post analyses the niqab debate which has been raging in the UK. Many people think that the UK should ban the niqab and the burka. On the other hand, some high calibre analysts think that legally singling Muslim women out on the basis of their niqabs may create a new class of victim: one unknown to the UK in the past. 

HHJ Peter Murphy’s decision in The Queen v D (R) was big news in the UK. The controversial ruling is part and parcel of the wider political debate about Islam and what Muslim women should or should not wear in public. Some people thought that the judge got it right when he asked a niqab clad defendant to show her face while giving evidence. Others did not.

A towering figure in legal London’s literati, Joshua Rozenberg thought that Murphy did not go far enough and “a defendant should be required to show her face throughout her trial.” The polemical tabloid journalist Melanie Phillips, who backs David Cameron for his anti-niqab stance and calls Nick Clegg “a sanctimonious idiot” for being “uneasy” about the debate, took things a bit further. In her typical style, she argued that niqab wearing Muslim women will inevitably “destroy western society”.

Bearing the burdens of being a human rights advocate, Adam Wagner, who argues that the niqab debate is multifaceted (“complex”), made the case that Phillips and others of her ilk should not to be taken seriously. Francis FitzGibbon QC pointed out the perils of wearing the niqab in the witness box but he nonetheless thought that wearing or not wearing a niqab was a matter entirely up to the accused. Matthew Scott cleverly contemplated that a criminal defendant taking off her niqab for the first time in public since adolescence – that too in the dock – would “find it almost unbearable”. A renowned criminal lawyer, Scott said that unless reversed by the Court of Appeal, HHJ Murphy’s decision would “wreak injustice on devout Muslim women.” If Muslim women do get wrongly convicted because they were freaked out by having to remove their niqab for the jury then something would be wrong with that for sure. Alan Richards rightly commented that the jury is out on the matter of the veil in court.

In his masterly stuff, Carl Gardner wrote that the niqab represented “an oppressive ideology” – and we do wholeheartedly agree with Carl – but he still thought that it would be right to allow evidence to be given with a niqab on. But is Carl being an optimist when he hopes that the niqab will disappear soon? As we Pakistanis know so well, the symbol of an oppressive ideology is also a big fashion item these days. Muslim women do like their veils (niqabs are no exception). This is true not just in Riyadh and Dubai shopping malls but also in the boutiques of Karachi, Lahore, Manchester, Birmingham, London and New York etc. Our own Prime Minister, the venal General Zia’s acolyte Nawaz Sharif, is an ardent supporter of all things Saudi Arabian and the niqab is no different. The difference, of course, is that the majority of Pakistan’s women are so poor that they cannot afford a niqab or burka as such clothing is too expensive. Equally, in most of the country the summer heat precludes the possibility of wearing such garments. In any event, women working in the fields of rural Pakistan have never worn such inconvenient clothes.

From a foreigner’s perspective, the idea that the UK is a secular society may be questioned (at least a little bit). The British are mostly Christian. That much is well known. Not that there is anything wrong with it, there is a church on virtually every block in the UK. Countless people will randomly invite you to embrace the divinity of Jesus Christ. They really do believe that Jesus was the Son of God and one routinely receives post insisting that the Bible is the key to a happy family life (“Happy are those hearing the word of God and keeping it”). Hopefully we can learn how to treat churches and other places of worship like the British do: the attacks on the Christian community (that the British gifted us) are deplorable and must stop immediately. (We say gifted because the Christians only pray on Sunday and the Muslims five times a day, hence it is logical to conclude that the former are bound to be more productive.) Our politicians need to stop hiding behind their niqabs and provide security to Pakistan’s minorities.

Although it is also true the other way around, in the UK and the rest of Europe, Muslims fear that they are under attack. So to keep attuned to their roots they walk the extra mile. On the other hand, in Lahore’s notorious Heera Mandi many niqab or burka clad women walking the streets are not some chaste followers of Islam or readers of the Qurʼān: they are in fact women of ill repute who run the city’s red light area. (Which incidentally also has trendy western restaurants where the Punjabi elite goes to dine and show off their latest clothes.)

But in this crazy world, sometimes even “normal” women in Muslim societies do cover their heads, bodies and faces because they find that this protects them from sexual harassment in public. This is especially true in Karachi where public transport is operated by the Pathans (who have pretty conservative views on religion and gender). For example, a lot of working class women wear the hijab or niqab because such clothes make it easier to use public transport in Karachi’s metropolis. Once they are no longer travelling and have arrived at work, Pakistan’s urban women remove their hijabs and niqabs.

Regardless, despite her numerous faults, Melanie Phillips does make some pertinent points by saying that even some Muslims denounce the niqab for the “imbalance” it causes. Too right: nothing more ridiculous than having someone around whose face you have not seen (even in Pakistan, this totally freaks everyone out). For example, the celebrated Arif Hasan refuses to supervise fully veiled students whose faces are concealed. Correctly, he feels that burkas and niqabs are not only inexorably linked to Islamic extremism (and not culture), but such apparel also delinks the teacher student relationship. So, in part, Arif Hasan would agree with Melanie Phillips: there is common ground between them. (However, as we know, in the UK, Birmingham Metropolitan College capitulated in respect of its niqab ban as it potentially excluded Muslim from pursuing an education.)

But Phillips’ extreme demonisation of the Shia faith – that “they” [the Shias/Iranians] believe that salvation can only be achieved through an apocalypse or nuclear war – on Question Time earlier in the year was shockingly out of order. Members of the audience who dared to disagree with her (on political rather than religious grounds) were written off as “ignorant”.

Secular Britain? …

Tehran’s theocracy is pretty distasteful. But given that the new Iranian president Hasan Rouhani and Barack Obama are talking on the phone, on the whole Phillips’ views were pretty hollow. Equally, in making the case against the niqab, her use of impeached Home Secretary David Blunkett, who was forced from office for fast tracking his ex-lover’s nanny’s visa application, as some sort of heroic role model is also highly questionable.

Some people find it extremely difficult to make a positive comment about the present Home Secretary but her view – that women should be able to choose whether they wish to wear a veil – was pretty reasonable. No doubt Mrs May wants the Muslim vote (especially Muslim women) and in the media she was seen covering her head.

Londonistan Melanie Phillips would say …

Anyway, in conducting the debate about how Muslim women dress, the UK’s mainstream politicians claim to be committed to Britishness. Of course, most politicians are keen not to alienate Muslims too much because even those Muslims who do not wear the burka or niqab (and are ideologically opposed to them) will still draw inferences about West’s notion of freedom.

May’s junior minister Jeremy Browne who, despite his uneasiness on restricting freedom, wants a national debate on the full face veil (i.e. niqab). Surely, nothing wrong with that. What good is a democracy if people are scared to have a debate? The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt thought patients had the right to be treated by an unmasked medical professional but that the issue of NHS staff wearing full-face veils was not for the politicians to decide.

According to Downing Street, the Prime Minister is against legislating on dress per se. However, a Private Members’ Bill called the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill is sponsored by his party member Conservative MP Philip Hollobone. The bill was presented to the British Parliament in June 2013 and is expected to have its second reading debate at the end of February 2014.

This bill is also known as ban the burka bill and it is aimed at preventing Muslim women from concealing their faces in public. Given how ridiculous burkas and niqabs are, politicians of every of every possible extraction are bound to support it. (For example, in addition to the Tory Hollobone, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, whose party is anti-immigartion and anti-Europe has long advocated that Muslim women should be banned from covering their faces in public.)

The legislation proposed in the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill is short and to the point. Subject to exemptions (such as health and safety requirements, sporting activities, art and leisure pursuits and places of worship) clause 1 prohibits face coverings in public places. Contravening the provision results in a fine of £200. Similarly, under clause 2, people covering their faces in private premises (from where goods and services are given or received) can be asked to show their faces or leave the premises. Moreover, clause 3 stipulates that face coverings be removed in the course of provision or receipt of public services.

In France, where out of total of 3 million Muslim women a mere 1,800 wear the niqab, the ban on face coverings – LOI n° 2010-1192 du 11 octobre 2010 interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public – has not been vigorously enforced as the authorities find it counterproductive to waste resources on chasing after a few Muslim women who cover their faces. A few dozen warnings have been issued but on the whole experts opine that the rate of prosecution is relatively low. Yet LOI n° 2010-1192 points to the intolerant nature of French society. Why have such a law if it is not really enforced? The French do not like foreigners. For example, outside mainstream Islamophobia, French interior minister Manuel Valls’ call to return gypsies to Bulgaria and Romania – because of their inability to integrate – points strongly to French xenophobia: such policies inevitably violate EU law: Directive 2004/38/EC.

Of course, given that the threat it poses to the West, some people in the UK would, perhaps understandably, like to a lot more done to contain radical Islam. When all is said and done, the question of the veil is just one facet of this complex debate.

But after doing their Raj on the world, especially on us South Asians, are the British so weak in their stomachs that they fear a few women, many of them British or EU citizens, wearing a niqab or burka? Are they so obsessed with this issue that they might marginalise Muslim women’s prospects of education and employment?

Modern people anywhere would oppose the niqab and the UK is no different. At any rate, it is unlikely that the niqab will be criminalised in the UK. Adam Wagner points out that on minority issues a gut feeling will not do:

Our liberal Spidey sense may be tingling over women choosing or being forced to cover their faces, but in our mostly secular society, where most have never experienced religion first-hand, let alone minority Islamic belief systems, it is not good enough to assume our instincts are right.

In his essay on The Subjugation of Women J.S. Mill said:

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

He continued that:

The difficulty is that which exists in all cases in which there is a mass feeling to be contended against. So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it. For if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded its adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach; and while the feeling remains, it is always throwing up fresh intrenchments of argument to repair any breach made in the old.


Laws and systems of polity always begin by recognising the relations they find already existing between individuals. They convert what was a mere physical fact into a legal right, give it the sanction of society, and principally aim at the substitution of public and organised means of asserting and protecting these rights, instead of the irregular and lawless conflict of physical strength.

So in a way, Wagner’s respectable and well thought out views are a variant of Mill’s; maybe the barrister is using the father or Liberty to make the case for tolerance.

With quite a lot of experience in the cross-cutting fields of law and religion, Frank Cranmer aptly concluded:

It appears to us that what is needed is a period of quiet reflection rather than any immediate “national debate”. Even though it affects only a tiny minority of women, veiling is an extremely sensitive issue; and a national debate for which no-one is properly prepared may well do more harm than good. Moreover, if opponents of the niqab are correct in seeing veiling something that women are sometimes pressured into against their will, fining them for doing so will hardly help liberate them from that particular kind of oppression.

One problem with the above views is that except Melanie Phillips and Theresa May everyone is male.

Enter the Muslim woman …

Professor Maleiha Malik observed that it was already a criminal offence to use threats and coercion to force a Muslim woman to wear. Urging caution, Malik argued that full-faced veils are not barbaric but a heavy-handed response may well be. For her the UK should not follow the approach of the Belgian and French politicians who, without consulting women themselves, passed criminal laws that restrict women’s freedom.

Three Muslim feminists told the Guardian that they were weary of endlessly discussing how much or how little women wear and they found that past strides made by Britain to foster integration would be undermined by banning the niqab or burka. Meanwhile, NHS doctors who otherwise wear the niqab say that to inspire confidence they prefer to show their faces to patients in the hospital (for Dr Zahida Hamid “it is very very essential and important  for my patients to see my face”).

But where is the UK’s most powerful Muslim woman? The “new Iron Lady” can be seen on GEO and ARY chatting about Malala who she likens to her own daughters … (We do, however, share Sayeeda’s sentiments about the attack on the All Saints Church.)

In the past, in 2010, Warsi has passionately defended the burka by saying that it does not prevent women from partaking in British life. Also in 2010, Warsi was scheduled to make the case against France’s banning of the niqab/burka to a 350 million strong audience. But, to distance herself and the Tory party from radical Islam, she pulled out of the television appearance.

With the greatest of respect for Baroness Warsi’s views, for us the burka and niqab symbolise oppression: an anachronism which should be put in the dustbin of history. For our part, we have produced this update to apprise our members (and readers) about the legal and political developments on western views on Islam: notably the burka/niqab “debate”. It will be interesting to see what the British do with the niqab issue. It may be counterproductive for the UK to follow the French or other European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands. We do prefer the British response but we still think that it has been somewhat convoluted. Although diametrically opposed to the niqab, we think that there is some credibility in the point that if the niqab is banned in the UK, a new class of victim might emerge and women may be put at risk of being excluded from education and employment: discrimination against Muslim women may increase.

It is one thing to say that women should not be forced to wear the niqab. It is another thing to say that they should be deprived of the right to wear a niqab if they really choose to wear it. We agree with Frank Cranmer: punishing women by fining them to liberate them from the tyranny of wearing the niqab can hardly be a solution.

France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands all have bans on face coverings. The legal discourse is predicated on security issues but is invariably embedded in religion and politics. Understandably, Islam is not all that welcome in Europe and it will be interesting to see which way the UK swings?

The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs



Filed under Discussion, Europe, Islamophobia, Pakistan Horizon, Women

5 responses to “The Niqab Debate: Which Way Will The UK Swing?

  1. greg mcmanmon

    Correction; there is NOT a church on every block in U.K. The churches in my town are shutting/being turned into mosques,and more mosques being built. Britain is only nominally Christian; it is ,and will remain a secular country governed by secular rules and common sense. The niqab is increasing here,and is I’m sure more of a political than really religious statement. 15 or 20 years ago there were almost none here, and there were plenty of happy Muslim faces to be seen. No one objects to the hijab,which is modest dress, but everyone hates the niqab .Come on Muslim women in U.K., rejoin our society and stop being devisive.I live in Preston,Lancs.

  2. In Londonistan there IS a church on every block. Insofar as “common sense” is concerned there is a shortage of it in UK governance. Maybe the rise of the niqab in your town has to do with the all the people who have been allowed to settle in the UK because of successive governments not giving due consideration to immigration and asylum policy. Backlogs in casework meant that the people in question just got to stay because of the delay in their cases rather than the merits of their claims. The radicalisation of recruits from the UK (and elsewhere) for the jihad in Afghanistan also directly impacted your country itself. It is too one sided for you to say the Muslims (no matter how terrible you might think they are) are responsible for everything that is wrong. Fifteen years ago was before the war in Iraq and 9/11, 7/7 so your country was less divided. Anyway, our “foreign” view is that the UK is a pre-dominantly Christian country. Large populations of Christians in South Asia and Africa who converted to Christianity under British rule confirm your country’s commitment to Christianity (not that there is anything wrong with it.)

    • greg mcmanmon

      The niqab wearing people are nearly all younger women from my town, as they’re accents evidence; hence my comment on the political aspect. As for your comment that I blame Muslims or think they are terrible, you most have been reading a different comment; I did not state or imply any such bigoted views! I tried to clarify the status of Christianity in U.K. to you, but I don’t think I’ve succeeded. Modern Britain has secular values and laws; most people are not really religious although some still nominally call themselves Christian. It’s a great place to live, religion is kept in it’s place! In any truly fair and civilised country religious dogma should have no role in government.

      • It’s not the way you make it out to be. Your Queen is the Commander of the Faithful and she is a Christian monarch. If you are so damned secular then why do even have a Queen? You could be a republic but prefer to be a kingdom. “The status of Christianity in U.K.” is pretty clear to everyone who is not British in lives in the UK. If you’ve ever dined in the 4 Inns of Court you’ll know that everyone drinks to Her Majesty and who represents the will of Your Saviour Lord Jesus Christ: AMEN. We did not call you a bigot but you have identified yourself as such. Don’t kid yourself Greg, the UK is not as secular as you make it out to be. But, since you are not a minority person, what would you know about people trying to convert others to the true Christian faith? Your comments alone point very strongly to the fact that you’re neither secular nor inclusive of minority people in your “town”.

  3. Ban court witnesses from giving evidence in veil, says Ken Clarke, Former justice secretary says judge and jury cannot properly appraise evidence given by someone who is ‘in a kind of bag’

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