It's Time for a Muslim Reformation


Nearly everyone in the UK agrees that the niqab (full Islamic veil) sucks from Salman Rushdie, to Cabinet Members, to 93 per cent of the BBC’s audience.

It feels odd to be part of this overwhelming majority. Why? Because with only Madonna’s African adoption to compete for headlines, this debate is all we’ve heard for weeks. And it’s so one-sided it now feels like a verbal pogrom.

Take the feminist writer Julie Burchill: ‘When I see a dumb, White bitch convert wearing Islamic dress, I feel massive revulsion and contempt, as they have actually chosen enslavement.’

I can’t fault the logic, but if people wrote that about me for two weeks, I’d feel persecuted too. Burchill’s tone misses the point arguments in favour of the full veil are weak, and debate within Islam should be encouraged.

Progessives find themselves in a quandary. Labour Cabinet Minister Jack Straw sparked this debate by writing a column on 6 October in which he described asking his female constituents to remove their veils when talking to him in his office. Straw wrote, ‘I can’t recall a single occasion when the lady concerned refused to lift her veil.’

Until now, most would have thought such attitudes ‘Islamophobic,’ or would have glossed over them given barely one per cent 10,000 UK women Muslims wear the full veil. Not any more.

After weeks of public argument there is now a palpable sense that questioning the veil is a perfectly proper thing to do. It’s a view typified by the young columnist Saira Khan,  or by Zaiba Malik who tested the veil for a day and decided it was a disabling, mummifying experience.

From Darwin’s 1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to the bestselling self-help books of Allan Pease, we have spent more than a century learning just how complex and rich human communications really are. The UK public is deciding the veil just doesn’t fit into this complexity.

Sure, we have learnt about an all-girl Muslim rock band that competes in London school competitions, the drummer unimpeded by her full veil. But we have heard more about Aishah Azmi, the Yorkshire teaching assistant who tried to sue her employers when she was suspended from work for refusing to remove her veil in the classroom and wear only a headscarf. Her young, mostly foreign-born, students were meant to learn English from her and couldn’t, because they couldn’t see her lips and expression. This came as a surprise to the Church of England school, given Azmi attended her interview without a veil and in the presence of a man, failing to mention her planned attire. Backed by local MPs and the Muslim Council of Britain, the school stood its ground and so did she. She lost.

Then there is question of where the veil sits in relation to conventions about safety (motorcyclists can’t wear their helmets indoors in public spaces; a terror suspect recently went about in Islamic drag to avoid arrest) and justice (we don’t allow witnesses in court to wear bags on their head even when discussing the most brutal crimes).

Opportunity and achievement are also issues. Notice the lack of high-achieving pious Muslim women in British society? It’s not easy to get ahead as a machine operator, hairdresser or someone who has to wear a corporate uniform if you’re wrapped up and no one can see you smile.

Non-Muslims are far from pure and blameless our communications are generally poor, we live in a hyper-sexualised society with some nasty consequences, and prejudice infiltrates both thoughtful minds and the fools who think it’s funny to rip headscarves off the heads of Muslim shoppers.

Thanks to Bill Leak

But body language, facial expression and eye contact are so fundamental to our ability to relate to each other and to gel as a community that we cannot afford to do without them. And that’s where pro-veil arguments about tolerance and cultural understanding fall down.

When it’s worn voluntarily the veil is impractical and a deliberate statement of separation from society; when it’s worn involuntary it is all that and it’s inherently problematic.

From realpolitik to faith: the Qu’ran does not ask women to cloak themselves from head to toe. In fact, women must not cover their faces or hands at all in Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Indeed, when there is an element of choice, the veil is often the tool of snobs. For large numbers of Muslim women (especially those with African roots) the elaborate and expensive fabrics are a sign of social status [insert link:,,1896807,00.html]the equivalent of a solid gold crucifix or fancy rosary beads.

Other groups who use fashion to mark out beliefs and status Chavs, Goths, Punks, Preppies, the Amish do not escape scrutiny. So why should Islamic women?

Consider the irony that this debate is happening in democratic Britain. In most nations where Islamic women live there is no debate at all. Women are fainting in 50 degree heat and living stunted lives off the back of fairytale interpretations of Islamic teachings not a great progressive cause by any measure.

Broadly speaking, the reactions in the current UK debate are a model for the future of Islam. Many people have questioned and attacked the veil in this country. But they didn’t burn the houses of the women who wear them, kill Imams or organise protests. Instead they wrote letters to the editor and mumbled about it at the pub.

If the veil is really such a friend of freedom, then its supporters will win through rational debate. Whatever the merits of the case, the great thing about this debate is that we are having one.

I hope it can come back from the brink of paranoia and help sow the seeds for a Muslim reformation. I’d like to see an Islam where feminism gets a look in, where it ceases to be okay for Muslims to murder each other in their thousands in Sudan and Iraq, and where Islam’s appalling attitudes to homosexuality are revised.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.