Book Review - Refusing the Veil

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes herself as a “leftie liberal, anti-racist, feminist Muslim” and undoubtedly there will be many fellow Muslims and leftie liberals who take issue with her incisive repudiation of the veil.

She fully expects to cause controversy – in her preface she points out that the book is “political, not personal”. But needs must. As she observes, “the version of Islam that is spreading all over the world is getting more misogynistic and pushing back against female egalitarianism”. Given the increased pressure on women worldwide to cover up in the name of religion, Alibhai-Brown’s short, eloquent treatise is both topical and necessary.

Refusing the Veil is divided into three parts. In the first, Alibhai-Brown looks back to the early days of Islam and reminds us that the women in the Prophet’s family were “conspicuous, active and powerful”. His first wife, Khadijah, was a successful merchant, his second, Aisha, led an army. Women in the Prophet’s household were required to dress differently from other women to signify their status. Rich women copied the elite religious family to distinguish themselves from the less well-off: “It was not piety but vanity and snobbery that made them do it.” It is a shocking indictment that today women in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim-run territories are more disadvantaged than women were during the Prophet’s lifetime.

In the 1970s, when Alibhai-Brown arrived here from her native Uganda, British Muslim women did not wear headscarves or cover their faces. What has gone wrong? Why do women agree to cloak themselves in “a moving cell without a window or small opening – a space of absolute darkness”. Alibhai-Brown blames “brainwashing perpetrated through religious dogma” and Wahhabist doctrine; in particular, she asserts, the Saudi regime’s repression of women is being imported into Britain and becoming embedded in our culture. She believes today’s revivalists “not only claim these garments for Islam, they do so to silence women”. She criticises the British Government for its continued alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fully aware that they “fund ideologues and terrorists”.

Children are also being made to cover up. John Lewis even stocks hijabs in its school uniform department. As Alibhai-Brown remarks “the gowns impede free movement; they are an encumbrance …. The children thus clad can’t play properly in playgrounds – they will trip over as they run. By the time they are teenagers the indoctrination will be complete.” In some schools, Muslim parents refuse to let girls swim, take physical education, play music or perform.

Alibhai-Brown uses various examples to illustrate and support her arguments. She reminds us of the appalling death of 15 school children, killed in a fire in Saudi Arabia after the sinisterly named Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice prevented fire fighters from rescuing them because the girls were not properly covered. Her mother’s perspective is also poignant. Jena, born in 1920, a devout Shia Muslim follower of a liberal sect, describes the resurgence of women wanting to wear the veil as like “going into a grave before you have to”.

One of the hardest arguments to counter is when women say they cover up of their own free will. Alibhai-Brown’s blunt response is that they are “acquiescing to and projecting religious misogyny and cultural disdain”. In the final part, she summarises her main arguments for refusing the veil. These range from gender equality to protecting women against sexual violence (veils hide bruises); and health (women who are covered from head to foot will suffer vitamin D deficiency); to security and safety (niqabs offer the perfect disguise for those who want to commit acts of terrorism).

Alibhai-Brown does not go so far as to call for an outright ban. At one point she writes “bans are cudgels. They punish or frighten veiled Muslim women or, worse, criminalise them, as in France”. Her solution is to insist on dress codes that apply to all in school, other educational establishments and the workplace. Yet she quotes the European Court of Human Rights that upheld the French law banning niqabs in public spaces and suggests Britain should take the declaration seriously.

The situation, she says, has become untenable and she feels duty-bound to confront those “hard Muslim men” who want “to banish the Muslim female from all shared spaces, including mosques and malls, gardens and streets, schools and colleges, even hospitals and government buildings. They want them walled up, kept indoors cooking and cleaning, making babies, uncomplaining, silent and grateful.” The fact that Alibhai-Brown is Muslim makes her stand the more courageous. Those interested in equality, justice and the emancipation of all women should buy this accessible, forthright book, talk about it and share its central message.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday