The right to dress. 
Twice today news items surfaced whose import was to allow Muslims (and anyone else) to dress how they please. Birmingham Metropolitan College ended their ban on hoodies, hats, caps and veils after "more than 9,000 people signed an online petition set up by NUS Black Students' Campaign calling on the college's principal, Dr Christine Braddock, to remove the ban. ... Aaron Kiely, NUS Black Students' officer, said: 'This ban is a complete infringement on the rights to religious freedom and cultural expression and is a clear violation of a woman's right to choose.' He added: 'We call on Birmingham Metropolitan College to reverse its decision and respect the fundamental rights of its diverse student population to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and cultural expression.'

Also today, "A Muslim woman has been allowed to make a plea in court while wearing a face-covering niqab after a judge agreed a compromise in which she was identified in private by a female police officer who then attested to her identity." This was after the judge had previously adjourned the trial when she had refused to remove her veil.

In both cases the institutions had claimed the need for facial identification. In college, is it really the case that wherever any student goes, he or she is tracked in order to be identified? Obviously not in any meaningful sense, unless each and every door has a barrier and a pass checker and a means of matching the pass to its bearer - that argument, the argument cited over and again, is specious. In practical terms, in this society whose institutions are utterly addicted to total video surveillance, it is completely straightforward to track and analyse each and every individual as they move from place to place, without any of the increasingly high resolution imaging technology ever needing to see anyone's actual face. Furthermore only the most obtuse among us will claim to fail to be able to distinguish between one woman (or man) and another - human vanity alone is sufficient to ensure that one woman's abaya, burqa, raincoat, labcoat, chador, hijab, niqab, hoodie or crash hat is distinct from another's, without even considering height, build, gait, mannerisms, baggage, boots or bodymist. On the contrary, there is little that is more conspicuous in public than a heavily veiled woman. (Or man ... the 21st July 2005 bomber who fled dressed in a Somali-style burqa was captured on video at Birmingham coach station. The onlookers didn't know they were staring embarrasedly at a bomber, they just thought it was a big and clumsy man in bad drag looking for a discreet Ladies to change out of his frock.)

There are very few occasions when anyone requires to make a positive identification between someone's ID card and his or her face, and Muslim women in niqab are perfectly capable of meeting those requirements when they arise, just as the less obtuse among us are perfectly capable of making reasonable adjustments to make this simple. Biometric technologies make this less and less of a problem anyway. The other argument is about access to justice and the court hearing process. Here again, common sense easily demonstrates that the judge or court officials have no consistent reason to require anyone to remove their niqab if they choose to appear in court with it. Court appearance is theatre even when it has the highest moral purpose. The streetwise thug presents himself in the dock in the sharpest creased, slick new grey suit with impeccable haircut, his act is intended to distance himself as far as possible up the social scale from the character he played in his alleged drunken brawl. If the argument about face is about the ability of court participants to judge facial expression as communication, then that right extends to the right to remove screens from witnesses so dramatically presented in court that they cannot even look in the mirror without breaching the Official Secrets Act. The dramatic tension is enhanced further by the inability to put a name to the secret face behind the screen, 'Officer X' is the name to the face of official obscurity when the requirements of justice are subservient to the requirements to preserve official enigma. Even so, if justice requires a person's facial expression to be on display, justice will not be served for the numbers of people who endure visual impairment. If it is acceptable for them to be denied sight of facial expression, then there is no difficulty for the rest of us to be denied the same. In this particular case the issue arose at the point when the defendant was required to take an oath that she was herself. Aside from the vanishingly faint prospect that someone would actually choose to appear in court as someone else, to have the other person's indictment heaped upon them, we are all, in public, precisely who we present ourselves as. It is her own choice to present herself with niqab veiling her face; she is well aware of the hostility and prejudice this engenders from a society intolerant of personal expression by anyone deemed to be alien, and she puts herself at the mercy of the court to set aside such prejudice; she certainly achieves no material benefit from it, so there is no rational reason why she should not be permitted to wear exactly what she pleases in court, any more than that she should be permitted to say exactly what she wishes to when it comes to giving evidence or defending herself.

These two cases contrast sharply with another case of Muslims and dress. The tables are turned and we find Muslims apparently railing against the mode of dress adopted by others. This was brought to my attention in a message sent to the website a few weeks ago. At first I took it to be a racist, Islamophobic rant, but reading more closely I realised the sender had a very valid point. The sender kicks off with the statement, "I have written on many Muslim pages on face-book about ANTI WHITE RACISM, about the blatant racism shown to the indigenous WHITE people of this country." He goes on, apparently confirming my intent to dismiss his diatribe, "Of course I’m a racist, I TRADITIONALLY hate the English and despise the Catholics, Irrespective of colour or wealth." The capitals are his own. His concluding lines would have hastened the missive into the bin, but I followed up his link, in the Daily Mail. Now the Daily Mail is one of the prime sources of Islamophobic mythology and fiction, as Peter Oborne investigated in depth, in 2010. But if what the Mail reported was true on this occasion, it was Muslim community arrogance beyond belief. Two men, for charity, demeaned themselves utterly by dressing in Borat-kinis and walking, for charity I must repeat, around the streets of Solihull to Birmingham. All they did was to walk through Sparkbrook during Ramadhaan, and received sufficient abuse from onlookers that the police escorted them away. Now there is a case to answer for the level of depravity that popular culture can sink to, but that case lies with Sacha Baron Cohen and his lime-green jock strap couture, not with his imitators. The Daily Mail quoted, "Local butcher Irshad Armani, 22, said: 'It was disrespectful for the men to come here half-naked. This is a Muslim area and we don't want to see that.' ... 'People were fasting and we do not want to see anything considered impure or dirty during such an important month. That is why people were so upset by it.'"
Pausing to cringe for a moment, I resume. "disrespectful", "half-naked"? I don't think the byelaws of Sparkbrook include stipulation of 'black tie' for guests! "Muslim area"? Most certainly not - there are no preconditions to qualify for residence in Sparkbrook. "People were fasting ..."? So get on with fasting and stop minding other people's business.

Let's explore this point for a moment. Ramadhaan is about one thing above all else, it is a celebration of the Qur'an. Fasting is mandated on Muslims and the disruption that fasting causes to one's daily routine, is perfect for dedicating the newfound time it creates, to burying oneself in the Qur'an. Beyond that, Muslims, Muslims mind, not others, are prevailed upon to hold themselves back, act with patience, and avoid the sins that they would think nothing of at other times. There is nothing about Ramadhaan that requires Muslims to be mollycoddled or treated any differently then as any other time. If you don't want to see anything dirty or impure, very simple, don't look. That is what the Sunnah expects, and that applies 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But then, who are you, Muslim, to say that some activity of a non-Muslim is dirty? It would be facile to list the range of sins, dirty and impure, that the average Muslim is content with in his everyday life, but arrogance certainly seems to be one of them. Meanwhile, Muslims do not need any special considerations during Ramadhaan, except, when appropriate, the opportunity to break the fast at the specified time, which takes perhaps five minutes and need be nothing more elaborate than the Sunnah, i.e. a very few dates and some water. You either take the time out and dedicate it to the Qur'an, not to worldly matters, or you get on with the same daily routine minus the meals. Anyone who has not learnt patience during Ramadhaan, has not completed his Ramadhaan.

Back to the question of dress. The Daily Mail article quotes, "Iqbal Khan, 25, a carpet shop owner, added: 'They came here saying it was for charity, but what they were wearing barely covered their private parts. ... We see people come and go doing charity around here - black, white, Asian - but it is not appropriate to do it in a bad way, dressed as they were, especially when this is mainly an Asian and Pakistani area.'" This is complete tosh: The only thing a Muslim has any right to be concerned about regarding a non-Muslim is the possibility of him entering the faith of Islam. Other than that, the Shari'ah duty of a Muslim is to safeguard his neighbours and see to their welfare, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. So we Muslims have no business in paying the slightest concern to any non-Muslim's dress, appearance, personal habits, diet, lifestyle, career or character. If you don't like it, just look away. Meanwhile as a Muslim you are commanded in the Qur'an: "Obey Allah and obey His Messenger!" Obedience to the Messenger of Allah (S) is unequivocally to live according to his Sunnah. If you want to fulfil your religious obligations as a Muslim in a non-Muslim land, it is very easy: live, dress, behave in the manner of the Sunnah and take the Sunnah to wherever the people are - on the street, in the workplace, on the beach. Let them see you, and never, ever judge them for what they do who are not Muslims.

Insha'Allah this discussion points out the hypocrisy of those of us who demand special consideration for ourselves in manner of dress and appearance, yet who claim the privilege of telling others how they must behave in their own neighbourhood. We can and should dress as Muslims - the shame is on the Muslim men who mislead themselves into thinking they can dress as non-Muslims and still expect Muslim women to hold fast to the Sunnah that they despise for themselves. When the same people then think they can tell non-Muslims how to behave, they should look to see their arrogance leave them in loss.

Further developments

Jeremy Browne, Liberal Democrat minister in the under-age (or at least unrepresentative) but consenting, marriage between his party and the Tories that passes for government, courts favour with the populist press by saying that the government should consider legislation to prevent young Muslim women being forced to wear niqab. Facts were ever the enemy of policy debates in this government, but the fact is that in the UK there is not a single case, not one, of any person being forced to veil their face. No one - and I challenge you to do so - can provide a single instance of such an occurrence in the UK, and were anyone to try to coerce veiling, the practicalities of achieving this would be monstrously absurd.

The facts are that every single Muslim who wears niqab, face veil, does so by her own choice, and very often flying in the face, so to speak, of most of those around her. Motives for veiling do vary, some do so through pure religious piety wishing to adhere to the Sunnah of the wives of the Messenger of Allah. Others season their piety with assertion of identity - no Muslim is ashamed of her or his faith, and the heaping of calumny on the faith by all manner of populist bigotry only makes them more determined to stand up and be counted for their beliefs. Others, similarly, spice their niqabs with defiance, more often than not, of their own parents and the culture that led the latter to throw away everything that got in the way of making money out of their time in the UK. The bottom line is simple nevertheless, wearing the niqab is a conscious and deliberate choice, exercising the basic woman's right to choose to dress how she wishes.

Britain is not France, we do not suffer under the burden of religious and racial bigotry and do not need to window-dress racism in hypocritical claims of "Laïcité" by chaining our society's principles to a fragment of late 18th century political philosophy. Britain should not be afraid of tolerance and is not afraid of difference and diversity, and is certainly not afraid of freedom of expression. Britons should be very afraid of a weak government that chooses to whip up populist prejudice in defiance of facts - that is the path to authoritarianism. The right to self expression, the right to dress just as much as the right to write and speak, are fundamental human rights, and to undermine any one of these is a doorway into darkness.


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