By Sara Gon
France has banned the wearing of the niqab and other European countries are considering doing the same. It is a strange response to the failure of European multiculturalism. A truly democratic, confident society should reinforce the principles and culture that characterise that society without removing rights to follow religion or culture.
Banning the wearing of the niqab in public will not assert the rightness or superiority of French culture. It just makes the French look spiteful and nervous. A woman in niqab may be a strange, and even fearful sight to a non-Muslim.
However, provided it does not harm the society in which it is worn, I don’t think there should be a problem with it. The wearer must uncover her face if law and societal safety dictate it. This is where a state shows its strength: tolerance for what the individual wants to the point that others may be harmed because of it.
For me the full body and face covering in large swathes of black fabric has an unavoidably sinister connotation, sort of Darth Vader’s mum saying: “Lukman, I am your mother”. The head-to-toe black has always evoked a visceral, negative reaction in me. This doesn’t derogate, however, from the right of the wearer to exercise a personal choice. Muslim women who wear head scarves, however, often look elegant, beautiful and dignified.
I recently had my first direct interaction with a woman in niqab. I attended a meeting with the parents of a boy whose mother had withdrawn him from my son’s school to avoid his expulsion. The mother had been unable to enrol him at another school and received advice to report our school to the educational authorities. The meeting was aimed at resolving the problem.
At the end of the original disciplinary hearing, the mother begged the panel to consider some alternative to expulsion. She said if the father found out, he would assault her and probably the boy as well. The only thing the panel could suggest was to withhold the formal request for expulsion (which has to be made to Gauteng department of education) whilst she had a chance to withdraw the child voluntarily. This moment of compassion came back to bite us in our collective arse.
The mother and father attended this meeting. He was dressed in trousers, shirt, tie and pullover. She was wearing niqab. We were sitting across a wide boardroom table. The father’s English was not clear so the mother did most of the talking.
I could see her eyes though not very clearly because of the distance. I could see some of the distress in them and hear it in her voice. I couldn’t see her expression and I couldn’t read any signals or body language that she may try to convey to contradict or support her words.
A second meeting was held with the mother and her daughter-in-law. The latter was a beautiful young woman wearing a headscarf — dignified, neat, elegant. On this occasion I experienced something different. I addressed the daughter-in-law more and I realised this was because I could see her expressions, her body language and her gestures. Therefore I could communicate more directly and more articulately with her. Gradually the mother ceased to be a part of the discussion. This was an unintentional consequence of the physical barrier between us.
The mother’s dress isolated her from the outside world — she was side-lined and eventually disappears from social discourse in a non-Muslim society. Her body language is completely muted. In her case, she is also abused and largely confined to home as she has no skills or means of support other than that provided by her husband. The father has no concern that any evidence of her abuse will be seen in public. She is hidden from society both inside and outside the home.
It is not for the state to intervene in a personal choice of dress on the grounds of culture and protection of the wearer. The state can implement laws, protection and redress. The individual, however, has to make some personal choices which neither the state nor other members of society can redress.
There’s larger metaphorical veil to be lifted.
Sara Gon was a labour lawyer for 17 years which included stints as mediator, arbitrator, acting judge. She is Chair of the industry tribunal of the Advertising Standards Authority and is a member of the exemption committee of the metal industries industry federation.