Phillip Hollobone has had the opportunity to gain further traction on his controversial ‘Face Coverings Bill’ as it undergoes its second reading in parliament today. His Bill would make it illegal for anyone to wear a face veil (or balaclava) in public since he believes that the face veil acts as a barrier to integration in society. Mr Hollobone, who refuses to meet constituents that wear a face veil, also feels that it goes against the British way of life.
Is Mr Hollobone correct in assuming that forcing women to take their veils off in public will result in an integrated and more cohesive society? The face veil ban has been in operation in France for over two years, and rather than promote integration, it seems to have further alienated the already marginalised French Muslim community. Since the ban, there have been public riots and an increase in attacks on those women who make a personal choice to wear the face veil. Instead of liberating Muslim women, the ban has further stigmatised them.
It is quite plausible that a ban on face veils would have a similar effect in Britain. A recent report by Tell Mama UK highlighted the impact and causes of hate crime on Muslim women in the UK. Many had been attacked in public for their attire, both physically and verbally, resulting in a number of women retreating to isolation and questioning their identity. Taking this into account with the experience in France (and other European countries), it is likely the troubling situation facing Muslim women in Britain would only worsen. If Mr Hollobone is genuinely interested in the integration of Muslim women, he should avoid repeating the mistakes of his European counterparts and instead focus on tackling the alarming trend of increasing hate crime that Muslim women face in Britain.
Although it is unlikely that Hollobone’s proposed bill will garner much support, there has been greater backing for implementing a ban on the niqab in public institutions such as hospitals, courts of law and educational establishments. The Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, Majid Nawaz, recently spoke about why he felt the veil should be banned in schools, whilst Kenneth Clarke has stated that women should not be allowed to wear the veil whist giving evidence in court. Arguments for supporting a ban in such places focus on the need to verify identity and encourage clear communication.
There is a legitimate discussion to be had on the suitability of veiling in public institutions. It is, however, vital that this takes place in a reasoned fashion, without pandering to the sensationalism of the media. Given the extremely small number of women who wear the veil in the UK and the fact that the overwhelming majority will happily remove their veils when asked to do so, it is clear that in most cases the issue of identity and security can be easily reconciled. Averroes, an independent and non-partisan think tank has sought to convey and elaborate on this in a portfolio of work pertaining to the niqab in public institutions, which is due to be released.
Whilst it is obvious that the niqab may limit non-verbal cues during the process of communication, the extent of this limitation and the subsequent harm resulting in miscommunication has not been adequately researched. Part of the reason lies in the fact that given the small number of women who do veil in such circumstances, the likelihood of drawing any significant conclusions from such a study would be unlikely.
As the number of women who wear the niqab in public spaces is comparatively small, rather than introduce blanket legislation that would only affect a small minority, public institutions should be encouraged to take the lead themselves and resolve any potential conflicts that may arise. This would entail employing a case-by-case approach in addressing the sensitivities of those wearing the veil, and likewise with those who aren’t accustomed to it.
Ultimately, it seems that the niqab is being given far more significance than it actually deserves. At a time when there are serious questions being posed about integration and identity, is banning the niqab really any kind of answer?
Safoora Teli is the Head of Research at the new independent and non-partisan think tank, Averroes.