A Picture Worth A Thousand Words?

"It's an act of faith" - al-Shaikh, a young British Muslim woman.

In several threads in this blog we have discussed the increasing separation between the Muslim residents of Britain and their Christian and Secular counterparts. One recent example has been the debate in Clitheroe over the conversion of a church to a mosque.

In the June 22, 2007 issue of the NY Times this issue has become a front page lead story under the byline “Muslims’ Veils Test Limits of Britain’s Tolerance” written by Jane Perlez who wrote in part:

Increasingly, Muslim women in Britain take their children to school and run errands covered head to toe in flowing black gowns that allow only a slit for their eyes. On a Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park, groups of black-clad Muslim women relaxed on the green baize lawn among the in-line skaters and badminton players. Their appearance, like little else, has unnerved other Britons, testing the limits of tolerance here and fueling the debate over the role of Muslims in British life.

Many veiled women say they are targets of abuse. Meanwhile, there are growing efforts to place legal curbs on the full-face Muslim veil, known as the niqab. There have been numerous examples in the past year. A lawyer dressed in a niqab was told by an immigration judge that she could not represent a client because, he said, he could not hear her. A teacher wearing a niqab was dismissed from her school. A student who was barred from wearing a niqab took her case to the courts, and lost. In reaction, the British educational authorities are proposing a ban on the niqab in schools altogether. A leading Labor Party politician, Jack Straw
, scolded women last year for coming to see him in his district office in the niqab. Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the niqab a “mark of separation.” David Sexton, a columnist for The Evening Standard, wrote recently that the niqab was an affront and that Britain had been “too deferential.”

Although the number of women wearing the niqab has increased in the past several years, only a tiny percentage of women among Britain’s two million Muslims cover themselves completely. “For me it is not just a piece of clothing, it’s an act of faith, it’s solidarity,” said 24-year-old al-Shaikh, “9/11 was a wake-up call for young Muslims.”

She started experimenting with the niqab at Brunel University in West London, a campus of intense Islamic activism. Other Muslims find the practice objectionable, a step backward for a group that is under pressure after the terrorist attack on London’s transit system in July 2005. “After the July 7 attacks, this is not the time to be antagonizing Britain by presenting Muslims as something sinister,” said Imran Ahmad, the author of “Unimagined,” an autobiography about growing up Muslim in Britain, and the leader of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. “The veil is so steeped in subjugation, I find it so offensive someone would want to create such barriers. It’s retrograde.”

Since South Asians started coming to Britain in large numbers in the 1960s, a small group of usually older, undereducated women have worn the niqab. It was most often seen as a sign of subjugation. Many more Muslim women wear the head scarf, called the hijab, covering all or some of their hair. Unlike in France, Turkey and Tunisia, where students in state schools and civil servants are banned from covering their hair, in Britain, Muslim women can wear the head scarf, and indeed the niqab, almost anywhere, for now.

But that tolerance is slowly eroding. Even some who wear the niqab, like Faatema Mayata, a 24-year-old psychology and religious studies teacher, agreed there were limits. “How can you teach when you are covering your face?” she said. The niqab, to her, is about identity. “If I dressed in a Western way I could be a Hindu, I could be anything,” she said. “This way I feel comfortable in my identity as a Muslim woman.”

Some British commentators have complained that mosques encourage women to wear the niqab, a practice they have said should be stopped. At the East London Mosque, the women were crowded into a small windowless room upstairs, away from the main hall for the men. A handful of young women wore the niqab, and they spoke effusively about their reasons. “Wearing the niqab means you will get a good grade and go to paradise,” said Hodo Muse, 19, a Somali woman. “Every day people are giving me dirty looks for wearing it, but when you wear something for God you get a boost.”

One woman, Sajida Khaton, 24, interviewed as she sat discreetly in a Pizza Hut, said she did not wear the veil on the subway, a precaution her husband encourages for safety reasons. “I’m in Pizza Hut with my son,” said Ms. Khaton, nodding at her 4-year-old and speaking in a soft East London accent that bore no hint of her Bangladeshi heritage. “I was born here, I’ve never been to Bangladesh. I certainly don’t feel Bangladeshi. So when they say, ‘Go back home,’ where should I go?”

Is this picture worth a thousand words?

Posted June 22, 2007


Avid Reader said...

That is a classic photograph and I am not surprised that the NY Times used it on the front page! The look in the woman's face who is eating the apple has a certain 'Mona Lisa' quality to it - is the look one of sarcasm or puzzlement? And it makes one wonder just exactly what is she thinking at that moment!

The woman in the veil seems to know that she is being observed and I gather from the article there is a bit more to the religious aspect of wearing the veil expressed in the picture. As if the lady in the veil was saying "I've got to you, haven't I"?

These articles however do say that there is some sort of a problem developing in Britain and Europe in general where the muslim residents have not or will not integrate smoothly into the society as they have done in the U.S.


Duncan Clemens said...

I know that British women in Saudi Arabia have to wear culturally acceptable clothing and are not allowed to drive cars. As far as I know they obey the culture that is prevalent even though that is not their preference.

The trouble with the veil in Britain is that it is not part of the normal culture and those that wear it for political reasons must have very poor motives. It seems to me it is the same as a British Christian in Saudi Arabia refusing to dress or go about her daily activities in anything other than what is standard in Britain.

Muslims also regard the Christian religion (and atheists) as inferior and therein lies the future problem for British society. God help us if the likes of the ‘skinheads’ start to pick this up and then we will descend into a pit of a mess very quickly.


Elizabeth Murray said...

Meanwhile, there are growing efforts to place legal curbs on the full-face Muslim veil

Can someone in Britain explain to me how legal curbs could be placed on a veil? How is this possible? Would a veil be defined as something that covered one’s face? Where does one’s face end and one’s neck begin?

Reason rules,

Brian McKay said...

Britain’s problem with this veil issue actually began back in the middle of the last century when immigration for cheap labour to fill the factories was permitted from some countries like Pakistan.

Culturally these immigrants were never fully integrated and never fully adapted a wholly British culture. Now they children are seeing themselves as resented, they are becoming more radical, and the average British beer drinking, football loving typical British male doesn’t see the problem in front of his face.

It will become a Northern Ireland situation here in a couple of years except it will not be Catholic versus Protestant but Secular Humanist versus Muslim.

The U.S.A. I fear is headed for a similar problem with the illegal immigration that is being tacitly accepted there for economic reasons of cheap labor. Foreign workers are being imported to harvest crops, manufacturing is being outsourced (practically everything you pick up in the U.S. is made in China). When these workers have children they are automatically U.S. citizens if they are born within the U.S. borders and 25 years from now that means problems.


Diana Malcolm said...


I agree that there the Mona Lisa type ‘certain look’ in this picture. It certainly sums up everything I think the British are thinking when they see a woman dressed in this fashion.

In areas of the U.S. where there are large Hasidic populations there are men dressed in the black garb and with the distinctive haircuts typical of this religious group. Also the women wear wigs (some awful ones) as no male except their husband is permitted to see their real hair. They also live in very close proximity buying up houses around them which are then only resold to other Hasidics.

So far I’m glad to say there hasn’t been much problem but that could change if their birthrate continues at the present rate.

Di Di

Janet Witherspoon said...

Someone should put together a book of pictures that somehow caught the ‘zeitgeist’. This one is certainly one of those. Others that I remember vividly are from the Vietnam war and are extremely tragic – the shooting of a Viet Cong prisoner in the head – the naked young female child screaming as she ran from a napalm attack.