Saturday, 24 February 2007

The niqab

A few months ago, a school teacher was banned from wearing a jilbab to teach. The public reaction then was over the top, but the school gave a fair reason for its decision: it made communication difficult with younger children.

Now a young girl wants to wear a full veil (apparently it's called a niqab) at school. Her older sisters did the same thing, but the new headmaster wants to ban the practice.

Some of the arguments floating around, against this girl's right to wear what she wants, are rather feeble:

  • The niqab is a sign of separateness.
If you can't deal with other people being different from you, then perhaps you are in the wrong country. The niqab is certainly no more outrageous than, say, punks' garb seemed to be in the 70s.
  • It isn't Islamic.
It's up to her to decide what her religious beliefs are. There are plenty of interpretations of Islam. This is like saying, rosary beads aren't Christian.
  • Many muslims are against the niqab.
Well, they don't have to wear it then.
  • This girl has probably been put up to it by her parents.
She may well have been influenced by her parents. We call this "bringing a child up". Richard Dawkins believes that teaching any religion to your kids is a form of abuse. Perhaps it is, but it is not the kind of abuse it would be sensible to try and ban, in the foolish and unenlightened world we live in.
  • It might stop her learning.
It didn't stop her sisters, as far as we can tell. What is your evidence for this claim?
  • The school has a right to set its own policies.
This is the best argument and it puts me in two minds. I do understand that headmasters want to create a certain kind of atmosphere. I also think that in an ideal world, there would be a choice of different kinds of school, and accepting one would be like accepting a contract: you have to abide by the rules. But in fact there is not always a choice, the market for education is imperfect. And we don't allow headmasters to set just any rules.

I was made to wear uniform at school, and how I hated it! I used to tear it off as soon as I was allowed to, and change into my proper clothes. (And ever since I've loathed suits and formal wear, which is why I want to be a down-at-heel academic.) So, you see where my instincts lie.

(NB: According to a rather good piece on the Sky News website, even Nick Cohen is sounding vaguely sensible about this.)

(NB2: Occasionally - only very occasionally - I long for the good old well-meaning multiculturalist hegemony. The purveyors of received wisdom of are often unattractive, whatever the current received wisdom is: self-righteous, self-confident, thoughtless and narrow. But some kinds of received wisdom are more toxic than others.)