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Looking Beyond the Veil Book Cover Looking Beyond the Veil
Peter Tarleton, Khalil Ahmed Kazi, Matthew Francis
North Kirklees Inter Faith Council; Muslims & Christians Working Together
May 2008
40

 

During January – March 2008, evidence was collected from Muslims and non-Muslims in the Kirklees area of West Yorkshire on issues relating to the niqab – the face veil covering the face except for the eyes. Kirklees District has a higher than average Muslim population – around 10% of the total population, mainly of Indian Gujrathi heritage. It appears as if the study commences from the premise that the niqab is problematic and burdensome. This may reflect the position of the sponsoring bodies and also recent events in the area: in October 2006, classroom assistant Aisha Azmi was dismissed from a Dewsbury school for refusing to remove the veil in the classroom in the presence of a male teacher; at almost exactly the same time in nearby Blackburn, the veteran Labour Cabinet minister Jack Straw also sparked off a controversy in demanding that Muslim women visiting his MP surgery should remove their niqab.

Data was collected through a variety of means, and the report usefully provides specimens of the postal questionnaire dispatched to individuals and organisations, and also the focus group questions. The individuals’ questionnaire was completed by 166 persons, of whom 58 were Muslims (47 women, 11 men). Among the opening questions in the section for Muslim women were ‘In your experience what are the difficulties for Muslim women wearing the veil?’ and ‘If you wear a veil, would you consider removing it? ’. Thus negative connotations are signalled at the outset. Much better the opening questions in the section to be completed by all respondents, Muslim and non-Muslim, which commences with the up-beat ‘Do you feel Muslims play a positive role in British Society’. The study found that 5% of Muslim women i.e. less than 3 in the sample wore the veil all the time they were out of their homes. Clearly much more has been made of the veil issue than is really warranted!

The research also conducted 8 focus groups and 20 follow-up interviews. The number of niqabi Muslim women participating is not documented. However, the report notes, “a common theme ...was that wearing the veil is not a matter of culture; it is a faith issue about self-respect and modesty. That said other focus groups of women could not agree about whether it was a religious issue or not, and felt that they needed the opinion of a scholar. What they did feel was that there had been an increase in women wearing the veil and many felt that it was a political statement rather a statement of belief. Also the feeling was that over the last few years there had been an increase in this type of dress and to the extent that many felt a need to wear it to prove a point: we are here to stay like it or lump it" (authors’ emphasis). It is ironical that the consummate politician Jack Straw could not read the political message being conveyed to him in his MP’s surgery.

About 40 per cent of Muslim respondents felt that the veil ‘hindered community relations and social cohesion’. This was close to 90 per cent for non-Muslim respondents. Interestingly, some even perceived the veil as a form of snobbery: “I find it a separatist signal – us and them. Like the upper-class looking down on the ‘great unwashed’.

Jack Straw’s intervention only served to polarise: over 60 per cent of non-Muslims perceived his comments (the veil as a “visible statement of separation and difference”) as sensible, in comparision with about 5% of Muslims. The researchers also comment on the damage to community relations caused by media coverage of the man who robbed a store wearing the niqab - established a link between the Niqab and hoodies. Forty-five local organisations also participated in the study. “Most respondents (79%) felt they were familiar with the requirements for Muslims in the work place. Employers also felt comfortable with the performance of Muslim employees”. Perhaps the seeds of good community relations begin in work-place solidarity and employer good practice.

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