That a University campus should – of all places – be an open, free and tolerant community is a principle by which most students at Nottingham would agree.
Unfortunately, however, things are not always so clear cut. For example, can censorship be justified in order to encourage emancipation? At what point does the right to cause offence overlap with the right not to feel discriminated against or threatened? Is it tolerant to be so intolerant towards those you accuse of intolerance?
The above questions are worth considering following a ban in September on the Niqab at Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMC) and URN’s recent Big Picture debate on the issue. The full face veil, which leaves only room across the eyes, is worn by some Muslim women; some stress it is compulsory, while one Muslim student told Impact it is “more cultural than religious”. Was BMC’s ban an example of discrimination against Muslim students? Or, as argued by principal Dame Christine Braddock, a fair policy to keep students “safe” and “easily identifIable”?
Is it tolerant to be so intolerant towards those you accuse of intolerance?
David Cameron said he would “back up institutions” who wished to enforce such a policy, adding “it’s very difficult to teach unless you can look pupils in the eye”. But an institution is surely more than a committee of bureaucrats: it should be considered within the institutional framework that a strong campaign by BMC students forced the management to U-turn.
Here at the University of Nottingham, official policy states that only ‘health and safety or professional considerations would restrict certain modes of dress’. But is there any demand from students for anything more extensive? Impact sought the opinion of a number of societies and representatives on campus. The SU Womens’ Officers said the debate required “contextualisation”, while Labour said the issue had too much “personal and cultural significance”. Islamic society were unavailable when contacted by Impact, but were later represented by Bessima Dargham on the URN debate. She said: “a lot of people who wear the Niqab are fully integrated in the community” and that a ban would be “completely unjustified”.
The Agnostic, Secularist and Humanist society said that although many of its members would “empathise with the proposition of the Niqab as a symbol of the subjugation and oppression of women”, they concluded that “people of all religions hold as much right to practice their faith as we hold not to”. UoN Feminists admitted to different opinions within their group, but as a majority ruled that it was “too much of a diverse feminist issue” to comment on.
Green Party president Duncan Davis was more forthcoming, arguing that “people should be allowed to wear whatever they want”. He suggested the debate was a case of “white men…trying to assert their control and supremacy over others”. However, Jenny Huynh, president of the Conservative Association, added that a ban only for those in the “public sphere” and in “positions of authority”, such as lecturers, would be reasonable.
On such a sensitive issue, it is understandable that most wished to keep fairly tight-lipped. Who else better to consult, then, than John Stuart Mill, who in 1859 wrote, ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not suffcient warrant’.
This raises two questions; does the wearer of the Niqab do so out of free-will? Bessima emphasised free choice, saying that many Niqab wearers find it brings them “closer to God”. Nonetheless this is a grey area. Muslim students in Britain might not have been directly forced to wear the Niqab, but certainly could have had their opinions socialised by the environment and culture in which they were raised.
Even so, a ban would victimise the coerced, rather than encourage a cultural shift to change the attitudes of the coercer. Ultimately, unless direct coercion is witnessed, we should have faith in Muslim women to choose to wear what they wish.
“A ban would victimise the coerced, rather than encourage a cultural shift to change the attitudes of the coercer”
A second question from Mill’s premise therefore remains: does the Niqab cause harm to others? The case for this is weak. Is it offensive to others? Hardly, but nonetheless the right to cause offence (within reason) is a vital pillar of a liberal society. Does the Niqab create an obstacle to human communication? Perhaps, but that amounts to no serious case for it to be banned. After all, will sunglasses and people with fringes covering their eyes be on the target list next?
There are both reasonable and unreasonable motives to dislike the Niqab; it is wrong to accuse all those who oppose it of Islamophobia. Perhaps the greatest case against the garment is the confusion it can cause to the rule of law; firstly, should it not be subject to the same rules as a balaclava? Secondly, should a Niqab wearer be given a special right not to have to remove it in a court of justice? Anomalies such as these might be the price we have to pay for a discerning, tolerant society. After all, a judge should be able to tell between a Niqab and a balaclava – or even, between a Niqab worn for religious reasons and, in the recent case of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, one worn to escape surveillance.
The path to censorship is a slippery slope: this year mini-skirts were banned by a university in Hungary, and at LSE, two students were evicted from freshers’ fayre for wearing t-shirts depicting cartoons of Jesus Christ and the prophet Mohammad. There appears to be little demand from British students for the Niqab to be banned, but if freedom of choice is to remain consistent, principled and fair, it should apply to cases well beyond this debate.
Photo: Steve Baalel (Flickr)