Columnists > ‘We forget that 100 years ago most women wore veils on some occasions’

14 November 2013 | by Sara Maitland

‘We forget that 100 years ago most women wore veils on some occasions’

There is something about the whole niqab question that seems to make so many of us stupid – or at least use some utterly separate part of our mind to “think” about it.

Kenneth Clarke, himself a barrister, can say: “I don’t see how on earth a judge and a jury can really appraise evidence when you’re facing someone completely invisible to you. I actually think it undermines a trial.” (Although obviously a woman in a niqab – given that it is a face veil worn in public, with the eyes evident – is not “completely invisible”.)

At the same time there is an ongoing campaign to make it easier for blind people to serve on a jury. “Easier”, not “possible”: blind individuals do already serve on juries (David Blunkett has written about his experience of jury duty and says his blindness created no problem). This present campaign is about adapting protocols and educating courts to make it easier for them to do so.

But, obviously, this makes no sense: if you need to see someone’s whole face in order to assess their truthfulness or otherwise, then we should not allow people who cannot see to be on juries at all. In fact, as Catholics, we probably should not be letting them get married: the inability, however caused, to discern the truth about someone (rather bizarrely called “grave indiscretion” or a serious “lack of discretionary judgement”) is grounds for an annulment. I do not think anyone wants to go there – and I certainly hope not.

There is a parallel example in the moves to ban face veiling for children, often on the grounds that they might be unfairly forced into it, being too young to choose. It is curious how often these arguments come from the very people who also believe that schools should be allowed to impose uniforms and that “parental responsibility”, which surely includes sartorial decision making, needs to be more energetically imposed on what Melanie Phillips has described as “feral parents”.

Again, I really do not think you can have it both ways, and certainly not simultaneously.

Part of this is simply fear of the unknown or the new. Last week ComRes published the results of a poll it carried out for Channel 4 News. Fifty-five per cent of those questioned said they would support a legal ban on full-face veils. More than a third would like to see “all forms of head scarf outlawed” (Would they include the Queen’s ubiquitous rural version, I wonder?).

But the reasons they gave had nothing to do with justice, feminism or freedom. They wanted a ban because full-face veils made them feel “uneasy”, “nervous”, “threatened” and “unsure how to relate to the wearer”. The only thing here that surprises me is that 55 per cent of people in Britain have had the opportunity of trying to relate to a niqab wearer – I have never even seen one where I live in Galloway and I bet that is true for large swathes of Britain.

I can find no British statistics, but Belgium claims 215 niqab and burka wearers and France – before the ban – fewer than 2,000. Of course, lots of people will never have seen one. Perhaps every primary school in the country should invite a woman who does wear the niqab to come and talk to the pupils so they would have a chance to learn how to “relate” to them.

Fear famously paralyses intelligence, stultifies imagination, reduces problem-solving ability, depletes energy, saps creativity and destroys hope. It does not feel good either. No wonder people do not like the niqab and cannot think about it sensibly. No wonder we conveniently forget that 100 years ago most women wore veils on some occasions and that barely 50 years ago most nuns did – and many people wish they still would.

Perhaps we need to address these rather nebulous terrors before we rush to condemnation and legislation. We do not address them by beginning every comment with “I’m not Islamophobic but … ” and we do not address them by isolating the niqab from all other forms of female self-disguise. We need to look for known parallels and older wisdom.

For example, I have been thinking about the traditional proverb, “the eyes are the windows to the soul” (and no, despite common belief, Shakespeare did not coin the phrase, it is far older). The niqab allows us to focus fully on a person’s eyes; perhaps that might aid the truth.

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User Comments (1)

Comment by: jjhayes
Posted: 18/11/2013 15:29:03

An argument could be made that a blind person by virtue of being blind has developed tools to assess credibility by aspects of a witness's vocal inflections which seeing persons do not have. A person who has sight is therefore dependent on seeing a witness's entire face to assess credibility. Thus to forbid covering the face and making it easier for blind people to sit on a jury would not contradictory.

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