Dr Anna Piela, Lecturer in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity, has warned that British niqab-wearing women have expressed fears that the UK might impose a "burka ban" and criminalise niqab wearers after Brexit.
During research for her new book, Wearing the Niqab: Fashioning Identities Among Muslim Women in the UK and the US (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), Dr Piela interviewed 15 British women and 10 US women who chose to wear a face veil. In this short piece, she shares some of her findings.
In my search for women willing to share their experiences I have visited mosques, Islamic schools, prayer groups, women's gyms, halal restaurants, and university campuses. I have also interviewed women via Skype. They came from all walks of life and while they were all positive about the niqab itself, their experience of wearing the niqab ranged from entirely positive to one fraught with anxiety about reactions of others.
The main findings – particularly pertinent in light of Boris Johnson's recent column in The Daily Telegraph in which he compared the niqab to a 'letter box' – are that:
- The niqab is less tolerated on the streets following the Brexit referendum;
- Women who wear the niqab have experienced significantly more abuse from passers-by since the referendum;
- There is a fear that the UK might impose a "burka ban" and criminalise niqab wearers (like other European countries including Denmark already have);
- Women will avoid going out in public if such a ban was imposed; and
- Racist remarks such as Boris Johnson's are meant to increase the political capital of politicians who try to appeal to a particular electorate.
A quote from one of the British women interviewed says:
"I wouldn't be going shopping, I'd rather go internet shopping. There'd be places that I wouldn't go. Like if I had to go pick up the kids, then I'd have to go pick up the kids, but if I had a choice between going in the car or walking it, I'd go in the car. For some women it would mean not going out at all. But I would be hurt if they [the Parliament] did that. I had this firm belief that this country is better than that."
Many of these women blame 'inadequate education' about Islam as the main cause of anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, and they believe that statements such as Boris Johnson's actually legitimise these attacks at a time of political instability in the UK.
For some, they also think that stoking such niqab controversies is just one part of 'the strategy' to keep British Muslims in check.
One of the interviewees said: "We're in a really difficult situation because I'm not a refugee and I'm not an immigrant. I'm British. I'm second generation Pakistani and I am in this position because you [the British government] called my parents over to come and do your cheap labour because you didn't have enough people to do it and your own people didn't want to do it. So now if we don't integrate the way that you want it then "you're not welcome". So then they don't want integration, they want assimilation."
In conclusion, it seems that after the spectacular failure to engage British Muslims through the Preventing Violent Extremism policy, leaders of the governing party are managing to flunk this task even more by being unable to keep their own MPs in line. I for one am pleased that Boris Johnson is to be investigated for his comments, and I know the British women I have spoken to will feel the same.
Dr Anna Piela's research interests are focused on gender and Muslim identities in the West. She will publish her book, Wearing the Niqab: Fashioning Identities Among Muslim Women in the UK and the US in 2019.
Read Anna's article - The niqab-wearers bracing themselves for abuse: "It's open season on the Muslims now" - published by New Statesman on 10 August 2018.