When I used to see women dressed in black abayas and veils covering all but the eyes near to Asharq Al Awsat’s offices in London, I would automatically think that they were tourists from the Gulf. After a while however, I realized that these women wearing the Niqab (a veil that covers the face except the eyes) were British citizens of South-Asian origin and this practice was unfamiliar in their societies.
The veil today has become a phenomenon that is being widely discussed in London just as it was debated in recent years in Arab capitals where the phenomenon has become more widespread in large cities such as Cairo, Damascus, Casablanca and Amman. Current leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw sparked debate on the veil following his claim that it makes communication more difficult between Muslims and the rest of society.
Despite having read many articles and statements, it is evident that not one of these had actually explained which kind of veil had caused such controversy and this was unclear until the story of Aisha Azmi unfurled. From 24-year-old Azmi’s case, it was evident that the veil under attack was the Niqab, which Aisha wore covering everything but her eyes.
Aisha had mixed the issues that concern Muslims, confused the English, and facilitated criticism of the veil. Straw called the Niqab a veil, a term that causes confusion even amongst Muslims. The full Niqab has often been associated with Gulf communities and until recently, in Britain; it was rare to see women covering their faces and bodies apart from at popular tourist hotspots.
In my opinion, women who wear the Niqab will lose this battle, primarily because they are a minority within a minority and because many Muslims do not consider it a compulsory part of Islamic dress and so on. Straw said what many would dare not say when he stated that he “felt uncomfortable about talking to someone “face-to-face” who I could not see.” The students of Aisha Azmi followed suit and claimed that they could not clearly understand the classes that she took as a result of her mouth and face being covered. Azmi has indicated that she is willing to take off the Niqab, therefore may be able to return to teaching. The biggest supporters of the Niqab in Britain are the leftists and liberals who believe in freedom of dress as one of the fundamental freedoms that the country sanctifies. In the Sunday Times, India Knight defends the Niqab and expresses her view that Muslims today are experiencing the same oppression as the Jews once did.
Jack Straw deliberately stirred up this debate, although he was unaware of the uproar that it would cause. I am positive that Straw wanted to test the issue as an influential political figure, as the leader of the House of Commons, and the MP of Blackburn where a third of the electorate is Muslim. His opinion has caused much controversy as society has now become ready to publicly discuss the veil and all that is missing is somebody to blow the whistle.