Remona AlyTuesday 19 January 2016 The Guardian
David Cameron needs to look beyond the veil
For a man with an in-tray that never empties, David Cameron has strange priorities. This week, with the world economy shaking perilously and the EU campaign under way in earnest, his preoccupation was the claim that too few Muslim women speak English. Then he turned to the veil. If any public authorities put in place “proper and sensible” rules to ban women from wearing face veils, he would back them, he said. We must have done something to merit so much of his attention.
I wear a headscarf. I know women who wear face veils. Each time we are put in the spotlight in this way, the reaction is the same: here we go again. For we have seen veil or niqab debate thrown into the political ring on numerous occasions. Many have spoken out against a ban, saying it would be contrary to British values; others support one, citing the very same reason. These discussions never provide much by way of clarity. But they always mean trouble.
Each time the issue ignites a media furore, and Muslim women who wear the veil are exposed to more hostility in a climate where those in niqab and hijab are already under threat: 60% of the victims of anti-Muslim attacks are women.
When I started wearing a headscarf, I did so for personal and religious convictions. Now, whenever there is a media backlash driven by a political agenda, I feel frustrated that we can’t move beyond the broken record that is the veil debate. For the women who wear face veils, that frustration runs deeper; it’s a struggle not to feel like an outsider in your own country and it’s infuriating to be told to integrate at the same time.
Cameron would never go down the French route, he said. “I think in our country people should be free to wear what they like, within limits live how they like, and all the rest of it.” But that was not how his comments were received. I have some advice for him. Targeting a politically beleaguered minority of women who wear a face veil will not improve their fortunes or his own. The first thing he might do, for example, is try to base any future comments he might make on a reliably factual basis. Cameron referred to government reports that set the number of Muslim women who speak little or no English at 22%. The Muslim Council of Britain suggests the number of Muslims who struggle with English is just 6%.
Cameron is right that the acquisition of basic English skills should be encouraged. But the idea that the lack of them somehow fuels radicalisation and, down the line, terrorism is misplaced to say the least. It is, moreover, a reach to say that bad parenting leads to radicalisation – though an inability to speak English is not in itself a sign of bad parenting. As the clearly exasperated Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi pointed out, citing her own family, many Muslim mothers whose English might not pass the Cameron test have nevertheless raised children who have contributed significantly to British society at all levels.
Not speaking English doesn’t automatically mean a communication breakdown between mother and child, as parents, regardless of race and religion, don’t always know what their children are up to. And mothers without good English can still talk to their children.
I don’t want to be negative. Whatever his motives, Cameron’s spotlight on misogyny – a social ill throughout society – may have practical benefits, particularly if it challenges the entrenched patriarchy that undermines women’s rights and forms some of the so-called sharia councils – a fight that Muslim women have been leading for years. It is also laudable that Cameron wants to prevent female genital mutilation and forced marriage. But it’s a huge error to pin these unacceptable crimes on “segregation”. There is a texture that he needs to understand, complexities beyond the stereotypical notion of men controlling wives, sisters and daughters.
If he genuinely wants to help deprived sections of society, he should look at disenfranchisement and poverty at a broader level. Addressing educational disadvantage, tackling inequality, funding community projects, creating opportunities for the vulnerable from all backgrounds – these are some of the things that, combined with solid leadership, can really foster stronger, more confident communities. But by his own admission, the government cut £45m from budgets for teaching English.
Cameron says he wants “every young boy and girl growing up here to feel proud of our country and properly connected to it”. So do I. But the best way to nurture that would be to construct effective, alternative narratives that empower all women and strengthen society, rather than engaging in naive attempts to police a single group, in the unforgiving glare of the media. By speaking less and speaking more wisely, he could bring us closer to the Britain we all want.