Recently, there was another debate about the niqab. Which, you may remember from all the previous debates about it, is a face-covering that some Muslim women wear.
And I suppose I understand the anxiety that this debate causes because when a Muslim woman speaks for herself
about this issue, you don't know whether you can trust her. Because she's one of Them. And so, you get people who aren't one of Them who try to explain it
*. And they're quite confusing because they often say many things that individually might constitute a perfectly valid piece of bigotry, but which together amount to incoherent bigotry. And, in one of the previous debates about the niqab
, which you'll remember is a face-covering that some Muslim women wear because we've debated it previously, I tried to list some of the things that people who aren't Them say.
First of all, one of the things people would say is that They are getting 'special treatment', because they're being allowed to wear a niqab and no one else is. I'm not totally sure about the factual basis of this, but it's internally quite logical. But then, it does seem to grate quite badly against the idea that the niqab is a bad thing to wear. Which is surely the founding commitment of those who oppose the niqab. I think, giving it the benefit of the doubt, you could say that what people actually want is to be allowed to wear an equivalent of the niqab or, failing that, to deprive everyone of the right to wear the niqab or anything approximate to it. So to that extent it would be a coherent idea.
Second, another of the things that people who don't want to wear the niqab say is that it's a threatening garment. The reasons for this vary quite widely depending on what frightening news story has been circulated. For example, it might be that the niqab could cause death if used in Formula One racing. It might be used to conceal a hammer which could be used to attack a small child. In some cases the threat is more general than that, insofar as people say that to wear the niqab is to signal an empathy with terrorists. Again, I think you can fault their research if you're being very stringent, but in and of itself it does seem to be a coherent hate-speech-act.
A third thing they might say is that the Muslim women who wear this garment, which you'll remember is the niqab because of the other times we've debated it, are being oppressed. And I think the implication here is that the women don't actually want to wear it, but are actually being coerced by Muslim patriarchs into it because of a gender-opressive ideology. Or, perhaps they mean, a number of people are possibly coerced while others may choose to wear it within a context where choices are structured by a gender-opressive ideology and that therefore they don't respect that choice. It's quite hard to evaluate this because I don't know anyone who wears the niqab and I haven't done an ethnography or a study
whereby I get to see all the ways in which someone who wears one might think about the niqab. And, as I say, you don't know whether to trust it anyway because it would be based on the word of one of Them. Also, I feel this is a subject I'm limited in because I have no idea what it's like to live in a society where women are sometimes coerced as to what to wear, or judged for what they wear, or where choices are made on the basis of a gender-oppressive ideology.
But anyway the basic conceit of white people saving brown women from brown men is actually one that was produced by the British Empire and it seems quite a solid piece of colonial orientalism in itself. Or, if you will, sartorientalism. Although, it is complicated by the fact that, quite often, people who aren't Muslims and don't want to wear the niqab say that the garment isn't authentically mandated by Islam. Admittedly, this is because they have looked it up on Wikipedia, which already means they have done more research than most racists. But, that does mean that they are accepting the legitimacy of standards internal to Islam, which seems to belie the secular foundations that are claimed for the critique of the niqab. I suppose giving this a generous gloss you could say that this bold attempt to comment on the texts of a religion of which one is neither an adherent or a student is motivated by a desire to persuade Muslim women that, contrary to what they may have assumed, they are not obligated to wear such an item and thus end their oppression. But that seems to me to be quite a foolish strategy for the Islamophobes because their persuasive power on this front seems to be quite limited by their lack of knowledge.
You can see where I'm going, I expect. These statements are confusing because they don't hang well together at all. You can't simultaneously think Muslim women are a threat because they wear the niqab and also are lucky for being allowed to wear the niqab and also are oppressed for wearing the niqab. I mean, I suppose that you can simultaneously think Muslim women are a threat because they wear the niqab and also are lucky for being allowed to wear the niqab and also are oppressed for wearing the niqab. But to simultaneously think all those things, that means that either you're the most subtle and sophisticated racist ever, or your racism is just a salmagundi of incoherent grunts and sentiments. And I think that if the racists were more rigorous in their thinking, they might not be so marginal everywhere except in the newspapers and on the television and in police stations and in the councils and on the streets and in parliament and in workplaces and on Youtube and Twitter and in pubs and coffee shops.
One last thing they might say - and they can become very frustrated at this point, and very belligerent - is that it's impossible to have a debate about this subject.
I don't know what to say about that.
*A friend points out the sub-heading. Read it and see if you can spot the problem.