The Islamic veil is allegedly a ‘threat’ to British values

Irene Zempi, University of Leicester

In February 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron argued that ‘state multiculturalism has failed’ in his speech at the Munich Security conference. According to this viewpoint, the social/community cohesion agenda is based exclusively upon the obligation of Muslim minorities for integration and thus the problem of non-integration (as Cameron understands it) rests with British Muslims themselves. In essence, Cameron positioned himself as an ally of the German chancellor Angela Merkel as well as the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom have attacked multiculturalism in recent months.

It appears that multiculturalism is a ‘threat’ to British values and the Islamic veil is a key visual sign of that ‘threat’. As such, the veil is rejected on the grounds that it is non-British in inception and adoption. This is premised upon the assumption that British identity and examples of Muslim ‘difference’ are mutually exclusive. To complicate matters further, the concept of ‘Britishness’ does not allow much room for its contestation or revision.

In this thinking, the multiple meanings of the veil get subsumed in rhetoric that concentrates on veiling as an oppressive and subordinating practice. Within popular discourse, the veil is read as an oppressive practice which erases women’s physical and sexual identity and is symbolic of the subjugation of women in Islam. The construction of Muslim women exclusively through the lens of oppression and violence provides the justification of the ‘Otherisation’ of the female Muslim body which often triggers manifestations of anti-Muslim hostility in the public sphere.

The gradual mutation of the veil from a symbol of religious identity to a contentious marker of difference paves the way for further contamination of the veil as a symbol of gender inequality, hostility to a democratic society and Islamist extremism. The ubiquitous assumption that the veil accentuates Muslim ‘Otherness’ vis-à-vis Britishness paints the veil as ‘dangerous’ whilst ignoring the multiplicity of meanings attached to it; as a symbol of religious commitment, modesty, political statement, ethnic background and fashion accessory.

Understandings of the veil ‘out of context’ imply that Muslim women’s identity is then never more than the experience of their oppression or acting on behalf of a ‘terrorist religion’. The effect of this is the polarisation between Islam and the West, thereby adding strength to the proposition of an imminent ‘class of civilisations’. Popular discourse about the relationship between the veil and integration lends itself to a generic, anti-Muslim sentiment. Ultimately, the ‘real’ integration can only be achieved through greater public conformity, in sharp contrast to a multicultural integration that sustains ‘difference’.

It appears that whilst Cameron reasserts the values of ‘Britishness’, the ‘British’ culture is reshaped through an attack on multi­culturalism.

Irene Zempi is a Tutor & PhD Student in the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester. Irene holds a Master’s degree in Criminology (with Distinction) from University of Leicester and a BA in Sociology from Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. Her research interests lie in the intersections between hate crime, victimisation and religion.

4 Comments

  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 18/08/2011 at 06:16 | Permalink

    You may as well ask why do women born and educated in Britain submit to arranged marriages. It is family and social pressure, not religion, that determines what both women and men do. It may be the need to find a way between the British society and family society that lead young women and men to seek a purpose in religion. Islam does not have a monopoly on that. Immigrants from Africa do the same with Christianity.

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  2. Jameel Nasir vachkoo
    Posted 17/08/2011 at 05:01 | Permalink

    If Muslim women are oppressed and veiled, why don’t they leave Islam and convert to other religions which are supposedly free.The irony is that it is other way round,about 80% of of people who convert to Islam are women.If Britain has to survive, freedom to its citizens is for more important than British culture of binge drinking.

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  3. andy
    Posted 31/05/2011 at 11:19 | Permalink

    Recently on the street I saw an insult to a Muslim woman wearing a niqab – a wolf whistle from two white/European men passing in a car. It raised for me some questions about woman’s identity within a multi-cultured society.

    The whistle at the woman recognised her as a woman equivalent to a sexual object and, bearing in mind her lack of body outline but the clear statement of her gender, was meant, I think, to be not an ironic reflection but insulting with a racial insult as well.

    Personally I favour the famous Roy Jenkins maxim of communities living together in mutual respect and tolerance. I’d add mutual interest and concern. With that interest and concern about each other come those waves of understanding which address amongst other things inequalities and the position of women in our multi-faceted society.

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  4. Chris Williams
    Posted 28/05/2011 at 07:30 | Permalink

    There is not really a British culture other than binge drinking so there is not much for a Muslims to join there. We have English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish cultures and tribal cultures within them. Many Muslims integrate at the tribal level whilst others do so at a national level: Tariq Ali, for example, is clearly an Englishman born in Pakistan.

    You cannot wear a veil an integrate: a veil separates the bride from the bridegroom, the widow from the other mourners. It says I am alone and must be left alone. It is only when the veil is lifted that the bride or widow returns to the society of her family and neighbours. A woman with a veil remains a stranger, an island in the stream that flows past her. Is she content or is she lonely and oppressed? We can only find out when she lifts the veil.

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    Irene Zempi Reply:

    Chris, thank you for your useful comments. Indeed, you raise a very interesting point; that the covering of the face may be a visible barrier to communication. From your perspective, we cannot tell if a Muslim woman who wears the face veil is, for example, oppressed. Does this mean that face-to-face communication is the ‘only’ way of communicating with people in this day and age? Also, what about unveiled women who may be oppressed in a non-Muslim family? Can we make assumptions about their perceived oppression by ‘reading’ their facial expressions?

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    What you say is true, there are many ways to hide oppression but if you are not oppressed you will find normal social interaction much more difficult behind a veil. The symbolism is the same in both cultures so it is seen as a request to be left alone. More people are now familiar with electronic communication but there is a reason the largest social net working site is called Facebook. The irony is, of course, that it is no substitute. The small social connections of daily life that give pleasure to many will be reduced. If you manage to go to the same person on the supermarket check out she may eventually make small talk to a veiled woman but a man will not and so social cohesion is lost. The veiled woman is not one of us as, for example, the transsexual or cross dresser can now become one of us. How many years did that take?

    The problem is the symbolism – when is it polite to speak and when not. “Yes madam, excuse me please, thank you” is easy but when can you say more? If no one out side of your community ever says more then integration is not possible and is probably not desired.

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