||Channel 4 News this week has broadcast a number of programmes on the niqab as part of a public debate on the subject sparked by the ban imposed and later revoked by Birmingham Metropolitan College a few weeks ago.
Last night, C4 News aired a debate between three niqab wearing Muslim women, Shalina Litt, activist, writer and molecular geneticist Sahar Al-Faifi and the director of Seeds of Change, Fatima Barakatullah, and three people who are opposed to the niqab, Douglas Murray, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Khola Hasan.
The debate prompted some heated exchanges between the participants. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, known for her disdain for veiling, said those who wore the veil wear it “to shut yourself off as if the rest of us are infections” and that women who wear it are taking Muslims “back to the dark ages”.
When a member of the audience quoted the Charter for Human Rights and said it was her human right to express herself in this way Douglas Murray replied “There is something ludicrous about women (wearing niqab) talking about human rights”.
C4 presenter, Jackie Long, revealed results from a specially commissioned ComRes poll which shows 56% of people surveyed disagree with the veil being worn in public. 55% support a ban on wearing it in public, 81% support a ban in schools, hospitals or courts and 76% of people said they are not sure how to relate to a woman wearing the veil.
More than half of those surveyed think it is demeaning and although people feel unsure about the niqab rather than in any way threatened or nervous about it, 71 per cent disagree with the claim that wearing it can be empowering.
These views are unsurprising given the negative statements of politicians and sections of the media. Given the strength of public feeling on the issue, and the demands for its selective ban by certain newspapers, columnists and politicians, one would think the face veil was ubiquitous in all public buildings, including schools, hospitals and courts. Yet all the evidence points to the contrary.
Channel 4 News FactCheck looked at the prevalence of the face veil and found that there was very little evidence to suggest it was commonplace at all.
FactCheck looked at the validity of a quote made by Anne Marie Waters, of the National Secular Society, who in August 2012 said “The number of women wearing the burka and niqab has exploded in Britain in recent decades”.
The only recorded information available was a study conducted by the internal security services in France in 2009 (prior to the French ban) which suggested that out of a population of 1.5 million to 2 milllion adult Muslim women, about 1,900 wore either burkas (defined here as a full-body and head covering) or niqabs (where the eyes can be seen).
However, the figure of 1,900 came because the “secret service initially came up with a figure of 367, which was deemed to be so low they were asked to count again”.
FactCheck also looked at the number of Muslim women in the UK, which has increased from 748,000 in 2001 to 1.3m by 2011 – a 74 per cent increase. The notion that the number of women wearing the niqab has increased is consistent with an increase in the population size.
The statistics and evidence uncovered by FactCheck is similar to those found by the Guardian’s RealityCheck, which looked in to how many doctors, nurses, hospital workers and teachers wear the niqab.
Unsurprisingly the evidence suggests that few if any doctors, nurses or teachers wear the niqab. RealityCheck spoke to the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Women’s Network UK who both said they did not know.
The General Medical Council, the Royal College of Nursing and the National Union of Teachers all said that they didn’t collect numbers on niqab wearing professionals and that “to the best of their knowledge there had never been a case where niqab was mentioned as an issue.”
RealityCheck looked in to the figures for the female Muslim population in Britain but given that none of the representative bodies listed above have ever come across a woman who wears the veil in a school or hospital they conclude that the figure is “likely to be low – very low” and that “the debate is more about political philosophy than a practical problem.”
FactCheck assessed claims by MP Phillip Hollobone, that an overwhelming number of people support the banning of the face veil. Results from a YouGov survey earlier this year shows a small decrease in the number of people who agree with the statement ‘the burka should be banned in Britain’, down from 66% in 2011 to 61% in 2013.
The YouGov results reveal interesting variances by political party and age. Lib Dem voters are split on the idea of a ban, with 47% agreeing with it and 46% disagreeing, UKIP voters are almost unanimously in favour, 93% agree and 6% disagree. Conservative voters, 71% agree to 26% disagree, and Labour voters, 55% agree and 35% disagree.
Younger people (18 – 39 yrs) are more or less split on the issue (46% agree with a ban; 44% disagree), older people (40+) are decisively in favour (69% agree; 23% disagree).
FactCheck also looks at claims made by Dr Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, who earlier this year said: “The niqab … collude[s] with making women invisible.”
FactCheck notes figures collated by Tell MAMA, which reveal that the helpline “logged more than 630 incidents during the first 12 months of its existence, and Muslim women were targeted in 58 per cent of all incidents.”
This is consistent with empirical evidence and analysis by academics who have investigated the impact of the French niqab ban on Muslim women and the prevailing anti-veiling public discourse in the UK and Europe. Amnesty International in its report ‘Choice and Prejudice: Discrimination against Muslims in Europe’, argued that veiling bans had been introduced “without consulting women affected by such prohibition” and that such policies “are detrimental to women’s equality and autonomy”.
Far from making Muslim women ‘invisible’, veil bans and the resulting scr
utiny and negative attention has made such women patently visible and vulnerable to attack.
Last month, a 14-year-old girl told BBC Radio 4 World at One programme about a recent attack where a man came up to her in the street and tried to rip her veil off her face.
The teenager spoke of the impact of the assault saying it has “really really affected me”. She said she felt “horrified, really really upset and a feeling of anger…thinking why would you do that to me?”