Informit article: War on the niqab

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‘Our’ sexism versus ‘their’ sexism?

Since the neo-imperialist wars on Middle Eastern homelands and elsewhere began, race relations in Western Europe have deteriorated markedly. One manifestation of this has been cyclical moral panics generated around the wearing of the niqab. France banned the public wearing of the garment. The Dutch cabinet approved a partial public ban ‘for security reasons’. In Britain Birmingham Metropolitan College tried, unsuccessfully – after protests from its students – to ban students wearing the niqab in its buildings. On the street Muslim women wearing the niqab have had veils ripped from their faces and have even experienced physical attacks. In Britain, this particular bandwagon was partly set in motion by the disgraced ‘Cash for Access’ former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s public statement that visitors wearing the niqab to his MP’s surgery would be asked to remove the veil. Non- Britons who want an insight into Mr Straw’s personal politics should be aware that he was a minister during the period in which Barack Obama admitted that America and its allies ‘tortured some folks’. Straw also forced himself onto news channels on the eve of the Oldham East by-election re-run, insisting that a culture of Muslim sex abuse existed and needed to be debated – this after New Labour research had indicated that the constituency could only be won by a ‘make-the-white-folkangry strategy’. Newspapers, even at the supposed liberal end of the corporate media – The Guardian and the New Statesman – have been returning to the topic on at least an annual basis, until finally the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan asked, ‘Why have the Continent’s political leaders, confronted by economic and social malaise, declared war on a piece of cloth?’ One of the most determined critics has been Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent. Ms Alibhai-Brown is a child of the Ugandan Asian expulsion, and as a Muslim woman she has an investment in this debate. Obviously, genuine feminist reasons exist for scrutinising the wearing of the veil. However, many Muslims argue that recent moral panics are part of the same racist ‘white-man-knows-best…civilising-thesavage’ narrative that underpins and rationalises Western conquest of their ancestral homelands. For instance, no matter how many protests Afghans staged against the killing of their children by Western forces, the corporate media not only failed to represent these protests but promoted the fantasy that the Western military was in the country to facilitate the education of Afghanistan’s daughters. Yet, as any casual examination of the regional map suggests, Western forces were part of a specific strategy to deploy a military presence in numerous countries along Iran’s southern border. Even leaving aside the context of global military campaigns, Western critics seem all too comfortable pointing to the ‘mote’ of patriarchy in other cultures while being far less willing to recognise or even capable of recognising the ‘beam’ of sexism in their own.

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