Cork's reaction to the Muslim veil

BAN the veil. Three little words, cloaked in emotion, packaged in pro-woman sentiment, yet every bit as fundamentalist as any demand that a woman wear a niqab (face-veil) in public.

Rita de Brun wearing a  niqab on the streets of Cork. Pic: Denis Minihane

There are good intentions behind calls to ban the veil: a commendable wish to halt the liberty-curtailing husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers and religious leaders who coerce women to conceal their faces in public. But there’s flawed thinking there as well, a naivety, as not all who wear veils are forced to do so, and a blanket ban denies Muslim women the basic human right to dress as they choose, and to express themselves, their beliefs and their religion as they see fit.

In some countries in which the veil has been banned, there has been a rise in hate crimes against Muslims. Figures released by the National Observatory of Islamophobia show that in 2011 the number of anti-Muslim attacks in France rose by 34% on 2010 — the year in which the ‘burqa ban’ was introduced.

Until recently, I’d have found it hard to believe that any woman would wear a burqa or niqab by choice, but that all changed when I donned the garb and took a stroll around Cork.

It was challenging from the outset. The rain lashed down, the streets were puddle-filled and my umbrella turned inside-out several times. But if the weather was hostile, the people were not. For sure, I got a few sour looks from grumpy looking middle-aged women, but despite the conspicuous attire, most people went about their daily business.

There was an Emperor’s New Clothes moment, however. That came courtesy of a girl of about 3, who tugged at her mother’s sleeve and stage-whispered: “Why is that lady wearing that on her head?”

“That’s a burqa”, replied her mother, without as much as an awkward, sideward glance.

I was met with equal courtesy and politeness in Ulster Bank, AIB, the Passport and Post Offices, where neither tellers nor customers paid any undue heed. I was a bit surprised nobody asked me to ‘unveil’ myself in any of the financial institutions I visited — for security reasons.

Visits to the English Market, the College of Commerce (to pick up an evening classes brochure), Uneeda, Caseys, Ecco, Brown Thomas and a wealth of other stores proved equally uneventful.

The heartiest welcome of the day came courtesy of an elderly sales assistant in Mannix & Culhane’s, so much so, that I was convinced that when the Failte Romhat sign was placed over his shop’s entrance door, this true gent took those two words to heart. While appreciating his courtesy, I worried that my visit may have made him feel uneasy. After all, we Irish are not accustomed to doing business with those whose faces and heads are covered.

With that, the recent jailing of the burqa-wearing half-brothers who attempted to rob Selfridges of London, did nothing to ease the concerns of traders who might feel reluctant for security purposes, to admit face-veiled individuals. Given the extent to which the niqab conceals the wearer’s identity and the vulnerability that can evoke in others, it seems fair that while Muslim women should be free to cover their faces in public, they should, on entering commercial premises, remove or be prepared to remove their face veils, if asked to do so.

Despite the restrictive and masking nature of the niqab, it felt liberating to wear one. For me, it generated an exhilarating feeling of invisibility, even though I was anything but. This was surprising, given the niqab is a symbol of oppression and that it’s most often worn by women too terrified to be seen in public without one.

The extent of the crushing tyranny these women endure was highlighted by a call in 2008 by a Saudi Arabian-based Muslim cleric, who wanted women to wear face-veils that reveal only one eye. The skewed thinking behind his call was that women might be less inclined to wear eye make-up, if both eyes were not on display. It’s different in Ireland, according to Sakinah (formerly Carol) Nagle, a Dubliner who converted to Islam over 25 years ago and who now lives in Bishopstown in Cork: “I know lots of Muslim women who wear face veils and none are forced to do so,” she says.

As to why some Irish Muslim women wear niqabs , Nagle was in no doubt: “Some wear them to protect their modesty. Others do it for God.”


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