What The Channel 4 Niqab Study Really Tells Us
By Arman Ali
Once every week, I travel through London’s Stamford Hill area to and from my Jiu Jitsu class. Stamford Hill is home to a large Jewish community and this is evident from the number of Jewish people out and about on the streets. They can be easily identified by the way they dress. It’s quite different to what I am normally accustomed to seeing on the streets of East London. Especially the men. With their long dark coats, top hats and long curly sideburns. Different but not unpleasant. The way they dress causes me no discomfort. If you can get past the different clothing you will see a close knit community that go about their business and look out for each other. I have seen little children out in small groups by themselves often after 10pm. Normally I would object but in this part of London, I get the feeling that they are under the collective eye of the community. I know they are jewish children because I can easily identify them by the way they are dressed. And to be honest I would rather see these kids in their “different” clothing than the usual motley crew of ASBO infested but “normally” clothed children that are often found roaming the streets of some neighbourhoods in London after dark.
I mention this because it was this part of London that I was driving through after getting thoroughly thrashed in class. The mind is unusually clear after physical exertion and my contemplative mood was drawn into the discussion taking place on the radio. An LBC presenter was talking about the poll on the niqab carried out by ComRes on behalf of Channel 4 which concluded that the majority of the British public support a ban on the niqab, mostly because it made them feel uncomfortable. Of course you had the usual bunch of closet Islamophobes coming on saying how “terrible”, “backward” and even “sinister” the niqab is. And of course the presenter gave them airtime to keep the show ticking along. The prejudice was palpable on the radio waves. Surely there must be some listeners who are able to see this for what it is I thought. And there were.
One guy called up and summed it up, “this is ridiculous”. He went on to argue that we cannot limit freedom of expression and personal choice on the grounds that someone’s choice of covering their face for religious reasons made others feel uncomfortable. The show’s presenter was relentless. “But doesn’t it intimidate you? All you can see are the eyes. In fact they look a bit like ninjas. Wouldn’t you feel intimidated if you saw a ninja walking down the street?”. The caller was still not convinced. “No I think I would find it comical if I saw a ninja walking down the street”. The presenter tried a different approach. “But women who wear the niqab seem so unapproachable. Would you ask a woman wearing the niqab for the time?”. The caller sounded like he was talking to a 5 year old at this point. “That’s besides the point. You cannot ban the niqab based on whether or not you can ask women wearing the niqab for the time”. The presenter should have just given up but he pressed on. “But how can you communicate with someone if you can’t see their face?” he enquired. The caller’s response was epic. “I am communicating with you right now and I can’t see your face. And none of your listeners on the radio ever see your face. Are you saying that we are not communicating?”. And that is how the prejudice on the airwaves was exposed on that night by a Londoner using nothing but common sense.
So what is this poll about and what does it really reveal? Why are the media and politicians calling for a national debate on the issue? To really understand the findings we need to apply some context here.
Muslims in the UK are a minority. According to the Office for National Statistics there are 2.7 million muslims in the UK out of a total population of 63.7 million. Of the 2.7 million muslims, 48% are women. Thats 1.3 million Muslim women. Of this, 817,970 are of working age in England and Wales. As there is not likely to be that many more in Scotland, we’ll use this number. As a percentage of the population, that is 1.3%. Of this figure, how many wear the niqab is almost impossible to tell as no statistical data exists to inform us with any degree of certainty. So we will have to leave the shores of established statistical data and venture into the realm of educated guesswork. We can use some scenarios to aid us.
If the number of Muslim women of working age who wear the niqab is:
- 1 in 100 thats 8179 women or 0.013% of the total UK population.
- 1 in 50 thats 16,359 women or 0.025% of the total UK population.
- 1 in 10 thats 81.797 women or 0.13% of the total UK population.
So in summary, it seems we are having a national debate on the dress preference of a group of women who are a minority within a minority and number well below 0.5% of the total UK population at best. If we were to use a playground bullying metaphor, that would be like the entire school beating up one kid, including the teachers. That would be like the entire school having an assembly where all other issues were put aside so that they could discuss how that one kid’s dress makes them feel uncomfortable and put forward their reasons for banning it. Other kids and teachers would be called up on stage to air their views on how backward that one kid’s dress is. And then that one kid would be summoned to the stage where she would be told in condescending tones that she has not done enough to integrate into the fabric of the school. She has not embraced the school’s democratic values, diverse culture and tolerant nature even though the school does not have a uniform policy in place. This assembly would totally ignore all the other important issues in the school that need addressing. Like the alarming level of teenage pregnancies, the rising poverty levels amongst the students, the obesity rates, the depleted budgets, alcohol abuse and so much more.
OK I got a bit carried away with that metaphor there but its not far from the truth. Lets get back to this survey. The people polled are meant to be representative of the population. This is the basis of the call for the national debate on the niqab. This of course is not true. How can 55% of the population have come into contact with less than 0.5% of the population? What makes this even more unbelievable is the fact that critics of the niqab claim the niqab oppresses women by making them invisible. So we are to believe that 55% of the population of the United Kingdom have met, tried to interact with and left feeling uncomfortable by an invisible segment of the population whose number is smaller than 0.5% in total at best? I find that incredible. Not ‘incredible’ as in the teenage “wow that is so amazing”. Incredible as in when a judge says “given the facts presented to this court which contradict the witness’s statement I find the witness to be incredible”.
This is actually a good thing. If the sample polled was in fact representative of the general population then we would have to take a long hard look between the lines. And what we would find staring back at us would be the stone cold, ugly face of prejudice. It seems to me that Muslim women are an easy target. Just look at how many have been attacked in recent months by racist thugs. Ironically, the attackers identified them by the very apparel that is allegedly supposed to make the women invisible.
I recently happened to be in London’s trendy Camden area on a Saturday night and I passed a club with a huge crowd of punks and goths queuing up on the street. I’m talking about clothes, make up and hairstyles that are engineered to assault the mundane and boy do they lay siege on the mundane. I’m sure they were all, each and every one of them, perfectly good upstanding (it was early evening so no one was too drunk to fall over) citizens but they looked frightening to me. And if you saw one of them approaching you on a dimly lit leafy suburban street, I assure you that you would feel intimidated. Maybe even a little scared. But that doesn’t mean that we should poll the nation on how they make us feel and support a ban on the way they dress. Can you imagine the uproar if someone tried?
What about if someone (incredibly stupid) decided to carry out a study to see how Jewish men’s payot (the curly sideburns) made the population feel? How would that be received? Probably with a lawsuit and quite rightly so. Forget about people, lets talk about something that does pose a danger to human beings. Dogs like Rottweilers. Should they not be banned? They share the same parks and pavements with us. And they are known to have attacked, maimed and even killed in the past. Where’s the national debate on that?
As for people who demand that the niqab should be removed in situations where a person needs to be identified for security reasons, I agree with you. But let me ask you a question on this topic. I was once told by the passport issuing authority that the photo I had submitted as part of my application was unacceptable because my head was ever so slightly cocked to one side. Do you really think that the border agency would let a woman wearing a niqab just waltz through passport control without showing her face? These are the people who deny us smiles on our passport pictures for crying out loud! Pigs would fly out of terminal buildings before the border agency let a covered face slip through.
This is an opinion piece and in my humble opinion, the study conducted by ComRes is codswallop. As is the discussion surrounding it and the call to ban a piece of cloth. So come on people lets put the pitch forks away, lets douse the torches and call off the witch hunt. There are other, more urgent issues that need to be discussed by the nation. Like the growing number of families who use food banks because of rising levels of poverty in a first world country.
The fact that the media and politicians keep on sidetracking us by this non-issue should cause alarm bells to ring. As a wise man once said to me, when the media and politicians talk about a particular issue always ask yourself – what are they not talking about?