While this question doesn’t effect most Iranians, since the overwhelming majority of Iranian Muslims don’t wear the niqab (in fact I’ve never seen an Iranian Muslim wearing a niqab has so I’d welcome commentary on the matter), the fact that it is evidence of growing demonization of Muslims bears witness. A quick search on wikipedia alone reveals the following facts.
In 2006, a YouGov poll conducted in the UK found that 53% of people polled feel threatened by the religion of Islam (in contrast with fundamentalist Islamists). Only 16% of those polled believe “practically all British Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens who deplore terrorist acts as much as anyone else.”
Islamophobia is even higher in the US. A 2006 Gallup survey of American public opinion found that “many Americans harbor strong bias against U.S. Muslims.” The numbers are not only stark, but disturbing:
1. 22% say they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor. 2. 34% believe U.S. Muslims support al-Qaeda. 3. 49% believe U.S. Muslims are loyal to the United States. 4. 39% advocate that U.S. Muslims should carry special ID
We often forget, but as Doudou Diène, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, warns us; even the current row over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad are less about tenets on Islam which prohibit such depictions, but more about the Islamophic ideologies which led to those depictions.
And can we at all deny the fact that a large number of Iranians living outside of Iran harbor generally prejudicial attitudes toward Muslims, especially practicing Iranian Muslims.
Putting that aside, for a moment, I think its worth noting that this issue concerning the niqab is not one unique to the West or to this time.
During my time in Cairo, security officials who guarded the gates to the American University in Cairo eventually were successful in enacting rules which would require women in a niqab to show their face in order to gain entry on campuses. Security officials had complained that they could not ensure the security of students without being able to clearly identify students entering the campus.
Given the serious threats of terrorism posed to the American University, particularly because of the ongoing war in Iraq, university officials changed their policies requiring women to show their faces when entering the campus.
Despite this limited application, however, the change in law spurred an entire debate on the implications the niqab has on the environment altogether.
For example, a number of professors I spoke to, both foreign and Egyptian, stated that women wearing the niqab inhibit their capacity to teach students in the class. They argued, much like Jack Straw noted, that the presence of a woman robed in black from head to toe is a disturbing and uncomfortable site.
Moreover, because the same women who wear niqab also feel they are prohibited from speaking in front of men, women who wear niqab would not participate in class, work in groups, ask questions, or do presentations.
The point is that there are some legitimate issues behind the niqab. Issues which extend beyond their religious propriety (which is highly questionable in my mind) but that concern their compatibility with fundamental tenets of social and political lives.
However, these issues can be highly distorted and manipulated by current trends of Islamophobia which clearly pervade the Western world and amongst the Iranian Diaspora, and thus should be addressed carefully, rather then recklessly as evidenced by the conduct of both Jack Straw and Tony Blair.
About Nema Milaninia is a law student at UC Hastings College of Law, executive editor of the International Studies Journal, and editor of the group blog IranianTruth.com