Increasingly, Muslim women in Britain take their children to school and run errands covered head to toe in flowing black gowns that allow only a slit for their eyes. On a Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park, groups of black-clad Muslim women relaxed on the green baize lawn among the in-line skaters and badminton players.The article's cover photograph, with the veiled Muslim woman reading the newspaper on a bus right next to a blonde British women munching an apple, is a classic portrait of cultural contrast. Check out the article's photograph slideshow as well.
Their appearance, like little else, has unnerved other Britons, testing the limits of tolerance here and fueling the debate over the role of Muslims in British life.
Many veiled women say they are targets of abuse. Meanwhile, there are growing efforts to place legal curbs on the full-face Muslim veil, known as the niqab.
There have been numerous examples in the past year. A lawyer dressed in a niqab was told by an immigration judge that she could not represent a client because, he said, he could not hear her. A teacher wearing a niqab was dismissed from her school. A student who was barred from wearing a niqab took her case to the courts, and lost. In reaction, the British educational authorities are proposing a ban on the niqab in schools altogether.
A leading Labor Party politician, Jack Straw, scolded women last year for coming to see him in his district office in the niqab. Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the niqab a “mark of separation.”
David Sexton, a columnist for The Evening Standard, wrote recently that the niqab was an affront and that Britain had been “too deferential.”
“It says that all men are such brutes that if exposed to any more normally clothed women, they cannot be trusted to behave — and that all women who dress any more scantily like that are indecent,” Mr. Sexton wrote. “It’s abusive, a walking rejection of all our freedoms.”
Although the number of women wearing the niqab has increased in the past several years, only a tiny percentage of women among Britain’s two million Muslims cover themselves completely. It is impossible to say how many exactly.
Some who wear the niqab, particularly younger women who have taken it up recently, concede that it is a frontal expression of Islamic identity, which they have embraced since Sept. 11, 2001, as a form of rebellion against the policies of the Blair government in Iraq, and at home.
“For me it is not just a piece of clothing, it’s an act of faith, it’s solidarity,” said a 24-year-old program scheduler at a broadcasting company in London, who would allow only her last name, al-Shaikh, to be printed, saying she wanted to protect her privacy. “9/11 was a wake-up call for young Muslims,” she said.
At times she receives rude comments, including, Ms. Shaikh said, from a woman at her workplace who told her she had no right to be there. Ms. Shaikh says she plans to file a complaint.
When she is on the street, she often answers back. “A few weeks ago, a lady said, ‘I think you look crazy.’ I said, ‘How dare you go around telling people how to dress,’ and walked off. Sometimes I feel I have to reply. Islam does teach you that you must defend your religion.”
She started experimenting with the niqab at Brunel University in West London, a campus of intense Islamic activism. She hesitated at first because her mother saw it as a “form of extremism, which is understandable,” she said, adding that her mother has since come around.
Other Muslims find the practice objectionable, a step backward for a group that is under pressure after the terrorist attack on London’s transit system in July 2005.
The underlying issue, for me, is the openness of Britain's democracy, and the effects of multiculturalism on British national identity. Britain's special in its attention to custom and tradition in the development of the political culture and institutions. Is British culture deteriorating? At what point does a nation have a responsibility to limit individual freedoms to protect the dominant culture -- indeed, the national security -- when newer, radically different groups present challenges to the national consensus?
Many suspect that Britain, like the European continental democracies, provides a hospitable, tolerant society for Islamic radicals to organize attacks against Western civilization. Robert Leiken wrote an article on "Europe's Angry Muslims" in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs. Christopher Hitchens recently wrote of "Londonistan Calling" in the June issue of Vanity Fair.
One of my visitors, Kris Stoke-Newington, who lives in London, directs me to Bel's Blog, the website of a conservative British law lecturer who often comments on Britain's multiculturalism. See also my recent blog post on American reporter Megan Stack's distasteful and humiliating experience wearing the full-body coverings while on assignment in Saudi Arabia.