Helen Martin: Face facts, veils are intimidating

Western culture requires facial recognition to function. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Western culture requires facial recognition to function. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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THE niqab is back on top of the agenda after a female fraudster, who reportedly usually wears a scarf, donned the veil to conceal her face going to and from court in Lancashire.

That followed on the decision of a Birmingham college to abandon plans to ban veils in the face of student protest.

This issue is never going to be ­resolved, in fact it’s probably never even going to be properly discussed because fears of being seen as ­racist tend to inhibit frank and candid ­argument.

British people shouldn’t feel ashamed to say they find the niqab suspicious and intimidating, while at the same time agreeing broadly with the idea that women should wear what they want.

No-one is suggesting that women from a modest Muslim culture should wear mini-skirts, strapless tops and bare their midriffs. Trousers, tunics, covered arms and scarves are all perfectly understandable, colourful, attractive and ­respectable.

But the niqab goes further than that. In the west, facial recognition and facial expression are intrinsic to our way of life. In our history and culture the only people who ­covered their faces were knights in armour, criminals, commandos or enemies of the state who hid their identity ­because they were intent on ­violence or theft and didn’t want to be ­recognised.

Our language and communication owes as much to facial expression as it does to words. The way we look when we say something can completely alter the meaning. That’s particularly important in very “human” situations such as a teacher-pupil relationship, or that between a ­doctor or nurse and patient. Facial expression can underline sincerity, or betray a liar. The voice may be sweet reason, but the set jaw and flattened brow denotes hostility.

We have been told repeatedly that the niqab has no religious significance and is a cultural adoption.

There are certainly women who argue it is their choice and hasn’t been imposed on them by men. And yet, it still always seems to relate to men looking at women, whether because a jealous husband is keeping his “property” private, or because a woman claims she feels more free and liberated (because she can’t be scrutinised by men). Are the men ­really that threatening, the women really so secretive, subjugated or ­fearful? And if there is some other valid reason for choosing to be veiled, why should it remain a “cultural” mystery to the rest of us?

Any intelligent Western woman knows that scanty clothing is ­disrespectful and insulting to other cultures and dresses appropriately when abroad. Shouldn’t that respect be returned?

In this country we have justification for wanting and needing to see faces, not least because currently a burka and niqab is a perfect cover for everything from shop-lifting to bombing. (Sharp intake of breath, I know – but it’s true.) My husband can’t walk into a post ­office with his scooter helmet on, my son can’t enter certain places with his hood up and though I haven’t tried it, I guess the bank might not be too happy if I went in wearing a balaclava or a paper bag with eye holes cut in it. We all have to be identifiable on CCTV. In the absence of any clear explanation of why it’s necessary, why should we make exceptions for the niqab?

Forget beauty for veggies.. just eat

HAVING an allotment, we eat everything we produce no matter how mis-shapen. Apparently 40 per cent of crops never make it to the supermarket because shoppers reject them as “ugly”. They get turned into animal feed. We now have food banks for the poor. Food prices are expected to rise by 20 per cent over the next five years. Supermarkets must stop filtering out weird-shaped veggies. It’s time to stop sniggering at genitalia-shaped carrots, and potatoes that look like bottoms.

Keep Inner city green

LOCAL authorities, including Edinburgh, are to develop a regional plan for increasing house-building which will inevitably eat into the city’s “green belt”. About time. It’s much less important to preserve the “belt” around a city than the pockets of green that are existing within it.

You’re not big enough Darling

ALISTAIR Darling has had a fine political career. He was vastly superior to Gordon Brown as Chancellor and as politicians go, he’s no lightweight. But today he appears to have delusions of grandeur.

He thinks that as chairman of the Better Together campaign it is somehow his role to debate the Union with Alex Salmond on the world stage. When was that agreed and with whom?

Eck isn’t just the leader of the SNP, he is the First Minister. Why on earth would he want to debate with Darling, who is, after all, a back-bench Westminster MP in opposition?