Leicester Secular Society

THE OLDEST SECULAR SOCIETY IN THE WORLD - FOUNDED 1851

Islamic Dress

The issue of Islamic dress, while seemingly trivial in some ways, cuts across a number of other issues in a complicated way. The treatment of Women, the organisation of Education, the tolerance of Cultural differences, and so on. This is sufficient justification for a separate page on this rather specialised issue. The items gathered here are arranged in reverse chronological order — with the more recent at the top of the page.

Letters in the Leicester Mercury, 2007

STRIKE A BLOW FOR LIBERATION (24 January 2007) / Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi writer who lives in exile in Calcutta, India, calls for Muslim women to burn the burka and to do away with all other forms of purdah. Perhaps the Muslim women of Leicester could take a lead in bringing about this modernising and liberating reform. The article was published in Outlook India (issue dated January 22). / When I first moved to Leicester seven years ago, the sight of women covered head to foot in black, even covering their faces, seemed shocking and incomprehensible. I have now become accustomed to it, seeing it every day, but still see it as a way of effacing these people from view, as if they are of no account. It is not even as if it was an aesthetic custom. Why does it always have to be the most depressing black? / George Jelliss, Leicester.

Letters in the Leicester Mercury, 2006

TOLERANCE IS SURELY RECIPROCAL (23 October 2006) I was surprised by your comments (Mercury Opinion, October 17) that "Jack Straw has created a storm" and that "nobody seemed particularly worried before he spoke out". / Many people have been uncomfortable for a long time now when travelling to and through certain parts of Leicester, and in the city centre shopping areas, to be in the midst of large numbers of faceless and shapeless people. Indeed, I am aware of some people who avoid these areas for this very reason. / Before Jack Straw spoke out, others were afraid to comment for fear of being branded as racist. Now they feel able to. / This is not a racial issue, but one of social custom. If people decide to go to another country to live their lives, as my forbears did a century ago, it must surely be incumbent on them to adopt the social habits of the people they have chosen to live with, rather than try to colonise their new home. If they are not comfortable with this, they are not compelled to stay. / The vast majority of British people are very tolerant and generally indifferent to other people's religious beliefs when practised in private. This tolerance deserves reciprocal acceptance of certain aspects of British life, such as speaking the common language and adopting the general practice of being seen by others as you really are. / Failure to do this creates suspicion and leads to a divided society. / Jeffrey Rosenthal, Bushby.

VEIL BAN IS BAD MEDICINE (23 October 2006) Members of the medical profession are the latest to condone intolerance towards Muslim dress. / Birmingham medical school has banned a full-face veil in clinical environments "to aid communication with patients and other colleagues". / This statement closely follows that made by Jack Straw, who accuses the veil of hindering communication and making community relations "difficult". / Aideen Soke, policy officer for the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, accused veiled medical students of breaching the GMC standards of duties of a doctor: "Covering the face while meeting a patient is unacceptable as it breaches the duty 'to make the patient your first concern' and to 'make sure your personal beliefs do not prejudice your patient's care'." / Although the GMC has published no guidance to address the debate surrounding veils in hospital, it has issued this rather non-committal statement: "Good communication between patients and doctors is essential to effective care and relationships of trust, and patients may find that the veil presents an obstacle to effective communication." / It is true that, in the absence of a veil, much is communicated through facial expression, but increased dialogue with the veiled population of Muslim women could teach us to read alternative forms of expression. / Anyone who cares to engage with a veiled woman will realise the value of her eyes. And for those who conceal their eyes behind gauze, expression in the voice is key to communication. / Forcing Muslim women to remove the veil will not promote effective doctor-patient relationships. / To build trusting relationships, the comfort of both the patient and the doctor must be considered. / Banning the veil in hospitals may constitute unlawful discrimination against workers. / As respected members of society, medical professionals must promote increased communication with the Muslim community. / The veil is being artificially constructed as a barrier. / Miriam Leafe, medical student, University of Leicester.

RULES UNVEILED (24 October 2006) I was amazed the other day to see a woman driving her car in a black veil. / Regardless of all the other reasons Muslim women should not wear veils, surely this instance would be breaking the law? / The risk of driving a car dangerously with a black hood over your head must be higher than driving, as most of us do, without a veil. / Also, if that woman had been photographed by a speed camera, what is the betting she would have wriggled out of paying her fine by saying it wasn't her driving? / Jack Bingham, Leicester.

There was considerably more correspondence, but these are the only ones we happen to have recorded.

The Paradox of the Left

by Lyn Hurst (LSS President)

The following was the President's presentation at the 'Half-AGM' debate, 24 April 2005.

Support equality and emancipation — or do nothing, even facilitate the oppression (quote from Hirsi Ali)

This is a pamphlet explaining why the Leicester Secular Society is right to support the motion endorsing the French ban on religious symbols in state schools, specifically head scarves. Although we support the view that everyone must be free to wear whatever they want, this is a support in defence of the freedom of the individual, not a support for a dress code devised by men to control women, clearly it is not the aim of Islam to promote the freedom of the individual, or their choice of clothes.

None of the Left should be in a paradox about this (but clearly is), because what we are talking about is the conflict between universal human rights and the theological rigidities of a traditional religion. Rigidities symbolised by the headscarf at the least, and the veil and burka at worst. In the words of Hirsi Ali, a woman born in Somalia, and brought up as a Muslim, now a Dutch MP, film maker, writer, and freethinker: — “Hopes for a moderate Islam are only meaningful if it is possible to chip away the theological brickwork constructed on a foundation of female oppression which permeates the structure of the religion”. — This is exactly what we are doing with our support for the motion, helping to chip away the chains, and in doing so supporting not only intellectuals like Hirsi Ali, but all Muslim women, not attacking them.

Religious dress codes are designed to suppress any degree of sexuality, why? Because Muslim women are considered the property of their male relatives. Hirsi Ali again: — “When it comes to the relationship between men and women, there is a red line of the woman being subordinate to the male. And most Muslim men justify this subordinance with the Koran”. — How does the ban, and motion, support women — because it creates a question mark over the validity, and legitimacy of religious views in general, and the attitudes and treatment of women in particular, while to ignore the symbolism of the dress codes, and subordinate status of women, would mean maintaining the status quo, in all its worst aspects.

The most instant and direct improvement is for the many girls in France who never wanted to dress in a proscribed way, and are now “free to wear what ever they want”, without a confrontation with their parents. And at the same time showing solidarity with women like Bangladesh author Tasleema Nasreen, who's six books brought her death threats, for their feminist position, forcing her to flee the country. Surely it is right that we should be supporting politically aware free-thinkers like Tasleema and Hirsi in their struggle to control their own bodies, write and wear what they choose, and who's intellectual picket line is crossed, in the words of Hirsi Ali, — by “those women who flaunt their subservience, and clearly are not furthering women's liberation”.

Not all the calls for change in Islam are as radical as Hirsi and Tasleema, Muslim women in America Asra Normant and Amina Wadud have made the news by asking for only modest change, i.e. that women be allowed to lead prayers in the mosque, and that the Koran be interpreted in a more sympathetic way towards women, and yet they still receive the same death threats, hate mail & verbal abuse as Tasleema and Hirsi, so both radical and liberal demands receive the same violent response, clearly it calls for courage from all these women to stand up and make any demands for women's rights.

Philosopher Elizabeth Badinter reminds the French public on TV, as a part of this debate, that every attempt by women to “take charge of their bodies” has been made in the face of religious opinion and the veil is no different. Clearly there is a choice to make, the ban and motion cannot support those women who revel in their subjugation, and those who oppose their sexual apartheid, we are right to support the latter.

Another argument against the French ban, is that we shouldn't support the intervention of state power in peoples' lives. But this section of the secular constitution was the result of a long struggle to force the state to keep religion out of schools, primarily Catholicism, which presumably didn't concede without a struggle, just like its Islamist counter part now. The separation of education and religion finally being achieved in 1905, now Islam wants immunity from this hard-won secular principle, so that the children of Muslims, primarily girls, cannot only wear religious symbols, but also be exempt from studying biology/sex education, Voltaire, or participating in PE. It may be difficult to accept the role of the state, unless it is the state acting under duress from popular demand. Many of our members have spent years in single-issue campaigns, from CND to Stop the War, fighting to get the state to respond to their demands. If Blair had pulled out of the Iraq war, or scrapped the Bomb, we wouldn't have turned him down because we oppose the power of the state. The French ban has been implemented in just this way. This is not the state intruding into private life by outlawing the veil everywhere but in the home, so much as an attempt to end the intrusion of dogmas held by individuals, and groups into public places.

It is important to remember Secularism has been a basic tenet of France's progressive thought since the 18th Century. French thinkers such as Diderot and Voltaire, regarded religion as divisive, benighted and intolerant. Many people want the Republic to uphold its Secular principles as firmly as it did against divine right monarchists in the past. The view is, if you let religion back in through the school gates from where it was so gloriously expelled in 1905, you undermine your duty to provide a serious education free of cant and superstition. The numbers in the polls as reported on the BBC news web site, Tues 10th Feb 2004, 70% of French people and 40% of Muslim women support the ban. And Muslim spokesman Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith welcomed the law, arguing that it would successfully defend France's institutions from the intrusion of Muslim fundamentalism. It matters that Muslim women agree with the ban. The list of signatories to an Elle petition urging the President to introduce the ban included a disproportionately high number of women of Muslim origin or culture, two or three times higher than the 7% of Muslims thought to obtain in the French population as a whole. The importance of Muslim women supporting the ban is two fold, it demonstrates the justice of the ban, and helps to destroy the argument that the ban, and those who support it are racist, a claim also undermined by the fact that Le Penn and his National Front fascists opposed the ban, while French socialist Regis Debray supported it.

Marianne [the symbol of the French state] can in principle be of any ethnic origin, provided she speaks her mind, and comes to the barricades in solidarity, and not supplication. It may be Utopian to embark on the path of trying to create the perfect secular citizen, but even this difficult odyssey is preferable to the sullen burbling of the great monotheisms.


At the Society's Half-Annual General Meeting (4 April 2004) a motion in support of the French ban was debated. The decision at the meeting was to support thr French ban, but to oppose the adoption of a similar policy in this country, recognising that the policy adopted in France is in line with their long-established Secular Constitution.

Ideological Society Meeting

11 February 2004

Two members of Leicester Secular Society, Allan Hayes and George Jelliss, attended a meeting held by the recently formed Leicester University Ideological Society (a Muslim student organisation) as advertised here:

The speaker, Akhmal Asghar, expressed extreme fundamentalist views, and a total lack of understanding of secularism (identifying it with ‘Western imperialism’). The Muslim women attending the meeting, some wearing the burqa, most others the hijab, segregated themselves from the men by occupying the seats higher up and further back, though there was no open stewarding of this by the men. Our purpose in attending was to get to understand the Muslim points of view and to maintain some dialogue rather than suspicious separation leading to misunderstanding. Both of us were able to speak briefly in the discussion following the speech. As I recall the exchanges, Allan questioned the literal interpretation of the Koran, and I spoke more against the wearing of the Burqa by adult women, which I see as indicative of female repression, rather than about the Hijab in schools, pointing out that the men at the meeting were not themselves wearing traditional Muslim robes.

LSS Lecture: Headscarves and French State Education

1 February 2004

The Leicester Secular Society lecture for Sunday 1st February 2004 was: Headscarves and French State Education by Yvette Rocheron. Yvette, Director of French Studies at Leicester University, who had been observing the controversy in French schools surrounding the wearing of religious insignia gave us an informed view of the subject based on her own personal experiences of the French educational system.

Various News Stories and Comment


Islam and wife-beating
Islamic headgear is not essential by Amir Taheri
Types of Veil - hijab etc
Fadela Amara - Islam and Women in France
Holding it Together - peaceful coexistence in Leicester
PDF of Poll - of 1000 british muslims, reported by Ch 4ís 'Dispatches'.
Law Lords Back School over Islamic Dress "When a school has already bent over backwards as far as this one had, and still finds itself facing demands in the name of Islam, (not missing the irony of the headmistress actually being a Muslim herself!) it's good to see the state endorsing the school."

Religion