Wrong from Head to Toe
A ridiculous and ominous decision in Britain
March 28, 2005
by Theodore Dalrymple
In the long annals of judicial stupidity, there can rarely have been a more idiotic judgment than that recently given by Lord Justice Brooke of the British Court of Appeal. It reads like the suicide note not of a country alone, but of an entire civilization.
A young Muslim girl, Shabina Begum, who attended a state school in Luton, England, four-fifths of whose pupils were Muslim, started a legal battle when she was 13 to be allowed the jilbab, a form of dress that leaves only her face and hands exposed. She was almost certainly put up to this by her older brother, a supporter of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim party that seeks to establish a Muslim world state, that believes democracy is blasphemy, and that denies that the Western citizenship of Muslims is real or meaningful, or confers any privileges or imposes any duties.
The school in question had, in fact, worked out a dress code for Muslim girls that satisfied almost everyone. It was extremely accommodating: Various forms of modest dress were allowed, including certain types of scarf. But, after two years of accepting the dress code, Shabina Begum suddenly started to appear in her jilbab. The school demanded that she go home and change into a costume that accorded with the dress code, but she refused. Eventually she brought a case, supported and possibly funded by the Hizb ut-Tahrir, under the U.K.’s Human Rights Act. She claimed that the school was denying her right to an education.
She lost the case, and also an appeal, but won at the last hurdle. The Guardian reported that after her victory, she said she “could scream with happiness.”
When they heard of her victory, many Muslim women around the country must have wanted to scream with quite different emotions, despair and rage prominent among them. For Lord Justice Brooke’s ruling, that Shabina Begum’s human rights had been denied, and that she had been discriminated against illegally on religious grounds, displayed a complete and invincible ignorance of the social context of the case. Lord Justice Brooke saw no evil, heard no evil, and felt no evil. In effect, therefore, he was giving succor to those Muslim men who still abuse women in a medieval fashion.
Regardless of whether Shabina Begum acted in this case without duress and of her own free will, which seems to me highly unlikely given that the traditional place of Muslim women is not the public spotlight, the fact is that substantial numbers of young Muslim women are virtually enslaved in Britain; they grow up in what can only be called a totalitarian environment. I know this from what my patients have told me. They are not allowed out of the house except under escort, and sometimes not even then; they are allowed no mail or use of the telephone; they are not allowed to contradict a male member of the household, and are automatically subject to his wishes; it is regarded as quite legitimate to beat them if they disobey in the slightest. Their brothers are often quite willing to attack anyone who speaks to the women in any informal context. They are forced to wear modes of dress that they do not wish to wear. Their schooling is quite often deliberately interrupted, so that they are not infected by Western ideas of personal liberty; ambitious for a career, they are kept at home as prisoners and domestic slaves.
Worst of all are the forced marriages to which they are subjected. They are taken by their parents, often at a young age, “back” to Pakistan, where they are told that they are getting married, often to a first cousin. Their fathers regard their British passports with all the respect Hitler accorded to treaties. The young women have possession of their passports only fleetingly, as they pass through immigration. Thereafter, they are confiscated by the father and held as ransom against their good behavior, which in this, as in every other, instance means doing as they are told.
If by any chance they should object to their marriage, they are mercilessly beaten and in some cases killed. All the young women who are taken to Pakistan are aware of such cases: Like the shooting of Admiral Byng, such cases are committed pour encourager les autres. Very occasionally, the parents do not even transport the recalcitrant girls to Pakistan to kill them: They do it in England. Recently in the prison in which I work, I met a young man of Pakistani origin who was afraid of the other young men of Pakistani origin in the prison. Why? Because he had previously given important evidence in court in a case in which a girl who had refused to marry the husband selected for her by her parents was murdered by her father and brothers. The other young men of Pakistani origin thought the man who had testified was a traitor to their religion and culture; for in fact it is a religion and culture very convenient to the young men, whom it supplies with a domestic slave and mother of children while they can entertain themselves elsewhere. The whole evil system would break down if any of the young women were allowed their freedom, which is why the men must stick together. Like any form of totalitarianism, it is strong but brittle.
I have spoken to Muslims about this, and they tell me that what I am describing is customary or cultural practice, not a religious requirement. I am not scholar enough to know whether they are right, but it is certainly customary practice over a large area of the earth’s surface. And so long as this practice, be it religious or customary, is widespread, the word of no Muslim girl who claims to want to wear increasingly “modest” dress can be taken at her word, any more than a public figure in the USSR could have been taken as expressing his own personal opinion. If the judge was aware of this, he took no notice of it.
The Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the judge’s ruling as a victory for religious freedom (of precisely the kind that the Hizb ut-Tahrir is dedicated to destroying). Yet at other times, in order to deflect criticism that Muslim modes of dress are inherently degrading, insofar as they imply that all women are nothing but temptresses and men nothing but psychopaths at the mercy of their concupiscence, it would argue that extreme covering of the body is not religiously required - in other words, that the wearing of the jilbab (as against other forms of modest dress) is actually a matter of religious indifference. One is strongly reminded of Communist tactics: to denigrate and take advantage of freedom at the same time. And having seen that British society is so weak and unwilling to defend itself against an alien culture, the fanatics will next demand that girls at school be allowed on the grounds of religious freedom to cover themselves up even more.
The obvious point is this: No expressed desire by a child or young woman to wear traditional clothing such as the jilbab can be taken as arising from free choice - even if, in any given instance, it is the result of such a choice - because of the oppressive nature of the subculture. It is precisely this point that an Iranian woman, Chahdortt Djavann, an anthropologist now living in France, made in her short book about the meaning of the veil in Islam, Bas les voiles! She wrote not only from a theoretical or abstract point of view: She had lived the experience.
A singular feature of Shabina Begum’s case was the name of the advocate acting on her behalf: none other than Mrs. Tony Blair. She obviously thought the case a very important one, for she goes into court relatively rarely these days, having so many other things to do. Could the preservation, indeed encouragement, of the culture I have described matter so very much to Cherie Blair, then, and if so, why? Why would the prime minister’s wife act for a young woman known to be supported by Muslim fundamentalists?
Two days before the judgment was announced, a would-be shoe bomber pled guilty in England; he was described as “a quiet boy who took his religious beliefs very seriously.” And a junior minister in the government, Hazel Blears, said that Muslims might have been stopped and searched by police more often than other people because some terrorists were “falsely hiding behind Islam,” and that Muslims should understand this. These remarks were hardly calculated to endear the government to Muslim voters, and there is an election coming up. However tactfully Blears tried to express herself, to most Muslim ears it must have sounded as if the government were once again accusing them all of being terrorists, or at least of supporting terrorism. Unfortunately for the government, there are substantial numbers of Muslim voters, some in constituencies the government is not certain of winning.
How was the Blair government to reconcile two apparently opposite needs: the need to appear to be dealing with Muslim terrorism in a determined, vigorous, and efficient way, and the need to capture Muslim votes?
The answer was simple and elegant: get the prime minister’s wife to defend the Muslim male’s practice of abusing women, though of course in the guise acceptable to liberal voters of defending the human rights of the women themselves. The circle was squared. In other words, there has been a quid pro quo for all the extra police surveillance of Muslims that they are bound to find irksome and humiliating. Allow us to suspect and search you, says the government, and we in turn will allow you to abuse your women to your hearts’ content, free of our interference. The price of our reelection is forced marriages.
Dr. Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass and of the forthcoming Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (Ivan R. Dee).
©2005 National Review