Saturday, June 27, 2009

The niqab and the police - a post on 'hiding one's identity'.

I prefer not to delve into this subject too much; I am not Muslim, I have never had any religious convictions of any sort and so I cannot speak much about the compulsion to express one's faith in a very visible way. In terms of gut feeling, I see no problem with the head scarf, jilbab, chador or any other form of modest dress provided that choice to don such garments is a truly free one - there's no reason to force women to either cover up entirely or to wear garments which flash a lot of skin, and it should be left to the individual to decide where on that scale they wish to fall on a day-to-day basis. In terms of covering the face too, that's a complicated one which brings in lots of questions about human nature, the teachings of the Qur'an, the occupations of women, freedom and the nature of free will and choice, amongst other things. I'm not going too far into that here. I just have a single response to a particular point.

I'm currently listening to a debate on Radio 4 about the practice, specifically, of covering the face with the full niqab or burqa. A few people were bringing up the issue of identification and security - what if these 'masked' women go into a bank, or through an airport? Shouldn't they be required to show their faces? The woman responding these questions, a religious scholar and law student who I think wears the niqab, pointed out that in these situations she would go to one side and show her face to a female member of staff, allowing her to be identified without having to reveal herself to any male members of the public or staff in the process. Then more callers went further - what about on the street? They feel 'really uncomfortable' when they see a woman with a covered face. One said they didn't know if such a woman would smile back, so to 'avoid the snub, he wouldn't smile at her, thus he was being forced to be unfriendly'. ('Give us a smile, love', anyone?) Others said they felt there was a 'wall' being put up, that such women were openly refusing to be a part of our society.
There seems to be this huge preoccupation with always seeing a woman's face. In a society where women are constantly Judged on appearances, where our smiling faces are used to sell everything, where a woman is a 'bitch' for not altering her outward show of emotions to make others more comfortable even when she's just trying to walk down the street in peace, we have become obsessed with the fact that some women - for whatever reason - are not conforming to this. We attack them, we call them backwards, we attack their religious views, their husbands, their entire culture. Women must be identified at all times, even though there are no laws against being anonymous, save for in particular situations. We are outraged that a particular group of people are refusing the be identified by anyone who passes them by. Yet, whilst we rain down upon them with insults and vitriol, there is another group of people, very well respected in our society, who are occasionally also hiding their identities - and breaking the law whilst doing so. Not nearly as much fuss is being made about these people, and when someone does speak up they are often called a liar, or told they're exaggerating, or accused of stirring up trouble. Who are these people who are getting away with this blatant anonymity? The police.

Before I go on, here is the obligatory disclaimer - I feel the police are a good thing in many situations. The majority of them are conscientious, upstanding members of society who want nothing more than to ensure that everyone is safe. Yet there are some members who, at some point, have done something serious to undermine the public trust in the law forces and to make our society a less free one by preventing people from exercising their rights, particularly at protests such as the recent G20 rallies, and these people, who were breaking the law and every bit as dangerous to the public as those who ransacked the bank branch, need to be called out and disciplined.
They are the law keepers, the peace keepers, role models to thousands, and regulated by a set of laws themselves. One of these laws states that an officer, when uniformed and carrying out their job, must be identifiable. Their faces must be visible, sure, but there are other things too - it's easy to forget one face amongst many, and in situations where people might want an officer to identify themselves there are often whole groups of police present. Whilst in uniform they must display a number which identifies them, which can be seen on the epaulette*. Just ask Met commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson. If asked by any member of the public, they must give this number - they can keep their name to themselves, but the number must be given. This means that, should an officer break the law, this number can be passed on to the relevant authorities and the relevant action can be taken - the police are thus kept in check by the public, without putting their personal lives at risk by showing a name that could be looked up in a phone book. For the most part, this rule is followed to the letter. Yet already there are stories all over the place of officers who refuse to display this number. Not usually from sightings of them as they're on the beat, but often at protests, where tensions run high. You know, where people might actually want to know those numbers. Because things like this are likely to happen.

Picture from here. This officer has been suspended for beating a protester. Where's the number?

"Numbers on riot police are like spots on zebras", to quote one seasoned protester. Either it's not worn at all, or (according to several accounts) a piece of tape is stuck over it, masking it whilst the commanding officers aren't looking. When asked for their numbers by the public, they refuse to disclose this information. Now, when the same members of the public attempt to photograph these officers in an attempt to get some record of identity to pass onto the authorities, they could be arrested. In fact, here is video footage of this happening. A woman requests a number, it is refused, she asks her fellow protesters to take pictures and at that point they are dragged away, forced to the ground and arrested. Interestingly, an officer makes sure that the protester's face was visible to the police camera by grabbing her around the throat and forcing her head up, but the officers had all their own faces blurred and continue to hide their own identities. There is no law that makes the photographing of a member of the police illegal, for the record**. In this case, it was the officers who were ignoring the rules, for the protesters were doing nothing wrong. This is far from an isolated incident, and I've been told by a lot of people that these women were lucky to have avoided being beaten in the process. When it comes to events like this, I wouldn't just feel 'uncomfortable' at seeing an officer without a number - I'd feel threatened. A face is useful but, in a situation like this, often not enough and, furthermore, if it's effectively being hidden by threats of arrest, the police might as well be wearing masks. Yet already, people are speaking out to defend these actions, forgetting all the footage and tragedies from the recent rallies in London.

I ask this: why do we feel so strongly about a few women, a tiny minority of our population, hiding their identities but still respecting the laws around identification, when there are people who have been given power over us, WHO ARE REQUIRED TO BE IDENTIFIABLE IN ORDER TO BE PROPERLY REGULATED, who are just... getting away with it? If all members of society must be accountable, then more action needs to be taken to ensure the example is being set by those who enforce the law. And if you don't think this, then please - stop picking on Muslimahs. You don't need to know who they are at all times. They aren't breaking the law. They're just trying to walk down the street.

*From a Home Office spokesperson: "...the public has a right to be able to identify any uniformed officers while performing their duties."

**"The taking of photographs in a public place is not subject to any rule or Statute and there are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place. Police Officers do, however, have a discretion to ask people not to take photographs for public safety or security reasons. The offence is not intended to capture an innocent tourist taking a photograph of a Police Officer, or a journalist photographing Police Officers as part of his or her job. It does not criminalise the normal taking of photographs of the Police. There are no legal restrictions on taking a photograph in a public place except where the picture is taken with the intent of committing a crime or terrorist act."
- Response from Nigel Battersby, GMPA Legal Adviser at Police Authority Meeting, 1/5/09
Many police officers, despite this law, continue to claim that it is illegal to photograph them under any circumstances and make it difficult for people to do so when they are trying to gather evidence of misconduct. The 'intent to commit a crime or terrorist act' is a rather vague detail that can be expanded to cover pretty much anyone.

1 comment:

  1. This is an awesome post, and one of the most logical ones I've read on this subject. I do think covering the face (especially the eyes) is a barrier between oneself and society, hindering relationships with strangers (for example, other parents at nursery) which isn't so great... but it's their choice. Goths go around wearing ridiculous contacts and spikes to appear less warm and fuzzy, and I don't have a problem with that.

    The only item of clothing that should be outlawed is leggings instead of trousers... dear god why???