niqab.jpgSince Jack Straw made his now infamous comments about the niqab being a barrier to blah-de-blah…the image of the niqab clad woman has become de rigeur in any newspaper article wanting to present Muslims or Islam as a ‘problem’.

However, amongst all of this, one particular niqabi has begun to acquire something of a cult status: offering something quite different to that which Jack Straw suggested. As the increasingly widespread ‘face’ of British Islam, what do we know about the niqabi behind the V-sign?

Well her first appearance was in the Daily Mail in January 2007 when she appeared alongside a report about the dawn terror raids in Birmingham to arrest those plotting to behead a serving British Muslim serviceman. Whilst it is near impossible to verify the fact, it said that the image was from the ‘streets of Birmingham’ and so must assume that she is a Brummie.

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Shortly afterwards, the journalist and writer Melanie Phillips used her image on the cover of her reprinted edition of her controversial book, ‘Londonistan: how Britain is creating a terror state within’.

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Since then, the same image has been used in The Sun newspaper on the 8th February 2008 alongside a story about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments around the ‘inevitability’ of Sharia law in Britain. What this image had to do with the debate in question is far from obvious but with a headline, ‘What a Burkha’, it would seem that the niqabi woman was used solely to reinforce the fact that the article was about ‘Muslims’ and ‘Islam’ (despite the fact that ‘Muslims’ really were quite incidental to what the Archbishop had said).

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In returning to her roots, the most recent appearance of the ‘face’ of British Islam has been in the literature produced by the British National Party (BNP) to oppose the building of a mosque in Solihull. As with her appearance in the Sun however, there seems to be little relevance to what she is doing and what the campaign material is suggesting.

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What is really interesting about the image is that its apparent defiance and subversiveness – in contrast to the typical submissiveness and oppressiveness identified within images of the niqab – is repeatedly used to capture how Muslims are perceived to feel towards the laws and values of British society. Indeed, to Britain in general. Its message therefore seems to be clear but at the same time not. Its message is mixed.

The niqab obviously does not fit with what is perceived to be ‘our’ culture, ‘our’ way of life, ‘our’ values and so on, and because of this – as the fallout from Jack Straw comments suggested – the niqab (and possibly even Islam) could not be understood as being a part of ‘our’ shared identity or culture. So whilst the niqab in the image becomes symbolically established as all that is not ‘normal’, other aspects of the image suggest quite the opposite.

A populist and extremely ‘New Labour’ way of identifying what constitutes ‘our’ culture is to visit a website established by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Entitled, ‘Culture Online’, the site houses a sub-site dedicated to the ‘Icons’ project. This project sets out to capture what it is that we perceive to be the ‘icons’ of our culture. Setting out a clear criteria for inclusion, all icons have to be:

Symbolic – they represent something in our culture, history or way of life

Recognisable in a crowd – if no-one has heard of it or knows what it looks like, it cannot be an icon

Fascinating and surprising – they have hidden depths and unexpected associations

Without any doubt, it would seem that the image of the niqabi ticks all of these boxes.

Even more ironic about the website however is the fact that alongside such famous ‘cultural icons’ as the good old cup of tea, Stonehenge, the pub, the FA Cup, the black taxi, and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sits the same ‘V-sign’ that the niqabi is flashing.

As the site puts it:

In Britain, the V-sign – when done with the palm backwards – is a rude insult, meaning “Get Stuffed!”. Although it is now losing ground to the American single finger, it is still seen from time to time. Recent two-finger saluters include deputy PM John Prescott, Liam Gallagher of Oasis and England striker, Wayne Rooney.

Surely the Icons project should now add the Brummie niqabi?

Interestingly, the first photographic evidence of the V-sign dates from 1901, when workers outside the Parkgate ironworks in Rotherham were being filmed and a particularly defiant and unhappy young man aggressively made the gesture to the camera. Twelve years later and a photograph of a 1913 football crowd also shows a man making the sign. Again, the protagonist is using the gesture as an act of defiance.

Even when Winston Churchill began making his victory V-sign, his too was one of defiance.

And this of course is where the greatest irony of the image becomes apparent. Whilst it is clearly being used in such ways that it embodies the notion that Islam and Muslims are separate, ‘Other’ and everything but normal, it also highlights the very fact that the niqabi is doing something that is entirely in keeping with ‘our’ cultural ‘norms’ but so too is it being performed as part of a long standing tradition: defiant in exactly the same way that numerous others have been in a British cultural context beforehand. As such, she becomes both normal and abnormal, ‘us’ and ‘them’, passive and aggressive, compliant and defiant. Yet at no time do any of those using the image – the Daily Mail, The Sun, Melanie Phillips or the BNP – realise this.

The ‘Icons’ website states that the contemporary use of the V-sign is almost entirely ‘ironic’. What better irony then the ‘face’ of British Islam?

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