When is oppression not oppression? Well, when the rights of a society as a whole outweigh individual rights apparently. Or at least that’s what Professor Mona Siddiqui seemed to be arguing when she gave a lecture on race, religion and the secular space in Edinburgh the other night.

I’m paraphrasing of course, and I’m well aware that her views are much more complex and based on a few decades of research. But I was struck by a narrative that ran throughout Siddiqui’s talk that implied that the battle between some human rights and some religious beliefs is less important than the battle between individual rights and the rights of a society or the common good.

Siddiqui is professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh and was giving her talk as part of the University’s Our Changing World lecture series. Focusing on the relationship between Islam and Christianity in the context of what she described as an increasingly secular West, her hour long lecture spanned the controversial cases of the flight attendant unable to wear her crucifix to work, the B&B owners who refused a same sex couple on religious grounds and the banning of the veil in France amongst many other things.

I was with my mum, whose presence always inspires an extra spark of feminism in me, so I was particularly interested in the parts of the talk that dealt with issues around women and religion in the West.

Siddiqui argued, as she did in her recent Desert Island discs interview, that the prominence of the hijab and niqab amongst Muslim women is a fairly recent phenomenon. It has changed in its significance, she said, from a symbol of exotic mystery (think veiled belly dancers as portrayed in films just a few decades ago) to a symbol of oppression and conservativism that many in the West find threatening, backwards or offensive.

She referred to the furore caused by Jack Straw’s outburst a few years back when he was Leader of the House of Commons. He pointed to the veil worn by a couple of his constituents as forming a barrier to communication – something Mona Siddiqui seemed to agree with in her talk.

Her talk made me think back to some of the often very heated debates I’ve heard in the world of feminist student politics. I remember feeling very odd, sat in one such debate on the niqab, in a room full of women who looked a lot like me – young and white – none of whom were Muslim. One side of the room claimed that the veil was a symbol of oppression, of a backwards step for women’s rights that stemmed from a male fear that they couldn’t control their sexual urges unless women covered up. The other was convinced that one of the things that our mothers and grandmothers had fought so hard for was the right to freedom of expression – that we ought to be able to wear whatever we want, and if that happens to involve covering ourselves then so be it.

In that debate one of the speakers from the first group argued that the second were simply advocating their “right to be oppressed”.

After Professor Siddiqui’s lecture, I asked her what she thought of that debate and where she saw public sentiment heading on the issue of the veil. Her response was that the “right to be oppressed” was an oxymoron – that it was a ridiculous statement that didn’t mean anything. The more important debate, she said, was not between the positions taken by the student feminists of freedom from oppression versus freedom of expression, but between the rights of the individual and the collective rights of the state.

She suggested that Muslim women living in Britain had chosen to live in this country, in this society and therefore were bound by its normative values. So if the majority view of the society was that the veil was a symbol of oppression that women must be freed from, then that’s the view that each member of the society should take.

This idea echoed another that Siddiqui had put forward in her talk – that citizenship is not simply about holding a passport or voting in election. Rather it is about a sense of belonging to a society to the extent that you are willing to make sacrifices for the good of that society.
She also touched on the idea of multiculturalism, so scorned by David Cameron and Angela Merkel, suggesting that the ‘culture’ in multiculturalism was not about food or dress but about ways of thinking, entrenched in the minds of groups of people from different ethnic, national or religious backgrounds.

Without directly referring to David Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” (a phrase which, for me, always conjures disturbing images of a half-naked muscular Cameron) , it seems that this was exactly what Siddiqui was calling for. The idea that cultural norms – ways of thinking and beliefs that differ from community to community – ought to be sacrificed for a common normative narrative throughout the nation state.

On the notion of sacrificing individual beliefs (if not rights and freedoms) Siddiqui talked about the case of the B&B owners refusing a gay couple a shared room on the grounds of religious belief. She suggested that if a court were to find in favour of the B&B owners on the grounds of their right to exercise their religious beliefs, instead of favouring the principle of equal rights and freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, that this could set a dangerous precedent. Siddiqui was worried about where such a preference for the rights of the individual could lead in the context of an increasingly individualistic society.

But I find her position very difficult. The idea that the norms of the majority a society on a particular issue at a given point in time is the one which should be adopted by all members of that society suggests a whole other kind of oppression to me. And in a context of Islamophobia (or simply good old fashioned fear of “the other”), mixed with yet another tedious backlash against human rights, suspicion of moves for gender equality and a crackdown on civil liberties, it seems incredibly counterproductive to assert that conformity to one kind of oppression is superior to conformity to another.

At one point in her lecture, Professor Siddiqui referenced Francis Fukuyama’s end of history which argues that liberal democracies are the pinnacle of socio-cultural evolution. She was asked whether religion could ever see a resurgence to the extent that it superseded liberal democracy. She certainly didn’t think so, and spent some time advocating a view that the nation state was somehow superior to individual freedoms.

All of this left me wondering whether her positive view of “the West” and its liberal democracies was actually the manifestation of this idea of the “right to be oppressed”. Perhaps in the process of throwing off the shackles of religious oppression, Siddiqui has simply chosen to exercise a right to be oppressed by Western social norms instead.

Personally, I don’t think the debate about the veil is as simple as freedom from oppression versus freedom of expression. But equally, the answer to these difficult questions is not simply to replace one form of oppression with another, but to challenge the principles and assumptions behind all sides of the debate. Where I certainly do agree with Professor Siddiqui is that much of the debate about individual and collective rights is yet to be had. Perhaps we ought to get started.