The Blog That Peter Wrote: Burka Bans

September 18, 2013 12:51 pm 13 comments Views: 6612

Should women be prohibited from wearing burkas (the full outer body garment), the niqab (face veil), or both whilst out in public?  It seems that around 2/3 of the British population thinks they should be banned – which presumably means they support the state issuing a fine, criminal record and even possibly imprisonment for any women doing so.  Likewise, reading a recent BBC article on the subject I was struck by the fact that all the top comments (there were dozens) supported a ban.

This is an interesting debate because it doesn’t necessarily run down party lines.  I’ve seen people of all political persuasion on either side of the fence, and a lot of thinking, liberal-minded people who instinctively think it has something to be said for it, even if they can’t bring themselves to support an outright ban.  Feminists likewise fall into either camp.  I think there’s a lot of slightly muddled or incomplete thinking, and I hope this piece might help distill some of the issues if you’re unsure where you stand.

Who would it affect?

Let’s first be clear that the number of full burka wearers in this country is tiny.  Belgium, which banned them in 2010apparently has 30 inhabitants who used to wear them regularly out of its Muslim population of 500,000.   France, which also has a ban since 2011, has estimated the number of wearers variously to be between 367 and 2000 out of 4,700,000.  The British Muslim population is half that, so it’s a reasonable assumption we are talking about a maximum of several hundred women in our country (if we exclude temporary visitors, for example, tourists from Saudi Arabia).

That’s several hundred people in a country of 60 million.  In other words it is perhaps 0.001% of the total British population.  This is therefore a very high profile debate about something that would affect a very few people directly.  That’s important to bear in mind later.  For this ban to be on the agenda at all would imply that there is a key public interest and a serious wrong to be corrected here.

Arguments Against the Burka

From what I can see the arguments against the Burka tend to fall into the following categories:

  • It represents the Islamification of our country. This is a foreign influence and must be stopped
  • It represents the subjugation of women by men
  • It is not a free choice by women to dress like this, but often happens because of compulsion
  • It prevents integration
  • It is a medieval form of dress
  • It is permissible in some situations, but it must be prohibited in others (e.g. in schools and courts, for practical reasons)
  • I can’t explain why, but I just don’t like them

Some of these are easily dealt with, with a bit of thought.

Medieval Dress

Yes, the Burka is medieval.  So is a monk’s habit.  A judge’s wig and gown are centuries old.  Ties, as worn in work places across the country, are a foreign fashion (Croatian) dating back to the 1500s.  Ultra-orthodox Jews wear 17th century Polish dress.  I’ve yet to read any serious arguments suggesting the State should outlaw any of these garments.

I also do not see that there is any public interest in banning anything per se because it is old or old-fashioned.  In fact, my cottage is medieval.  It is listed, as are all buildings built before 1700 in England/Wales.  The law in this case dictates that there is a public interest in keeping it precisely because it is old. It would be a criminal offence to knock it down.

The fact that burkas are medieval is not an argument to warrant a ban, and I hope it can be dismissed quite easily.

Islamification of Britain

This is a core philosophical point, which if you believe, little I can say will persuade you otherwise.  It is a xenophobic, intolerant position which denies the fact that this country has been made up of waves of immigration for thousands of years.  It requires an artificially homogenous Anglo-Saxon society which has never existed and will not exist.

It is a tradition shared by those who hated the arrival of French Hugenots in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th century, and the Irish Catholics in the 19th century.  It’s the philosophy of The Mail, which spoke at the turn of the 20th century of the wave of dirty, strangely dressed Jews with their foreign ways and incomprehensible Yiddish tongue, and in the 1930s of the outrage of stateless German Jews “pouring in from every port of this country”.

The Good Old Daily Mail, 1938

It’s a viewpoint that will lead its holder to dislike and unhappiness every time s/he sees a mosque, or anyone who is identifiably Muslim out on the street.  It is a philosophy that I genuinely pity.  No one can be a kind, happy person who shares it.

All this said, there are plenty of people who do believe it.  The Mail sells well in Britain, as does the Telegraph with Allison Pearson’s references here to opening a British door and out flapping a “flock of crows” when talking about Muslim girls.  If you need a reminder, they’re people like you are, Allison, not animals.

On a practical level, even if you do wish for this racially and religiously pure British utopia, it’s hard to see how banning several hundred women from dressing as they wish will somehow hold back the alleged tide of the Islamification of the country.  The only way to do that would be to ban the practice of the religion of 1 in 5 people around the world, or to engage in population “purification” involving the mass expulsion (or worse) of several million people.

Banning the burka is just going for a soft, symbolic target because these extreme measures are not possible.  It is a milder gesture, but it is at its core a spiteful, hateful move, if the motivation is to make the country look “less Muslim”.  Again I would hope that it can be dismissed as a valid justification that people will generally go along with, when it’s thought through.

Protecting Women

This is the one that can cause problems for those who would abhor the xenophobic motivation of the last category.  It’s one that I shared for a while, and felt genuinely torn.   Let’s go through it in steps.

This argument says that the burka is a way of dressing determined by men that dehumanises its female wearers.  It is hugely paternalistic because it assumes that the woman has to be protected from sexual advances and may only be shown to “her” menfolk behind closed doors.  It prevents the woman from integrating and leading a full life.

There’s one huge problem here, if this is your standpoint from a feminist perspective.  You are at risk of seeing the wearers as weak, voiceless creatures, not as women with their own brains who are capable of making their own mind up on this and expressing it.  There are actual people behind these veils, who are capable of critical thought.  It’s a little bizarre that people forget that and it’s desperately dehumanising to suggest otherwise.

Has anyone stopped to ask the wearers what they think?  Actually quite a lot of journalists have, and I’ve seen and read several interviews with very eloquent, intelligent veil wearers who express themselves clearly on their varied reasons for dressing this way.  Many wearers talk about feeling liberated because they are no longer looked at sexually and as commodities.

This short interview, with a French woman, Kenza, is well worth a read if you have the time.  She stresses that this is her personal choice, it is not something she would force on her daughters, and it is a matter of political principle and individual liberty for her that she should be able to dress how she wishes.

Here’s another viewpoint:

Are you surprised these women who choose to wear a full veil can actually speak clearly and lucidly? If so, stop and ask yourself why.  Fatima and Kenza are people, not crows, in case we need reminding.
Amoola is even more powerful and her view presents a real problem for the anti-burka feminist argument.  It’s difficult to see how feminists can insist that women be protected from the institution of the burka, without trampling on the rights of the autonomous women involved to make up their own mind.   They are saying they know better what is good for the woman than she does.  It’s pure oppression, which ordinarily would rightly be decried.  She is not a “delicate little creature” as she points out.
She has also hit the nail on the head on another point.  The debate is being conducted without involving the women who actually wear them.  I can this stop this blog post here with that line.  The only people who get to decide about burkas are the ones who chose to wear them or not.
Undue Influence
Ahh, you might say: but is this really a free choice? We are all shaped by our upbringing (including religious upbringing), our experiences and our education.  To that extent we can philosophise that no one truly has free will.  I wear the clothes I do because of all sorts of influences from society and pressures to look good, conform, be fashionable, be taken seriously, or whatever.  To that extent we are all slaves to the particular part of the world we inhabit.
When you’ve read what the above women have to say it’s hard to see how they could be accused of not having a very similar level of free choice to that you or I have.  They are clearly determined individuals capable of making their own decisions.  If this is stopping their integration, that’s their choice.  Not everyone has to become a clone of everyone else in a society.  Humans are incredibly varied creatures and this is a great strength of a vibrant, pluralistic nation.
Burka wearer in “I can actually read” shocker

There will, of course, presumably be some Muslim women who are forced to wear burkas against their will.  Assuming this is the case, the question is then how removing the burka will suddenly protect or liberate them.  If they are living in a household where they are actively forced to wear a particular type of clothing, will they genuinely they be any less oppressed when they get home, by the State outlawing the wearing of this garment outside?  Will the sudden freedom for their faces to be seen by strangers outside change their abusive, controlling domestic environment?  Of course it will not.

And again, think about the numbers we are considering here.  We are talking about an unknown proportion of the tiny 0.001% of the British population who wears a full face veil.  Domestic abuse is a serious and widespread issue in this country: it is quite easy to wander up the garden path on this one thinking that by banning the wearing of burkas something positive can be done in this area.  Actually only a miniscule proportion of women might be helped by this quite drastic measure (as I’ve said there’s a huge emphasis onmight there).  As such, it’s difficult to see the undue influence argument being in any way a compelling reason to ban burkas either.

Partial Bans

The argument here is not for a full-out ban, but just to compel women to remove their veil in certain circumstances, such as in court or whilst teaching.

Taking courts first, the view is that a judge or jury cannot make a proper assessment if they can’t see the full range of facial movements during testimony.  On that basis, blind jurors should instantly be excluded.  They are not in this country, as David Blunkett’s example of jury service shows.  It is in fact more than a little offensive to the blind to suggest they are not capable of serving in this way.  The argument presupposes that jury members are watching every facial movement of a witness in some kind of sixth sense or intuitive way to divine the truth, rather than the dull tedium of going through all the evidence, written and spoken to make an assessment.

All this said, the recent ruling by Judge Peter Murphy reached a practical, common-sense compromise.  A veil wearing defendant was allowed to enter a plea in court whilst wearing her burka, having previously been identified by a female officer, who swore it was the same person on oath.  When she stands trial, she will do so behind a screen, but will have to remove her veil in front of the judge and jury.  This is an outcome that should satisfy those who fear the tiny number of Burka women in this country will be able to flee justice, whilst at least succeeding in part to accommodate her religious wishes.

In the teaching situation, again the argument is advanced that a teacher’s face has to be seen by their pupils and/or a teacher has to be able to see the face of the student.  I’m not quite sure what the overriding reason is for this, but if we use the blind analogy again it suggests that blind children cannot learn properly and blind teachers should be banned.  I’m not terribly convinced by that instinctively.

People who support partial bans often give the justification that it’s required to remove crash helmets or balaclavas in places such as banks.  This is an accepted principle and no one objects to it.  Therefore the same rule should apply in courts and schools: it’s no different.  The issue with this is that there is in fact a massive difference: these head coverings are required to be removed to prevent serious crime and the identification of assailants.  To compare a Muslim teacher who wears a burka to a man holding a sawn-off shotgun to rob a bank is just a little bit off, and is unsustainable as an argument.  If it were proven that people disguised in burkas were holding up banks, then this would be different, but the comparison certainly doesn’t carry across to a classroom.

“I just don’t like them”

Then we come to those who can think through all of the above arguments intellectually and see that there is no real reason to ban burkas in public except perhaps in two very limited possible circumstances (courts when giving evidence, and in banks if a load of burka robbers suddenly crop up).  Nonetheless they just don’t like the things.  They can’t express exactly why.

I think lots of people share this view, if they’re honest.   I also think that what is at the core of this is a very human, very basic dislike of difference.  We are often primitive creatures.  We are drawn to our tribe, to our cave, to our people.  Unless you have grown up in the Middle East, seeing people dressed so demonstratively differently might be challenging.  It’s a fairly recent phenomenon too (there’s an interesting point about women choosing to wear them to show they’re proud to be Muslim post 911, in the face of all the prejudice that is aimed at them).  We are therefore being confronted with something we are not at all used to.

It’s what made people stare at those East European Jews arriving in Britain that the Mail so hated.  Now you’ve probably been through areas like Golder’s Green loads of times and don’t look twice at someone in Hasidic garb.  All I can say is that just because you might feel this emotional reaction and unfamiliarity, although it might be a natural reaction, try to get over it.  Think through the actual intellectual arguments and see if that changes your perspective.

You might even think that a ban is not a good idea, but you just wish people wouldn’t choose to dress like this.  They still will though, no matter how much you wish the contrary, and they have every right to.  You’re also actually very capable of rising above what is actually just a prejudice like any other.  These women do not in any way threaten your way of life, any more than do all sorts of other people in society who do things differently to you.

Banning Things

Lastly we come to the issue that when a society bans something it should really have compelling reasons to do so.  This is particularly the case when it involves something so intimate and personal as the decision by an individual to wear what they wish.  It’s not enough for people to “just not like” seeing people going about their lives dressed like this.  We need to identify a real wrong that it is of public interest to correct.  Otherwise we should, I believe, do well to fall back on the motto “live and let live”.

Here we come back to the tiny number of women who choose to wear these clothes.  There are probably somewhere between 500 and 800 women in the whole of the UK who wear burkas with full face veils, who are concentrated in certain parts of a few urban centres.  Their burkas do not carry images or words on them that could be considered offensive on them; quite the contrary, they are by definition modest.  This is not by any stretch of the imagination a matter of pressing public importance.  There is no obvious wrong to be corrected by instigating a public ban.

What the debate masks is a lot of faulty understanding, prejudice and dislike.  The only good thing I could conclude with is that this whole discussion may be useful in terms of holding a mirror up and challenging these things in ourselves.

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