Why the Burqa Should Not Be Banned
There is no one more aware of the dangers of identity politics aimed at the lowest common denominator than a history student studying twentieth century fascism. The thin line between an action that encourages freedom and tolerance and a racist act defying such tolerance could be exemplified by an English student studying Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Politics students are aware of the inherent importance of civil liberties upon the democratic process. Thus it is safe to assume that the students of Nottingham University are more liberal minded and ethically aware than the population at large, whilst also being intolerant of intolerance. Few could be better placed to comprehend the significance and form an opinion on the Europe-wide legislative move against the Burqa that is emanating from France and arriving in Britain. Whilst a recent YouGov survey found 67% of Britons support a ban on the ‘full face veil’, one would hope a similar survey of Nottingham students would have a different result.
Of course, for those looking subjectively at the Burqa, it is wholeheartedly possible to morally object to the garment without being hounded out by cries of bigotry. Few could doubt that Islam has some elements of deep-seated misogyny. While the Vatican declared the ordination of women as ‘grave’ a ‘crime’ as paedophilia, the Pope begins to bear resemblance to Jo Brand when compared to some Islamic leaders. In Iran, for example, the notable case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani- who is on death row for the crime of adultery, symbolises a deeper divide between Islam and the Western world with regards to gender equality and sexual liberalisation. Utopian circumstance would dictate that Western societies could and would break the Islamic emphasis on tradition, through non-violent but vehement coercion; Starting with the most obvious symbolic form of female disempowerment within Western democracies – the Burqa.
However, acting in an illiberal way and using the force of law to determine whether women should be able to wear a particular form of clothing is inherently contradictory and as Damian Green, the Immigration Minister argued, a ‘rather un-British thing to do’. Unless people dress up as Death outside nursing homes or a primary school teacher wears crotchless trousers to work it is hard to justify people being told what they can and cannot wear. What cannot be emphasised enough by groups such as Amnesty International and Liberty is the impact upon those women, purportedly a majority of Burqa wearers, who genuinely wish to wear the item on grounds of religious and cultural belief, without direct pressure. While there are clear feminist arguments against the Burqa as a pseudo-religious symbol of male suppression among the British Muslim community, it is absurd to suggest women should be forced to sign up to the feminist doctrine, destroy the Burqa and find the nearest race horse to throw themselves under. Perhaps the only thing more important within Britain than providing secular equality is the freedom of speech and action to provide open expressions of religious and cultural difference.
Pragmatically, a change in the law to accommodate some sort of ban would be difficult to enforce, a dangerous precedent and inflammatory. One question to ponder is whether there really are enough Burqas around to even consider a ban worthwhile. Is it not hard to recall the last time you saw one in Nottingham town centre, let alone seeing a women sporting the Burqa look on the long walk up the Downs? Even though there are few in existence in Britain, chasing up women that do defy both the law and Gok Wan’s fashion tips would be an obscene waste of police time.
The essence of the argument of Philip Hollobone, the MP who tabled the Private Members Bill proposing the Burqa ban, was that ‘covering your face in public is strange, and to many people both intimidating and offensive’. Perhaps he should ponder the fact that, if he’s attacked by an undercover ninja, Batman will save him.
We Must Stop this ‘British’ Charade
Of course the burqa shouldn’t be banned, and nor should the niqab, hijab, balaclava or any kind of clothing designed to conceal our faces. Not in public, anyway. There is virtually no precedent for any such ban (we’ve had hoodies for long enough that concealing the face is hardly a new issue), it’s debatable as to whether female empowerment is a motivation for the bill’s backers, and trying to ban female Muslim dress out of a security concern is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Besides, recent polls indicating that a significant majority are in favour of ban on burqas do little except prove that large groups are just as capable of getting things wrong as small groups are, and ‘the French are doing it’ is hardly a justification for any action whatsoever.
But it’s a nonsense that banning any item of clothing which covers the face is ‘not British’, as has been repeatedly suggested for the duration of this saga. This idea of benevolent British Libertarianism is a fairytale, an attempt to placate a group perceived to be a stereotypical xenophobic mob.
It seems as if these self-appointed guardians of British-ness have quite a short memory when it comes to civil liberty. Let’s not forget, we live in a country where an individual can be detained without charge for 28 days (a low figure, compared to the 90 days originally sought after the terrorist attacks of July 7th, 2005). This is the home of the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act, which – amongst other authoritarian gestures – allowed the government to requisition land and property at will. We were the authors of the Emergency Powers Act of 1939, which allowed the government to use such powers to govern almost every aspect of daily life unchecked. That Parliament which sat during World War II was in power for ten years – well past what we would normally consider to be a mandate from the people.
Our nation counts the Peterloo massacre among its less than illustrious history, and – in a similar vein – the heavy handed response of the police at the G20 summit in 2009, which left bystander Ian Tomlinson dead from an abdominal haemorrhage after being struck by a police officer.
In 2008, a UN report decried our poor standards on freedom of expression: the 2006 Terrorism Act’s incredibly broad definitions of crimes like the ‘encouragement of terrorism’, our strict libel laws and the use of the Official Secrets Act to quell the release of potentially embarrassing information even when it is in the public interest. But then why should we be surprised? During the Troubles we had the absurd situation of voice-overs replacing Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ statements due to a ban on his voice being broadcast in Britain.
In many of these cases, we might try to mitigate the argument by saying that such laws were passed in exceptional circumstances, and were required for security reasons. But then if we are to argue that Britain has a ‘special relationship’ with the cause of liberty, and thus use it as a defence of the burqa, we are already holding the UK to a higher standard than would normally be expected during a crisis.
If we were truly a shining bastion of libertarianism in an otherwise dark and un-free world, life would be vastly different to what it is now. Government would be smaller, taxes would be lower, freedom of speech would be sacrosanct even (especially) in time of crisis and we could take pretty much any illicit substances we wanted, as long as we did it in the privacy of our own homes. The problem we have is that we are continually caught in webs of our own making – If, as has happened recently, the owners of a bed and breakfast either ban or impose restrictions on homosexual couples staying there, whose rights do we infringe: the couple by curtailing their right to be treated the same as a heterosexual couple, or the owners by compelling them to treat the couple thus in what might be their own home?
Banning the veil, the burqa and the balaclava would probably be one of the most British activities we could do right now, as it would reflect our utter confusion when it comes to the subject of liberty in this country. Of all the heinous violations of liberty we have had to endure in our history – it’s just a bit disappointing that the banning of a daft bit of socially divisive clothing is where we draw the line.