Across Europe there have been increasing demands for the banning of burqas and nicabs, the traditional Muslim female dress, and some countries have already passed legislation.
Belgium in April made it illegal to wear the full Islamic veil in public. In Spain, Barcelona has banned the wearing of the full-face veil in public buildings including markets and libraries. France too has banned their use in public places.
Some have argued that it is a question of security, that we need to be able to identify the person and that veils hide their identity from us. We are suspicious of anyone who does not display their faces thinking that they necessarily have something to hide.
But we have never been particularly worried about people wearing crash helmets, hoods on anoraks, scarves covering most of the face, and so on.
Another argument advanced is that women in Islamic countries are oppressed by the requirement to hide their faces with the burqa or nicab. By insisting on the removal of the veil, it is argued, we are somehow helping these women to free themselves from oppression.
But this line of argument is difficult to sustain if the process includes a large measure of coercion. How can denying women the right to wear what they want to free them from the oppression of the veil? How is the balance to be reached between the rights of the individual woman to choose what to wear, and the legal requirement preventing them from exercising that choice? We might not agree with the choice, but surely we do agree with the freedom to have the choice?
But in any case, there is a subtext to the calls for banning burqas and nicabs. No one is arguing for banning the Jewish headdress, the kippa, nor the turbans of Sikhs, nor the headdresses worn by nuns, or the surplices worn by priests. The focus is specifically on Islamic dress.
When the French banned the burqa, they didn’t do it just where identification is essential such as in public buildings. They did it in all public places, including in the street. What was the justification? Cultural assimilation.
When someone from a foreign country comes to live and work in our own, we naturally expect and hope that they will get used to the customs and ways of the new country and will be able to live here happily. Understanding the laws and traditions of a new country is seen as important in helping newcomers to assimilate.
But the assimilation is not a total revamping of their entire character, their sentiments and values, and a substitution of their traditions by those of their new country. It is unreasonable to expect anyone to abandon their cultural, political, and religious values just by virtue of the fact that they live in a different country. But that seems to be the underlying assumption about the burqa bans.
What seems to be objected to in France is the maintenance of a cultural identity separate from the picture of French identity promoted by the state. Apparently you can’t be in France unless you “fit in”. And this regulation of cultural identity is not something we should welcome.
Cultures are strongest when they can absorb new influences and grow. Immigrants bring new traditions which break countries out of rigid ways of thinking and the presence of alternative religious and political views is an important aspect of democratic society. So when governments start to legislate about the wearing of religious dress on the grounds of enforcing integration, we should question it.
In the present Islamophobic climate, it is all too easy to regard all Muslims as potential terrorists despite the fact that in the USA there have been far more domestic terrorist attacks from non-Muslims. It is even easier to be suspicious of people with different cultural values when we are told all the time that our “way of life” is under attack.
But our way of life includes tolerance and understanding of those with different views, different beliefs, different dress. Our “way of life” is not some undifferentiated block of cultural practices but a spectrum of widely differering aspects. Whenever politicians start to tell us what our national characteristics are, we have to suspect some deeply political motive and check which cameras they are looking at.
If they want to ban the burqa, let’s see them banning all religious dress in public. If they want us all to conform to some national stereotype let’s see them railing against all the other diverse communities that make up our societies. These bans are deeply undemocratic and a completely unnecessary restriction on freedom and liberty.