I don’t think the question of whether to ban the burqa (which covers the whole face) and the niqab (which shows the eyes) is actually an easy question. There is an argument that both items of clothing are symbols of oppression, but banning them doesn’t actually deal with the problem; it merely shifts it. There is an argument that both are a security issue, and that’s another problem.
I am banned from wearing a motorbike helmet in banks and at airports. This is right: it is a genuine security risk to have people moving around sensitive areas who are not identifiable. In following that concern, the burqa and niqab should also be banned in such sensitive areas. Particularly the need to be identifiable does encounter a possible solution. It is, in principle, possible to wear the garments and still be identifiable. But the practice of how this could be achieved is quite ghastly: microchipping. It is possible that banks and airports could install microchip readers and Muslims who wish to remain covered while in security-sensitive areas would have to volunteer to be microchipped. I’d never advocate this, because it feels horrid to me; it feels violent. It’s also sufficiently easy to defraud a system like this by cutting out and swapping microchips. It’s both ethically objectionable and practically flawed. A burqa ban in security sensitive areas remains the only sensible option I can envisage (but I am happy to hear other solutions).
A similar ban—or at least the obvious need for it—became apparent in 2013 when a British judge asked a Muslim woman to remove her niqab while on the stand as a witness. His reasoning was simple: the jury must be able to see her reactions to the questions. This wasn’t discrimination, this was putting the rule of law above religious decisions.
There’s an urban legend, which I can’t find reference to on the internet, but still serves as a rather interesting case study even if it is entirely hypothetical. It is a case of woman who wanted to wear the niqab as a primary school teacher in the UK. When the school tried to stop her, she claimed religious freedoms and rights to wear it. This is ridiculous for two reasons: firstly, she didn’t wear it to the interview, but, more importantly, as a teacher she is the primary contact students will have for hours upon hours, 5 days a week. For the sake of their social development, they should be allowed to see her face as a part of learning to read facial expression.
As I see it, the school example is right on the cusp. If the woman feels the clothing is part of her religious duty, and she spends so many hours a day at work, her religious freedoms should be considered. On the other hand, she may be doing a certain level of developmental damage to the children. (One’s right to religious expression should include what one feels is part of their religion, else we run the risk of governments interpreting religions for us. It’s just that religious freedom, like all freedoms, needs to be measured against other rights and responsibilities.)
A former boss of mine bans his employees from wearing provocative clothing (one of the employees was a big death-metal fan, and so had some quite extreme-looking t-shirts). I was not really sure where I stood on that, either. Part of the employee’s job is to represent the company to the client, as every role is client facing (although, it was manual labour, hence why one could wear casual clothing). However, one should be able to wear whatever they want. But, over time, I began to side more with my former boss. A company should be able to make employees make reasonable efforts to be presentable; we all expect it of office jobs and teachers without even, really, considering it. So, the death-metal fan’s swastika-bearing t-shirt could legitimately be banned by the boss.
Where I stand is that an outright ban is a violation of freedoms. Regardless of religious freedoms, clothing is a type of expression and bans shouldn’t be placed on them. Banning the naqib and burqa, outright, is as oppressive as to women as many claim the clothes themselves are; ‘you must’ and ‘you must not’ are equal infringements on rights. However, there is a type of ban I wish we could make but is impossible to enforce. I would want to ban the expectations of others on Muslim women that they should wear them; it should entirely be the woman’s choice. It is up to her whether it is a part of her identity, religion or a necessary practice.
There are stories of brothers, husbands, uncles and fathers beating women who refuse to wear what they consider to be the correct religious garments. Obviously, the beatings are banned. So are the threats of the beatings. And they are small in number. However, I expect more women wear the clothing in fear that else they may be beaten than are beaten. So long as that is true, the garments are still symbols of oppression. That is true even if there are women who opt to wear them.
(It is worth re-iterating that these problems relate to very small numbers of people. Oddly, certain cultures have liberated in their own country and so ex-pat populations have the problem more than the country itself. So, it is possible the problem is worse in the UK or France than in Pakistan or Turkey.)
Meaningful expression is done freely, not under fear of reprisal. I believe this about pledging allegiances, wearing poppies in November and all other forms of conformity. (That’s why I believe good behaviour only in fear of legal or divine punishment is not meaningfully good.) And so, for the burqa and niqab to be meaningful symbols of freedom and religious practice, one must be able to refuse to wear one without punishment.