Ban the Burqa and Niqab?

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.


17 thoughts on “Ban the Burqa and Niqab?”

  1. Implementation of microchipping would be a problem. The microchipping technology is mature, but I suspect the detection technology currently is too short range to be practical for entry control. And if the detection technology were extended so that entry control were practical, it might be long range enough for serious privacy concerns.

    1. I like that microchipping is the only bit that has been comment on, so far.
      C’mon, as a cat yourself, you must be able to attest to the humiliation of being microchipped.

  2. When acting as an agent of the public, then one has a uniform to denote the offic eone holds. Think police officers, judges, military. Teachers are agents of some education Ministry and as such cannot act as if they are independent and autonomous individuals. One sets aside the personal to assume the office and the powers (and responsibilities) that accompany the position. Why this difference cause so much confusion is a mystery to me… other than people actually think that neighbour Bob IS the police and comes with certain legal exemptions and responsibilities upon birth, I guess.

      1. Bob is a police officer and granted certain privileges as a police officer and not as Bob. The confusion lies in thinking that Bob has certain innate rights and freedoms to act as an individual even when acting in the office of an officer of the court. He does not.

        The person who wishes to wear the niqab as a teacher has confused the personal with the professional. As a teacher she does not have the right to express her personal rights and freedoms while acting as an officer of the education Ministry. The confusion lies in thinking she has certain rights and freedoms to act as an individual even when acting in the office of the education Ministry. She does not.

  3. That’s why I’m a big fan of uniforms: it tells us by a glance that someone is acting in the capacity of the position they hold… and I think would go a long way in understanding that interactions with someone in a uniform – in an official capacity – is not one interacting with the individual wearing it.

    School uniforms, for example, tell teachers that the student is acting in the capacity of a student and helps remind us of this professional boundary between teachers and students, between clergy and congregant, between judges and the individuals who come before the court, between police officers enforcing the law and citizens who are to respect it, and so on.

    It seems to me that when we forget this official capacity in which individuals are expected to act, we get today’s dysfunctional politics where the elected and members of some kind of governing bodies are rewarded for pursuing personal agendas, advocating for and protecting particular supporters. Many are used to abusing their official public power in favour of the privileged and are then rewarded by the common person for doing so!

    A little off topic, I know, but recognizing the necessary boundaries between the public and the private would go a very long way I think towards a more functional and respectful society at large. Exercising religious belief, for example, is clearly a private domain issue and more of us need to remind believers and faitheists and accommodationists and I’m-an-atheist-butters who facilitate these incursions why it is in everyone’s best interests to respect this boundary by vociferously criticizing those who either cross it or advocate for the incursion. These are the people who need to be awakened to the danger they are enabling, they are empowering, the danger of attacking and undermining shared enlightenment values and replacing them with privilege… especially in the latest boundary crossing between individual rights and freedoms like free speech and the fascist response to protect and privilege those delicate snowflake who think reducing an individual’s rights in the name of safety and imposed ‘respect’ will somehow and magically promote these shared values for everyone… everyone, that is, except those who happen to be in labeled as intolerant and hateful by disagreeing with this privilege in principle and so have these rights and freedoms denied in some way in practice.

    It takes a special kind of post modern sociological buy-in to rationalize that advocating for privilege for the few while denying the exercise of basic shared rights and freedoms will somehow promote egalitarianism and equality for all. Orwell is rolling in his grave.

  4. Niqabs in schools are not an urban legend:

    A woman needs to remove her niqab when her passport is checked; and staff in the NHS interacting with patients should not wear niqabs. But, why do you say women are forced into wearing them? Are you aware of any research in the matter? I am aware of theoretical constraints on choice- but do they operate in fact?

    Unless niqabs are a definite problem- giving evidence in court, or wherever- I disapprove of uninformed discussion, because I know my own bloody-mindedness: if I were Muslim and all these kuffar were pontificating about why I should not wear a niqab, I would wear one just to show them.

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