Banning the Burqa
I am assuming the call for a blanket legal ban on the wearing of a burqa would also mean a ban on the niqab, as the burqa and niqab are the particular styles of Islamic female dress which cover, either partially or entirely, the face.
For clarification, here is an image showing different forms of Islamic female dress:
I’ll state my belief right out up front. I do not believe that banning the burqa would be anything but a retrograde oppressive step, and further that any ban is ethically, morally and legally unjustifiable. I have engaged in much debate over the last weeks of discussion of this proposal, which I do not believe will actually be enacted despite Nick Clegg’s fairly toothless promotion of the same in what in my opinion was a desperate attempt to regain credibility.
One constant refrain by those who don’t wear the burqa/niqab (by choice or by not belonging to the culture in which it is worn) is that it is symbolic of the oppressive lack of freedom and choice women in that particular branch of Islam are subject to. To a certain extent that may be true; some women may be unable to choose to adopt that form of dress. That is not the fault of the clothing. That is to be laid at the feet of the people who are enforcing the rule that the woman must wear that item of clothing. You know what? The burqa/niqab is not compulsory under Islam nor is it defined as such in the Qur’an. It is as much subject to personal ideology as any other form of religious iconography or dress one wears to express ones faith and, in this particular case, modesty before the eyes of Allah.
A ban on the burqa/niqab would not save those women who are being forced to wear it i.e. those suffering in an abusive situation. A ban has been testimonially stated to actually worsen the situation for women; they are kept in the home, out of circulation, and abuse has increased (according to testimony from France, collated by Islamic feminists). Fundamentally nothing has actually changed as a result of the ban other than to further oppress the women who cannot access aid to escape such situations if they would wish to and who were already not making a free choice to wear the clothing.
If the women are being isolated due to the ban, to whom are they to report their abuse? There is far more to domestic violence than that. The ban has isolated the women further than the emotional/physical and/or sexual violence already does. Being unable to leave the home just means it is impossible for them to seek help or to be recognised by the in-community help organisations as possibly needing help.
All that is quite apart from the fact that many Islamic women do choose to wear the burqa or niqab as a representation of their faith and modesty before Allah. That choice is made free from any other oppression apart from that of the religion they believe in. I have problems with all forms of organised religion but that is a different argument and pertinent to the belief systems that I believe need changing and updating. It has nothing to do with the freedom to wear whatever item of clothing one chooses.
To force women to dress one way or the other is oppression; it’s the attitude and belief system that needs adjusting. Banning such clothing removes choice just as much as enforcing it does.
I have also become aware of reports that the wearing of the burqa and niqab is on the rise in the UK. I have yet to see any statistical evidence of this but either way it is irrelevant. What I do know from my reading and conversation with Islamic feminists and non-feminist Islamic people is that the wearing of burqas/niqabs or any other form of Islamic female attire is a complicated topic which creates much debate with the various and myriad interpretations of Islamic faith both within the UK and worldwide (specific to countries, areas in countries, regions of the planet etc). Incidentally, under some forms of Islamic expression men are also supposed to wear modest non-sexualised baggy full covering clothing including covering their head, although not particularly their faces.
Banning an item of clothing that a woman wears does nothing to stop the idea that men are not supposed to take responsibility for their sexual urges; the evidence with regard to sexual offences in this country bears that out. The banning is simply policing the women and dictating and perpetuating the idea that a form of clothing is responsible for attitudes towards the gender. A ban is as bad as an enforcement; it is simply the opposite extreme. A burqa does not legitimise, excuse or apologise for rape any more than a short skirt asks for it. Should we then ban short skirts? Women are raped even when they are wearing burqa or niqabs.
I am not saying don’t ban the burqa or niqab because women are being abused; that is reductive of my argument. I am saying clothing is not responsible for societies attitudes and banning any item of clothing is simply reinforcing that women’s bodies are not their own and should be policed in some way. Many Islamic women choose to wear the burqa or niqab for their own reasons. Some do not. A ban will do nothing other than remove agency from Islamic women.
I would agree that in order to prove one’s identity such as with passports at Airports or in Court cases where one is on trial, one should remove face coverings of all kinds when required. There are already practices and rules in place for this. I have also seen arguments that patients should be able to see the faces of their caregivers, and pupils the faces of their teachers. Are we not teaching intolerance to our children if we tell them that some women who are members of a particular religion have no right to wear what they choose? What harm does it do to be unable to see the face of one’s teacher, if the body language, the tone, the care and the actual teaching are all of good quality? Where are the reports of actual children being unhappy at being taught by a woman wearing a niqab or burqa? With regard to medical staff, I can understand the apprehension at such a heightened time that you might wish to see the face of the person diagnosing and treating you. If you does not trust your medical caregiver then you should be allowed to opt for another member of staff. That is the choice of the patient, and trust is vital in the relationship between patient and medical practitioner. In all cases though, an assumption is being made about the efficacy of the person wearing the burqa/niqab without any actual evidence pertaining to the same. Case by case may be understandable in this, but not a blanket legislative ban. The decision is based upon the patient’s fear and is fundamentally based in a mistrust borne from personal intolerance, however that intolerance is created.
EDIT: A friend commented on my FB post of this blog “completely separate to the communication issues which are drummed into us during training, there are safety requirement issues to do with staff dress. Veils etc are at risk of hanging into things and passing infections between patients, same as hair which has to be tied back. Also with regard to dress, staff should be able to wash all of their hands including their wrists which is impossible with full length sleeves and also with cloth wristbands worn ceremonially by some other religions.” I agree – any item of apparel that causes hygiene hazards should not be worn. That is not limited to the burqa/niqab, and should be policy in the NHS and in private medical facilities. That does not support a blanket ban on the burqa/niqab, and from what I know medical facilities already have policies in place to deal with these matters. END EDIT
Ultimately, I do worry about the policing of clothing. It tends to involve the policing of women; legally and socially. Men tend to be policed in our society by social attitudes, and I do think women have more choice of clothing. However, women’s clothing is objectified and policed with regard to how it is perceived sexually, men do not have such pressures). For many Islamic women in this country, the burqa/niqab actually allows them more freedom in that they are not constantly the subject of the male gaze and can move more freely, made invisible to a certain extent. Of course, that is as much a reaction to the policing of female bodies and the clothing they wear as anything else.
This is why I think a ban of the burqa/niqab is simply policing women’s clothing and does nothing to address the underlying attitudes, beliefs and oppressive systems to which women are subject. The attitudes need to change, or we are simply shifting focus in the same patriarchal view.
In the United Kingdom, we have a culture of freedom of religious expression, freedom of choice of clothing. Legally we are allowed to wear what we choose (to a given value of patriarchy, prejudice etc.). I have heard and read the argument that women should respect our culture and not cover their faces. That is a fallacious argument; our culture is one which allows the burqa/niqab. Further, if one feels fearful or mistrustful of women in burqas or niqabs, then I believe that person should question WHY they feel that way. Oppressing another person based on unsubstantiated feelings you have towards arbitrary factors that person may exhibit through clothing, colour, disability, gender and so on is unacceptable; it is creating and perpetuating discrimination. Banning the burqa/niqab on this basis is to use the same reasoning that allows victim-blaming in sexual assault and rape: i.e. the clothes the victim/survivor wore made the rapist/assaulter feel that way.
You are in control of how you feel and react, not the person who is wearing whatever item of clothing that is inspiring that fear/anger/sense of intimidation etc in you. Don’t blame the object of your fear for creating that fear, blame the society that teaches you to think that way and moreover, change the way you think and react. Question why you feel that way. That is the only way we can overcome the prejudices we are all brought up to believe in, myself included.
I’m leaving the last words to the women who actually wear the burqa or niqab, click here to read what a few have to say.