Saturday, 17 July 2010

Banning the burka

I have a sneaking sympathy for the Tory MP who wants to ban the burka or niqab in public because they prevent "normal dialogue with other human beings."

Philip Hollobone says "seventy five per cent of the usual communication between two human beings is done with personal experience. You don't get any of that if your face is covered."

He is bringing a private member's bill into parliament to ban garments that hide women's faces. This follows a similar ban by the French parliament this week.

He says he has no objection to religious clothing in general, such as Sikh turbans, but burkas and niqabs are not religious requirements, merely traditional practice. Not only do they hinder normal communication, but the person's identity is concealed.

He will refuse to talk to Muslim women in his constituency surgery unless they lift their face veil so he can see them properly.

I must say I have some sympathy with his views, despite the fashionable opinion that covering your face or body is a matter of personal freedom and nobody has the right to request otherwise, whatever the reason.

I admit I find it disconcerting when confronted by someone whose face or body is covered. I suspect it's not entirely a personal choice but is heavily influenced by other people (particularly men) insisting that exposing the female body is provocative, licentious and indecent. I also think that seeing someone's facial expressions helps me to understand how they are feeling or thinking, which mere talking cannot do.

Naturally Muslim groups have condemned Mr Hollobone for "fanning the flames of intolerance " and increasing discrimination. But what about the flames of intolerance that insist female flesh is so shameful and disgusting it should never be seen by anyone?

A survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a ban on face-covering veils was supported by a majority in France (82%), Germany (71%), Britain (62%) and Spain (59%), but only a minority in the US (28%).

You can read an opposing point of view by Nesrine Malik here or by Martha Nussbaum here and here

Pic: Philip Hollobone

17 comments:

K8 the Gr8 said...

I read a book by Khaled Hosseini recently (A thousand splendid suns) and in it, the main character describes her immense comfort at being able to preserve her anonymity thanks to the afghan culture of covering up. I'm not sure it's a good idea to enforce bans on things that aren't actually hurting anybody.

If they are forced to remove their burquas, this gives other cultures license to demand removal of things like Christmas trees from public places.

Each to their own, I say.

Wisewebwoman said...

This is difficult, such fine lines between tradional clothing and modern demands.
I view the burka as oppressive and a male conceit. But that is just me. I've talked to women who wouldn't have it any other way and enjoy the private sexuality of removing it at home (one would be surprised at the lingerie it hides!).
It is disconcerting for a segment of the population to be this anonymous though. And I cannot imagine a world in which we were all so concealed can you?
XO
WWW

Nick said...

K8 - I've also read A Thousand Splendid Suns. I'd forgotten the bit you describe. You do have a point about something that's not hurting anybody - but is it always a genuine free choice? And I would say Christmas trees are a bit different from items of clothing.

www - The private sexuality of removing it? The hidden lingerie? Goodness, such unsuspected delights! Indeed, if we were all so concealed (and how come men are never hidden in the same way?), it would be a very drab landscape. And how would we recognise someone we were meeting up with?

secret agent woman said...

Such a loaded topic and I can truly see valid arguments on both sides. Personally, since burqas are only worn by women and are part of an oppressive culture, I find them appalling. But do I want us legislating that? It's not quite the same as, say, genital mutilation of women, which definitely ought to be outlawed.

I've noticed that banks here now have signs posted that forbid the wearing of hats, helmets or sunglasses inside because it makes it more difficult to identify the person if a crime is committed. It would make sense, I think, not to allow people to conceal their faces in any place of business.

Nick said...

Secret Agent - Banning hats, helmets and sunglasses goes much farther than any restrictions we have in the UK. And if they're banned, surely complete face coverings are even more unacceptable?

I agree that outlawing something that doesn't actually do physical harm is contentious and the argument for free expression is a hard one to resist.

Los Angelista said...

I wouldn't want to wear one but I don't exactly know how they can be banned when it is a personal choice of clothing. I say don't ban.

Nick said...

Liz - But is it a personal choice or is it strongly influenced by others? Why would a woman voluntarily wear a burka in sweltering summer temperatures for example?

Rummuser said...

In many parts of India, non Muslim women too wear a kind of head cover as a symbol of modesty or whatever and Indian Muslim women have been wearing the Burkha etc for ages. Most Indians do not have any problem with this except to feel sorry for the women having to be uncomfortable in our climate. I personally am neutral on this issue with the proviso that I hope that the emancipation that other women have achieved reaches the Muslim women too.

There is a very balanced recent article by Martha Nussbaum in the NYT which is worth a read. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/beyond-the-veil-a-response/?emc=eta1

Nick said...

Ramana - Burkas must be miserably uncomfortable in the Indian climate. And Nesrine Malik pointed out that it's impossible to do any serious physical exercise in a burka. Or any demanding physical job likewise. I shall have a look at the article.

Macy said...

The burqua makes me really really angry. Have we gone through the reformation, the enlightenment, the suffragetes, and feminism in the 20th century - back to accepting a position that says women should be hidden from view?
Because that's what they are.

Nick said...

Macy - Indeed, they're being hidden from view. I don't understand why women are supposed to be so irresistibly sexy their entire body has to be concealed, while men are seen as completely sexless and therefore can expose themselves freely.

Baino said...

I'm not a fan of 'banning' things generally but here for instance, you are not permitted to go into a bank or shop wearing a motor cycle helmut. Your face must be visible for obvious reasons. We have many women here who wear the Hiab, more a headscarf and it does not cover the face than we do those in full burkhas. I agree with K8, ban the burkha and next will be catholic kids wearing cross necklaces. Interesting that the Americans only supported its removal by a minority. Perhaps they don't see to many over there?

Nick said...

Baino - The helmet ban is common in the UK too. Yes, if so many women think a simple headscarf is compatible with their religious beliefs, why do other women need to cover their face?

Eternally Distracted said...

Philip Hollobone is the local MP where I come from in the UK - However I have lived in the Middle East for over three years and my opinions of the burka are very different nowadays.

I have absolutely no problem with the burka at all. I see it as a personal choice and know many Muslim women who choose to wear it and those who don't. Those who do wear it as a result of a personal choice, not because of what men ask of them.

I can only comment on the Muslims I know and live amongst but all of the women are in no way told what to do, what to wear, where to go etc... In the families that I know the women by far are in control of their households, lifes etc...

Every time I return to the UK I see and read things that totally go against everything that I have personally experienced. When I first moved here people were terrified that I would be 'living amongst terrorists' and I can honestly say that I have never felt safer and more comfortable...

I feel that banning clothing that makes people feel comfortable is outrageous...

Nick said...

Distracted - As someone who lives in the Middle East, your experiences are interesting, especially your conclusion that wearing a burka really is a personal choice, and that you feel safe and comfortable there.

I'm always open to argument, and I may post again on this subject....

meno said...

Oh man, talk about a can of worms.

I just can't get past seeing these things as a sign of female oppression. I guess i am showing my pallid intellect and lack of empathy.

Nick said...

Meno - "Female oppression" is my instinctive reaction as well. That's why I'm still surprised to hear that most Muslim women wear burkas and veils out of choice. But if that's what I'm told....