I loathe the niqab and the burqa and everything they represent. As Kenan Malik says: ‘The idea that in the 21st century women should be hidden from view for reasons of modesty or religious belief is both troubling and astonishing.’ When I see girls at my daughter’s school starting to ‘cover up’ on reaching adolescence – in one case so that only the young woman’s eyes were showing through a narrow slit in her black covering – it makes me both sad and angry.
I regard the burqa as the exact equivalent, for women, of the chain on the ankle of African slaves two hundred years ago: a visible token of servitude and control. It’s a feudal relic and should have no place in a society that has any claim to gender equality. Progressives and feminists should be deeply uneasy, rather than complacent, about its persistence on our streets and in our schools.
If I had a magic wand, I’d wish for the niqab and burqa to disappear from the face of the earth, along with the misogynistic religious mumbo-jumbo that sustains them, and which they reinforce. But I don’t have a magic wand, and nor do governments. Politicians sometimes fall into the trap of using the law as a means of wishing away things that bother them. However, not everything that is worrying or disturbing should necessarily be illegal. Moreover, there’s a danger that using the law as a blunt instrument to solve complex social problems can have undesirable and unintended consequences, such as limiting individual freedom, or causing suffering to the very people the law was intended to help.
That’s why, on balance, I don’t approve of the French government’s decision to ban the niqab and why I’m worried about campaigns to introduce similar legislation in Britain. I wouldn’t go as as far as Madeleine Bunting who says of the new law: ‘It sends a shiver down the spine’. What sends a shiver down my spine is the tendency among the pro-faith lobby (for whom Bunting is the cheerleader) to rush to the support of every new expression of religious fundamentalism. And I don't disagree with many of the things that French politicians, including some on the left, have said about the burqa/niqab and its deleterious effect on women’s lives. I often wish we had progressive politicians here who would be equally outspoken and not leave criticism of fundamentalism to the anti-immigration right. I also understand the support that feminists in Arab and majority-Muslim countries, such as the blogger Saudiwoman and the French organsaition Ni Putes Ni Soumises, have given to the proposal. For them, it's a small step forward in the long struggle against women’s oppression in their communities. If only we had more outspoken feminists saying such things in Britain, and getting media coverage for it - which is not to understate the fantastic work being done by Southall Black Sisters and the One Law For All (No Sharia) campaign, among others.
Sadly, discussion on these shores of the French plan has seen people slipping back into their comfortably polarised defensive positions: the ban has been supported most vocally by the anti-immigrant right (such as UKIP and Tory MP Philip Hollobone), while opposition to it, on the grounds of freedom and toleration, has become a badge of honour on the left. The Guardian's Gary Younge tweeted the other day along the lines that it was equally wrong for states to require women to force women to wear the burqa, and to prevent them from doing so. Fair enough, Gary, but the left should be just as vocal in pointing out that it's wrong for individual men, not to mention 'faith communities', to tell women what they can and can't wear - and the state has a role in protecting women against pressure to conform to patriarchal or religious requirements.
I don't think that every aspect of the French law is unworkable. The proposal that public institutions should be able to insist that both employees and customers uncover their faces seems eminently sensible. However, as Malik says:
If wearing a burqa is incompatible with the needs of particular jobs, then those particular employers – hospitals, schools, shops even - can legitimately demand that employees not be clad from head to foot. But again, one can impose dress codes for certain jobs without banning a type of clothing for everyone. After all, we don’t have judges and teachers wearing bikinis on the job either.
Similarly, one can applaud the French proposal to prosecute husbands and fathers who seek to control what their female relatives wear. But prosecuting women themselves for covering their faces in public risks making them victims twice over. And how exactly do politicians expect women who currently wear the burqa to respond to the new law? Will they defy the pressure of family, community and clerics and tear off the veil, so that they can go shopping, or work as teachers? A few brave souls might. But the danger is that others will simply be driven further back into the home, and become even less visible, even less active, in public life: which is presumably the aim of the burqa, and the whole plethora of patriarchal prohibitions that go with it.
If similar legislation were to be introduced in Britain, you can predict exactly what would happen. Firstly, there would be an intensification of fake Muslim victimhood, with the mullahs and their allies on the faith-bedazzled pseudo-left crying ‘Islamophobia!’ at every turn. Secondly, there would be a new focus for anti-immigrant feeling both on the 'legitimate' far right (UKIP, maverick Tories) and among the neo-fascists of the BNP and EDL, seeking to exploit the emotions whipped up by the debate. Needless to say, Muslim women would suffer most as a result: condemned by the fundamentalists if they comply with the law, or the racists if they don't.
So what’s the alternative? Well, I don’t have any easy answers, but I have a few suggestions, and would be interested to hear others from readers who, like me, are both anti-burqa and anti-ban.
Firstly, we should look to strengthen our gender equality and human rights law, making it a criminal offence for anyone, whether family member or religious leader, to force women to dress in a particular way, or to restrict their freedom of movement, employment or leisure outside the home.
Secondly, politicians of all stripes - but especially those on the left - should make clear their commitment to full gender equality and their opposition to customs and traditions that hinder women's freedom. They should stop appeasing conservative religious leaders in the name of 'community cohesion' or out of fear of losing the 'Muslim vote'.
Thirdly, gender equality, and human rights generally, should be a key plank of citizenship education, and all state-funded schools, including faith schools, should be required to promote it. This should have priority over the wishy-washy complacency of a 'multi-faith' education that teaches that all belief systems are to be 'respected', even if their practices contravene women's rights.
In other words, we need a broad strategy that may include some legislation, but is also focused on education and cultural change. As Kenan Malik says:
The burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women, not its cause. If legislators really want to help Muslim women, they could begin not by banning the burqa, but by challenging the policies and processes that marginalize migrant communities: on the one hand, the racism, social discrimination and police harassment that all too often disfigure migrant lives, and, on the other, the multicultural policies that treat minorities as members of ethnic groups rather than as citizens. Both help sideline migrant communities, aid the standing of conservative ‘community leaders’ and make life more difficult for women and other disadvantaged groups within those communities.
Another Arab feminist voice in support of the ban: Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy
A surprisingly (?) balanced and thoughtful editorial on the whole affair from Catholic weekly The Tablet. It sets out the 'dilemma' facing multicultural societies such as France and Britain, caught between not wishing 'to be culturally imperialist by treating ethnic minorities with disrespect' and not wanting 'to set aside their own core values such as opposition to the exploitation and abuse of women.' Then it makes this very good point: 'A society like Britain which insists that girls from very conservative Muslim families should nevertheless be sent to school to receive a good education has already taken sides in that debate.'
The editorial ends with a similar message to my own in the above post:
The British would not tolerate something as dirigiste as a state-imposed dress code, even though many British people would personally deplore the suppression of female identity that the burka seems to signify. It is by education and cultural influence that the values of Western civilisation will prevail in the end, and anything that divides or antagonises minority communities is unhelpful.
Via Bob, a thought-provoking contribution to the debate (with lots of useful links, especially to French sources) from Tendance Coatesy.