06 August 2010


The Burka Debate

The National Secular Society weekly Newsline has asked subscribers for opinions on banning the burka. This was my response:

The Burka

Wearing the veil is regrettable. It cuts the wearer off from normal human interactions through which communication, understanding and friendship can grow. But our commitment to the freedom of the individual to do as they wish, as long as it harms nobody else, means we cannot support legislation to bar certain types of clothing. However, there are circumstances where freedom may be circumscribed owing to the need for the individual to undertake particular roles in employment or to satisfy reasonable security requirements for identification and openness. These limitations are best defined by employers, agencies and trading organisations in their particular circumstances.

The courts must be careful to ensure the veil is not recognised as a religious requirement (which could make it unchallengeable) and that the rights of others to withhold jobs, services, passage and participation from veil wearers are protected.

Wearing the veil may demonstrate hostility to Western traditions but it is everybody’s right to demonstrate that. When wearing the veil is forced upon women by relatives or communities the means of combating that must be through education and campaigning and clear support for Muslim women fighting for their rights.


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Wearing the veil may demonstrate hostility to Western traditions but it is everybody’s right to demonstrate that.

At what point do western societies cease to accept the hostility of those who seek to overthrow our basic freedoms and institute sharia over both muslim and "non-believers"? Where is the line? When we see protesters with signs reading, "Down with freedom", what is to be our response?
That is what our commitment to freedom of expression means. But I wouldn't say it is an absolute. If the calls for an end to 'freedom' became more than just a rhetorical flourish of extremists then I would advocate suppression.

But that doesn't address the burka issue, does it? Are you advocating a ban, Anonymous?

The sight of the full veil is disconcerting to someone from a Western perspective because it obscures facial expressions and gives the false impression that the wearer has something the hide. The ability to view facial expressions can be important for social interaction, however, on the other hand, I regularly talk to people on the phone and feel no great need to see the face of the speaker. Radio is also another non-visual medium.
I find myself ambivalent on this issue. Sometimes, when I'm feeling impatient, I think we should introduce an outright ban and have done with it now. Other times I think we should be tolerant but show our displeasure and then perhaps it will die out in a generation or two. But the older I get the more impatient I feel. Is it everybody's right to demonstrate against Eastern traditions as well as Western? What we need to get across is that wearing the veil is rude and insulting and unfriendly.
I don't know about 'demonstrating', George, but I think it might be a good idea to articulate your thoughts in a public way - perhaps, T-shirts and posters with slogans like: "Drop the veil, we want to be friends." or "Exercise your right to be recognised - drop the veil."

In this article Ayaan Hirsi Ali sees the burka issue as just one aspect of the "Clash of Civilizations" and thinks we should promote "Western values" with a propaganda campaign; which I'd have thought we are doing already.


Personally I see it more as a clash of Modern with Medieval, Rational with Religious, which stretches across divides and occurs within civilizations.
When Western non-Muslim women visit Muslim countries and don't wear a scarf or veil I guess it is seen by them too as a protest against their values.

Of course they are only visitors and I don't know the situation of Western women working say in Saudi or Iran etc.

It is regrettable though, that Western TV reporters always seem to don the scarf when in Muslim countries. Is that a condition of getting permission to broadcast I wonder?


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