After an initial appearance in the Belgian legislature (a nation not known for its large number of fully-veiled Muslim women, as far as I was aware), the issue of banning burkas in public has moved to the French parliament and is also now receiving attention among Spanish politicians. It was therefore only a matter of time before the issue would be raised in the British context.
Philip Hollobone, Conservative MP for Kettering, has provided the opportunity with his pledge to introduce a private member's bill which would ban the Muslim facial veil in public - along with the wearing of full-face balaclavas.
It's worth stating at the outset that the actual issue is over the niqab, the full veil which allows the eyes to be seen. The burka - which hides the eyes behind a mesh - is almost never seen outside of Afghanistan or parts of rural Pakistan.
It seems unlikely that a bill to ban the burka/niqab/balaclava would ever make it to the House of Commons - especially in the light of Immigration Minister Damien Green describing such a ban as "un-British". The issue, however, is one that warrants thoughtful consideration as it touches on a number of important issues of personal freedoms, the role of the state, the equality of women and the place of religion in a modern society.
Advocates tend to cite four main reasons in favour of such a ban:
a) the burka/niqab is a symbol of the oppression of women. Removing it from the public space is an emancipating and empowering act for women
b) the veil hinders communication and, therefore, tends towards segregating the wearer from the wider non-veil wearing society
c) the garment is dangerous to the wearer in certain settings - such as near machinery
d) the garment can be a security risk. Labour MP Stephen Timms was recently stabbed at his constituency offices by a woman wearing a burka-like garment. At least one terror suspect in Britain has attempted to avoid arrest by dressing as a Muslim woman.
There is a fifth reason why some desire such a ban, though it is rarely stated in public debates. This is to limit the perceived spread of Islam in the west by reducing aspects of its visible presence.
Those seeking to apply a Christian perspective to the issue might do well to consider the following factors.
1. A garment similar to the niqab was common among women in the Bible
Especially in the Old Testament, the veil was often worn, for cultural, family and ethical reasons. The matriarch Rebekah clearly wore one as did the "beloved" in the Song of Songs. The story of Tamar reveals that the veil could, as today, be used for deceptive purposes. In Isaiah's day, it appears that veils were part of the essential wardrobe of the fashion-conscious Jerusalem urban elite.
2. The focus needs to be on the specific question of a legal ban
The current debate does not centre on whether the veil (or balaclava) is appropriate or liked, but whether it should be made illegal in public. A wider debate about the meanings inherent in the niqab may well be worth having, but the more limited issue that the current wave of European legislation raises is whether the state should criminalise the wearing of such a garment in public.
3. A simplistic secular, feminist analysis of the issue should be treated with caution
As my friend Steve Smith has pointed out, the current debate often rests on a binary assumption that veil = subjugation, and non-veil = liberty. Clearly, many women in liberal western democracies do have a number of freedoms not always afforded in other parts of the world. Having said this, western women do face significant levels of oppression from men, some legalised.
Writing in the Washington Post, American feminist writer Carol Campbell has noted what she perceives as one such area of oppression:
For many American women, the feminism that once attracted them with its lofty goal of promoting respect for women's dignity has morphed into something antithetical to that dignity: a movement that equates a woman's liberation with her license to kill her unborn child ... and colludes with a sexist culture eager to convince a woman in crisis that dealing with her unplanned pregnancy is her choice and, therefore, her problem.
Indeed, it is a conscious rejection of western liberalism, and, its perceived destructive influence on the family unit, that is currently providing one of the motivations for some women to explore more conservative religious movements. The language of women being "precious" and requiring "protection" in Islam may be repellent to many secular feminists but to some, the security that such a world offers is an attractive option if the alternative appears to be a life of insecure short-term relationships, casual sexual encounters and divorce or abandonment in one's middle years.
4. The bigger question about the nature and role of government should be addressed
Although there has been a minority view among Christians over the centuries that human governments have no genuine authority at all to coerce obedience - Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul are among those often associated with this strand of Christian Anarchism - the vast majority of Christian thinkers and churches, Protestant and Catholic, have accepted the traditional view that the state is a God-given institution with legitimate legislative and punitive powers. For the purpose of this article, I am assuming this majority Christian position on the role of government.
Within this mainstream framework, much attention has been given to Romans chapter 13 where the role of government is stated by the apostle Paul as being to "commend good" and "punish wrongdoing". John Stott once noted that governments of all types tend to perform the latter role much more effectively than they do the former! Nonetheless, this framework suggests that governments do well to consider the specific moral issues involved before criminalising any action.
At this point, a call to ban the burka in public seems to fall short. There is no breaking of a moral code when a woman wears such a garment (as would be the case, for instance, if she were to appear in the high street naked). No harm is being done to another person. There is no victim to be protected. Claims that the woman herself is a victim require too subjective a judgement on the motivations and meanings inherent in such attire to be a valid basis for legislation, in my opinion.
In the absence of such a clear moral issue, our default position should surely be to allow human beings to exercise their own choices and freedoms in public (and private) without interference by the state.
5. We should not abandon informal means of achieving desired outcomes
Our recent political history in the UK has tended to create the assumption that the majority of social issues can be addressed through legislation. This can actually amount to a diminishing of the value of more personal, informal means of effecting positive social change or of resolving difficulties. The general point is to consider carefully whether we want the state to take on the role of clothes monitor when other more effective mechanisms exist.
Jack Straw, for instance, asks veiled women to remove their veils when he meets with them at his constituency surgeries in Blackburn, so that he can better hear and understand what they are seeking to communicate with him. His experience, apparently, is that about half of women comply with this request and half do not.
Philip Hollobone, by contrast, is quoted as saying that he would refuse to meet a woman if she declined such a request. This position seems unnecessarily illiberal and against the spirit of the role of a public servant, whereas Jack Straw's approach seems more reasonable and pragmatic.
Health and safety aspects of robe wearing can (and should in my opinion) be dealt with at the level of the individual organisation or business concerned. There are situations where such attire is unsafe - best practice in hygiene requires a surgeon to prepare for and perform an operation with bare arms, for instance. This does not require legislation. Former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir -Ali, the son of a convert from Islam, has noted that such issues can be dealt with at a decentralised level.
5. We should support those actions which lead to social peace
Although unwavering on key issues, the apostle Paul's approach to life in a multicultural society (the urban Roman Empire) was notably peaceable and accommodating, while always keeping his focus on the furtherance of the Christian message. Although he was not involved in a democratic society, his mindset can be applied to those of us living in one:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
1 Cor 10:31-33
Elsewhere, Christians are warned against those who have "an unhealthy interest in controversy." Of course there are times when a principled stand needs to be taken on issues of clear right and wrong, such as matters of justice. We must not fall into the trap, however, of assuming that all issues are in this category.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the politicising of the issue of burka wearing tends to inflame inter-communal passions rather than reduce them. France has already had its first "burka rage" incident, for instance when a female lawyer (no less) ripped the veil from a fellow shopper in a department store. Police in Leicestershire are also concerned at a discernible rise in recent months in such physical or verbal attacks on women wearing veils.
In summary, we would do well to highlight and overcome any perceived fears of "the other" that may be behind calls for the banning of the veil and affirm that, despite its difficulties, freedom of expression is a commodity worth preserving. Maintaining such freedoms is significantly easier than regaining them once lost.
Image, Steve Evans.
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