"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Burqa ban O.K (on the face of it).

President Sarkozy of France backed by a parliamentary panel is looking for a complete ban on the Burqa in the country. Although there is some prevarication over whether this will only apply in public buildings such as hospitals and government offices or a wider public ban, the government there seems intent on applying some level of control.
From my perspective this is one of those issues that treads a very fine human rights tightrope.
It is clear to me that in western society we can rightly be suspicious of someone who does not reveal their face to the world. We judge people’s character and intent on all of those subtle signals that faces betray and actually I would feel insulted if a woman in a full veil expected me not to be suspicious. You cannot take a person at face value if you cannot see their face.
It is also easy to see the veil as an attack on women’s equality. Muslim society does not treat women as equals and the burqa is visible evidence of that. Allowing Islam to undermine those advances in equality we have achieved in the west in the name of cultural relativism seems a retrograde step.
However some would argue otherwise, Including some Muslim women themselves, so it is difficult to see how a ban could avoid being construed as harming their human rights.
It is also the case of course that the Burqa is not a requirement of Islam, it is a cultural artefact of middle eastern society in general and its associations with Islam are a more recent phenomenon.
The one argument against a ban that should have no credence whatsoever though is the threat that it will incite further violence from Muslim extremists. That they have chosen to equate the veil with a fundamental notion of Islam and see this as a religious attack is not a reason to shy away from the cultural, secular and gender equality reasons behind it.
On balance, although I’m not instinctively in favour of banning things, I think more good than harm will come of ensuring we can recognise who we are sharing our space with. In the west anonymity is synonymous with subterfuge and mal-intent. On a practical level banning the Burqa in public is no different from a shopping mall banning hoodies, so I don’t think France’s ban (should it go ahead) to be too problematic.
Whether a similar approach could be taken in the U.K is debatable.


  1. Hi Steve!

    Welcome to the blogosphere. I'm ambivalent about the ban. Of course, I want a world where no woman feels the need to wear a burqa or a niqab. At the same time, it clashes with my belief that people should be free to make choices about themselves.

    If niqab clad women were committing hostile acts or engaging in theft in public, then there would definitely be a public policy angle to hang the ban on. However, the proposal to ban it in France ultimately seems to be because of what they associate it with.

    One of the better arguments I have read against a ban is that if these women feel they can only go out in public wearing the niqab, then they will feel forced to remain indoors and not interact with the larger society at all.

    That being the case, if a ban were adopted, what I would like to see happen is that women who are fined or arrested for it be required to meet with a public official and an imam who teaches that such restrictive garb is not required under Islam, find out the reasons why she insists on wearing it, and try to work it out rather than just treating her like a criminal.

  2. Hi Tommykey. Thanks for dropping by, it's good to know I'm not just pissing into the wind.
    Yeah, it's not a clear cut issue at all and I fully take the point that there maybe real difficulties for some Muslim women should it go ahead. It would be interesting to know Sarah Braasch's take on this as she works on a daily basis with Muslim women in Paris so may have a better informed opinion.

    This kind of legislation is a peculiarly French way of tackling a issue like this and I find it unlikely that anything similar will happen in the U.K or U.S. Also the French people have a very casual attitude to how they observe some laws and it's not inevitable that a ban would even be enforced. The other thing is that no penalties have been suggested as far as I know. What would actually happen to a fully veiled woman who turned up for treatment at a hospital? would she be turned away if she refused to unveil? I doubt it.
    The reason I give a (very) tentative welcome to the prospect of a ban though is the cultural statement it makes. I don't think it is acceptable to cover your face when dealing with other people, it's just rude and disrespectful, regardless of what may be acceptable in their own culture.

  3. So Sarah Braasch has made her position clear here in her article about the protest staged by Ni Putes Ni Soumises.