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.
"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"