This week France banned women from wearing a burka or niquab in public– they haven’t banned headscarves but the full face coverings, a niquab leaves the eyes visible, a burka covers the face entirely. From reading the coverage it seems that this is a measure that, chattering classes excepted, is popular across France.
Politicians from both sides have been supportive of the ban. Fadela Amara, an Algerian-born former housing minister in called the burka “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it”, and André Gerin, a Communist MP who headed up the commission who looked into whether to implement a ban or not, described it as “the tip of an iceberg of oppression”.
And yet in Britain, Thereas May, the Home Secretary, ruled out implementing a ban because “it would be out of keeping with our nation’s longstanding record of tolerance”.
The logic around the debate seems muddled, are we saying that a ban is needed because the veil oppresses women and that most women who wear a veil are forced to do so? That the ban is therefore a tool of freedom for women?
But how is this any different from suggesting that all women have to bikinis between July and September?
And what about if women are not being forced to wear the veil but are doing it out of choice? What then of a ban that overturns their choice? What does that say about their right to self expression and self determination?
But also is there a fine line between choosing to wear a veil as a statement of one’s faith and choosing to wear a veil to minimise the unwanted comments and behaviours of others? At what point does it become a choice rather than a compulsion?
Or perhaps the French are trying to, in the light of their secular society, to reduce this very visible sign of difference, Jack Straw described the veil as a ‘visible demonstration of separateness’. And yes in a modern Western society it is strikingly different, but is it more of a statement of separation than facial tattoos or piercings or vividly dyed hair? Is banning it then an attempt to create conformity, to force through integration?
But by actively attacking the right to wear the veil are we not giving publicity to people who want to empathise the differences, might we not be giving ammunition to the ‘they don’t understand us’, the ‘they want to attack our way of life’ groups? May a ban on the veil not minimise the potential for religious fundamentalissm but actually increase the likelihood?
I’m still wrestling with whether this is a good or a bad ban – even more so I’m wrestling with trying to work my way through what is a minefield of issues surrounding this seemingly simple idea.
What do you think?