Is it liberal to ban the burka?

The French proposal to restrict the public wearing of burkas and face-veils seems to be gaining momentum, with an official report recommending that such garments be banned in official buildings and public transport, and even that wearers be refused residence cards and citizenship on the grounds that they exhibit "radical religious practice". Among the claims made in the document are that the veil (worn, it is thought, by fewer than two thousand women in France) is "a challenge to the Republic", "the symbol of the repression of women, and... of extremist fundamentalism" and something that "all France is saying Non to". It added, "this is unacceptable. We must condemn this excess."

The debate seems utterly alien to British sensibilities. Multiculturalism exhorts us not merely to tolerate the niqab but to welcome it as a sign of a vibrant and diverse society. When Lord Pearson of UKIP proposed a French-style ban the other day, he was derided for illiberalism and bigotry. It is surely a cornerstone of a liberal society that people may wear what they like without the intervention of the state. So long as the women concerned are exercising a free choice - or appearing to do so - what's the problem? It's an easy case to make, not least because it's not immediately obvious in what way veiled women - however misguided their interpretation of Islam - cause harm to others. As Dominic Lawson wrote recently in The Times, "it is absurd — morally and legally — to force women to be feminist against their wishes."

Such a ban would be extremely difficult to enforce, would appear stigmatising and would not attract much public support. Even making the case seems somehow un-British. Indeed, the spectacle of the anti-EU Pearson arguing for a measure so quintessentially French was a paradox as relishable as his own claim - made to a burka'd up undercover reporter for Guy News - that it would be "a ban for freedom".

The fact that the proposal is un-British doesn't necessarily mean that it would be wrong, however. Not everything that is British is by definition right. Pervasive CCTV is British. Binge drinking is British. Bad food and poor dental hygiene are British. Twenty odd years ago there was nothing in the world that said "Britain" quite so definitively as football hooliganism. So whether such a ban is British or not is irrelevant to the broader question of whether or not it would be a good idea.

We should ask instead why the French - a high proportion of them, anyway - see the proposed ban as desirable. Doubtless motives are mixed. Some will be bigots who are offended by the visible presence of Islam. Others have genuine security concerns in places such as airports. Some are high-principled secularists or feminists who dislike the encroachment of religion on public life, or who see the very notion of a full veil - even a partial veil, perhaps - as inherently demeaning to women. A surprising number are Muslims. But there's another reason, too. At the moment, the wearing of veils in France is very far from prevalent. It is spreading, but it hasn't reached the concentration that it has reached in parts of the UK. This fact hasn't gone unnoticed. French people look across the Channel, and they see how the multicultural tolerance of Britain has led to a society in which increasing numbers of women see the need to express their "identity" by imprisoning themselves inside ambulatory tents. They also notice that Britain has become the European HQ of radical Islam and an incubator of terrorism. They wonder if these facts might be linked. And who is to say that they are wrong?

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is almost the only public commentator in Britain who is prepared to dissent from the national consensus. Perhaps it helps to have been born abroad. Here she is again in the Independent yesterday, making the arguments that white liberals are either too culturally sensitive, too cowardly or (in many cases) too stupid to make. "Does liberalism have any duty to those who use liberal values as weapons to promote illiberalism?" she asks. "Is it obliged to become a suicide bomber, to self-destruct to prove itself?"

She wonders why, if Britain is so liberal and tolerant, so many police enjoy harassing photographers in the spurious name of "counter-terrorism" and why we as a nation put up with so many nannying restrictions. It's a good question. And as she rightly points out, it's not true that we don't have laws about what people can wear in public. Just ask the naked rambler. A group of protestors - including one embedded journalist - are disgracefully being put on trial in a few weeks' time for the "crime" of dressing up as comedy police (bras and suspenders included) at a demo last year. Shopping centres ban hoody-wearers as a matter of course in the name of security, and if no-one would object to a bank refusing service to men in stocking-masks or balaclavas, why should a woman disguising herself in the name of religion merit special consideration? Such questions can only lead to one conclusion, I think: what appears to be a liberal concession to personal taste is in fact an acknowledgement of the particular claims of religion in the public sphere.

The French proposal, to judge by the language used in the report, is intended to be a form of legislative disapproval. It sets out the republican norms that the French state wishes to inculcate in its citizens, which include sexual equality and more broadly a notion of public space. Bernard Accoyer, president of the Assemblée Nationale, for example condemned the burka as "a rejection of co-existence side-by-side, without which our republic is nothing." Before we assume that such language is merely a French eccentricity, recollect Gordon Brown's repeated lectures on the subject of "Britishness" - or, indeed, the strong interventions in private business relationships and the right of religious bodies to discriminate contained in the Equality Bill. His Labour government is notorious for legislation designed primarily to "send a message" about some issue du jour. Ministers often seem to acknowledge no middle ground between encouraging some activity and seeking to ban it. The notion that something might be at once bad (for an individual or for society) yet permissible in a free society seems often to have passed them by. Hence ever more draconian schemes to curb smoking, drinking and even human body-size. Why, as a matter of principle, should gender-stereotyping dress be any different?

There are good libertarian and Conservative arguments against a burka-ban, of the sort made by Lawson. However much you or I may personally dislike these garments, it really is none of our business, nor the government's. But then increasingly many things that aren't or shouldn't be the government's business get done by the government in the name of the common good, or of equality, or even to protect individuals from themselves. So it is at least interesting that left-liberals who are so keen to intervene in other areas should be so convinced that it is wrong to intervene in this one.

Liberalism is partly a habit of mind, a willingness to entertain unexpected arguments and accept the validity of contradictory points of view. Hence its self-contradicting tendency towards moral relativism. It's even possible to make what looks superficially like a convincing feminist case for the burka: it protects the woman wearing it from the "objectifying male gaze", it is a response to a culture in which women are judged by appearance and expected to conform to normative standards of dress and grooming, it protects against harassment (though the reverse would appear to be the case), it embodies a rejection of the cheapness and pornography of Western societies, and so on.

Such arguments are absurd; but they are not logically incoherent so much as obtuse. They resemble the arguments made by proponents of Intelligent Design, which are couched in scientific language but are purely religious in their inner content. Similarly, the pseudo-feminist argument for veiling is apt to catch shallow thinkers (which means many professing liberals) unawares. The logic of it seems to lead to some recognisable liberal-feminist destination, but in fact it is on a one-way track leading to religious fundamentalism.

If you doubt that, ask yourself why none of the liberal feminists who speak up for the right of Muslim women to wear veils want to wear such garments themselves. Or as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown puts it.

You people who support the "freedom" to wear the burka, do you think anorexics and drug addicts have the right to choose what they do? This covering makes women invisible, invalidates their participatory rights and confirms them as evil temptresses. Does it stop men from raping them? Does it mean they have more respect in the home and enclaves? Like hell it does. I feel the same fury when I see Orthodox Jewish women in wigs, with their many children, living tightly proscribed lives.

Progressive Muslims come out daily against the burka, and against mothers who bind and swaddle their young girls in preparation for their eventual incarceration which they will accept without a cry – both un-Islamic customs. Yes, the burka will be used by racists against us. But while fighting racism we cannot allow ourselves to become apologists for another, abhorrent injustice.

There isn't really a feminist argument for the burka, nor is there a liberal one. There is only an Islamic argument for it; which is why the most effective arguments against it are also likely to be Islamic ones. In any case, Alibhai-Brown makes an important case which has not, to my knowledge, had a coherent response from those who accept her liberal-interventionist starting-point.

The classic argument here is of course John Stuart Mill's harm principle: burka-wearers may be misguided, but if they are only damaging themselves then there's little a liberal state can or should do about it. The French answer - and Alibhai-Brown's - would seem to be that in fact they are harming other people through their choice of dress. For example they are (1) implicitly denigrating other women - especially other Muslim women - and thus making it harder for them to exercise autonomy; (2) damaging the image of Islam and the Muslim community in wider society, thus promoting community disharmony (YAB quotes an incident in which one conspicuously veiled woman provokes a hostile response from other Asians, who are heard to mutter "Stupid women, giving us all a bad name. They should send them back."); (3) creating delays in security arrangements where visual identification is required; (4) providing cover for criminals and possibly terrorists who have been known to adopt the burka as a convenient disguise; (5) the deprivation of sunlight is bad for their health, and may lead to increased healthcare costs.

This, then, is what the difference between the debate in Britain and France comes down to: not liberalism versus illiberalism, nor even secularism versus multiculturalism, but two competing conceptions of what it is to be liberal. It may take a generation to find out which is right.


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