10 March

Banning the Burka

Mural in Sydney, Australia

Guidelines have now been published for the implementation of France’s much-publicised ban on the wearing of full face-coverings in public places, which will come into force next month. The Guardian reports that – with more than a slight reminder of Communist Vietnam – women caught wearing the burka will be ‘given a citizenship class to remind them of the republican values of secular France and gender equality’. A similar ban was proposed in the UK last year by one Conservative MP. Although the proposal failed, evidence suggests that support for such measures amongst the British public is very high.

The issue of religious liberty and of the limits that can legitimately be placed on its public manifestation is complex, as is the question of whether the burka is a religious or cultural symbol, and to what extent the two can be separated, and I shall not attempt to address these questions other than to say that Patrick Weil is surely correct in his opinion that it is not right that ‘a woman who believes that her God orders her to wear [a burka] should be stopped from going out to buy food to feed herself, or from going to see a doctor’. It is also fair to point out that opposing the wearing of the burka does not necessarily entail that the State should legislate against it, as if the answer to every problem lay in heaping up laws and regulations.

Readers who wish to educate themselves on the burka would do well to read this article by a young British Muslim describing her own experience of growing to enjoy wearing a garment which she at first despised. ‘It was a relief not to have to think about what to wear’, she says; ‘the outfit became empowering, enabling a reclamation of one’s sexuality by not fulfilling modern commercialised definitions of what makes a woman attractive’. Of particular interest to Britain, which seems to have developed an obsession with ‘equality’ and ‘non-discrimination’, she observes that the burka ‘has a charming egalitarianism about it, and is both a social and physical leveller. Once social status or physical beauty cannot be established, all sorts of hierarchies are flattened.’ I can almost hear Polly Toynbee and Dianne Abbot rushing to order their burkas.

It is important that we not be deceived into thinking that this is a counter-revolution against supposed incursions of Islamic culture into the Christian West. It is rather another sign of the sorry decay of European culture, which is increasingly intolerant of any public expression of religious commitment. Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech recently praising the ‘Christian heritage of France’, and is reportedly on the offensive against school canteens serving halal food. The French, and other European countries, are right to be proud of their Christian roots. A number of obvious suggestions could be made to European governments who are genuinely interested in preserving (or rather, recovering) their Christian heritage. First among these should be the recognition of the unique dignity of every human being made in the image of God, and the protection of the right of every innocent person to his or her life from conception to death. Priority should be given to the preservation of the family and of traditional marriage, the primary unit of civil society and of healthy churches. One might also mention the position that ought to be accorded to the observance of Sunday in any country which congratulates itself on being Christian – something championed not only by Christian groups but by many trade unions. Banning the burka, however, will do nothing to revitalise Christianity in Europe.

Despite much talk of ‘women’s liberation’ and ‘gender equality’, we live in an age in which the dignity of women has never been so cheapened and disrespected, and it is understandable that some young ladies might wish to wear a burka to shield themselves from the glare of men who lack both self-control and respect for women. As a society, should we not – before even thinking about the burka – first confront a culture which deems it normal for women to appear in public with more of their flesh exposed than covered, and in which advertisements which can only be described as pornographic are now common in our towns and cities? Sex shops openly sell their seedy wares in many places, and supposedly respectable high street stores have been embroiled in controversies over selling sexually provocative clothing to young children. To abuse a biblical allusion (a literary device itself part of our Christian heritage), perhaps we should set about the arduous task of chainsawing and macheting away the gargantuan forests which are growing in our own eyes before we try and pick the splinters from the eyes of Muslim women.

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(Photo of ‘Say No to Burqas’ mural: © Beau Giles; Photo of women wearing niqab: © Agência Brasil/Marcello Casal, Jr.)

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