Wednesday, 27 December 2006

To ban or not to ban the burqa?

Years ago whenever I would see someone wearing a burqa I would joke to my friends that this would be a brilliant way for a criminal to escape without being stopped. It did not occur to me then, that this had to be a muslim nor a woman but anyone so inclined to take advantage of this attire that hides your face. Of course, it would have been very difficult to know where to get one, unless one was in the muslim community presumably, but today it is very easy.

Last week we had the use of the burqa (actually the niqab) to this affect. As reported in the telegraph:
A Somali asylum seeker wanted for the murder of WPc Sharon Beshenivsky is believed to have fled Britain dressed as a woman wearing a Muslim niqab, which covers the whole face apart from the eyes.
Intelligence sources suggest he stole his sister's passport and slipped though the net at Heathrow between Christmas and New Year.
Whilst he was, in fact, a muslim, he was clearly being opportunistic and successful to boot. There probably have been similar situations elsewhere in the past and who would say this is not likely to occur again in the future? Then again recently we had Jack Straw bringing up the issue, with him refusing to talk to anyone in his clinic who wore a burqa or niqab.

With this more recent news, should we ban the burqa and niqab? That is should we ban it because, specifically, it can be abused by criminals, muslims or otherwise? This I would argue relies on poor logic. As a cyclist I often see similar arguments against cyclists, doing things I would not do, such as running red lights and so on and then being berated in some paper's letter columns by a militant motorist. The logic does not work because one could make the argument with more force against motorists themselves or even pedestrians (think of muggers)! Just because a few people abuse a privilege - cycling, driving or walking - is not grounds to ban it. Hopefully you can see the absurdity here and I think the same applies to the niqab and burqa. As far as clothing is concerned, we live in a society of free expression and that often means many people wear things I don't like and vice versa. I would not have it any other way and this is one of the positive features of our society.

However there are other issues. In the cold, when I am cycling, I often wear a balaclava and am often requested to remove it when I enter most any shop - especially banks and so on. This is perfectly reasonable, I surely do not have to say why. However I would object if burqa or niqab wearers were not obliged to do the same (so far I have not seen this though). I think the same goes for anyone shopping, you can be requested to reveal your face whether wearing a burqa, balaclava or hood and if you don't want to you can always take your custom elsewhere. Looking a footage of demonstrations, very often the malevolent elements have disguised themselves as they throw Molotov cocktails or whatever. There seems a principle in this society that if you hide your face you could be up to no good, and that is sufficient to request you reveal your face or leave. I agree with this. This certainly applies to places where you have a choice to enter or not. I can envisage a no veil sign similar to no smoking sign that any or all shops and institutions could use to indicate this.

This does not deal with veiling one's face in public and on public transport. Again when it is cold people will veil their faces using hats, hoods, scarves, balaclavas and so on and this is surely legitimate. To single out banning the burqa/niqab and allowing these others seems discriminatory. What about police doing their job, dealing with an incident, and wanting to identify the culprits? They surely do have the right to stop anyone and ask them to reveal their face. They should not have to wait until a women police officer arrives and examine a burqa/niqab wearer in private - they may not have the time nor resources to do this, nor should they be expected to. Similarly in airports where security is already over-stretched, to add additional effort to pander to these veil wearers is wrong. If one is sensitive to this, report this early, as one would if one had a broken leg or needed wheelchair access and then arrangements could be made. Otherwise they should be dealt with like the rest of us.

What about if they are in a job that requires proper communication and as we know not all communication is with words, sometimes face contact is desired, if not essential. Teaching for example? Well in order to teach one needs technical qualifications but if they insist on hiding their face, then I my view they are not practically qualified to teach and any pupil or student could, with justification, request another teacher. This is similar to a pharmacist who refused to dispense certain drugs due to their religious beliefs - they are not practically qualified - if they cannot transcend their own religious views to do that job properly, such people should not be employed nor choose a career as a pharmacist. The same applies here to teachers. And teachers could insist that the same would apply to pupils or students. I have taught in the past and would refuse to teach anyone whose face is veiled - I need to see their face to see if they are having difficulty with the subject, as well as if they are being mischievous!

Does this cover all cases? I think it does but I am open to further discussion. So don't ban the burqa/niqab but ensure they have no special rights or dispensations when shopping, going through customs, performing a job or anywhere else.


monado said...

Speaking of no double standards, I've always thought that a good way to get rid of restrictive practices is to make both sexes comply. You don't want females to tempt you? Well, you don't want to tempt them, either... so you can both wear it! I think a week in robes peering out a little screen should be enough to start clothing reform.