There are many reasons, writes Michael Nazir-Ali, for restricting the wearing of these garments in a number of important areas of our common life.
Boris Johnson likes being provocative. My own experience with him on the radio has been that he makes controversial comments to elicit controversial responses! This makes for good radio but it can offend this or that person or section of the population.We shouldn’t be too alarmed by this because freedom of expression necessarily involves the possibility of giving offence, as long as there is no threat to the safety of an individual or community or of discrimination against them.
The furore, however, about his language regarding the appearance of those wearing the burqa or niqab, has meant that many have missed his extremely relaxed attitude to the actual wearing of these garments in public situations. The only restrictions he seems to countenance have to do with private preferences or rules in schools or offices.
Like him, I am not in favour of an absolute ban on the burqa but unlike him, I am in favour of a qualified ban on wearing the burqa or niqab in a wide range of situations. I am not for a total ban because that would violate the freedom of people to dress as they choose when they are at home, with friends or at their place of worship. There are many reasons, however, for restricting the wearing of these garments in a number of important areas of our common life.
I come myself from both a Muslim and Christian family background and have lived and worked in Muslim majority communities. I have had beloved aunts who, at first, wore the burqa and then abandoned it because it was incompatible with their work as schoolteachers. I have seen also how increasingly ‘modest’ dress, whether the burqa, on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the niqab in Egypt or the chador in Iran, is being imposed on women in the name of religion, custom or culture. We cannot assume that such compulsion is not taking place in this country!
We have all seen how even male terrorists have escaped arrest by donning a burqa and making an effective getaway. For reasons of national security, there will be places like Parliament or Whitehall or town halls and council chambers where the burqa should not be allowed. Government and local authority buildings, as well as institutions like universities and schools, will want to know the identities of those who come to visit, work or study, not only at the point of entry but throughout the day. There needs to be legislative and regulatory backing for such bodies to be able to ban the burqa and the niqab on their premises.
Immigration and border control is another area where a ban is required. This is, of course, to determine the identity of those entering or leaving the country but it is also necessary to maintain adequate security in and around our ports and airports. Those responsible for our security need to able to tell, by people’s behaviour in public places, including facial expressions, whether they are a danger to others. The courts have ruled already that a face veil must be removed at the time of testifying but this is not enough. Judge, jurors and counsel will also want to observe the facial expressions, of those involved in a trial, at other stages, when different people are testifying or when counsel for the defence or prosecution are arguing their case.
Many professions require personal interaction with the client. In business, both the trader and the customer should be able to see one another’s face and to interpret expressions, if the transaction is to be mutually beneficial. This is even more true of doctors, dentists, nurses and paramedics. They need to know, from facial expression, how a patient is feeling, if they are in pain and whether pain has been relieved through treatment. Those engaged in therapeutic counselling and in social work, similarly, have to be able to tell, by observing the face, the extent of a person’s distress or well being. Both Boris Johnson and Jack Straw have declared that they would refuse to see someone from their constituency if they were wearing a face veil because that would make a real conversation very difficult. Such a difficulty extends to those working in job and advice centres and in any number of community and family projects.
I have seen women driving in some countries with a niqab or other voluminous covering. How they do so safely is a mystery to me! Public safety on roads means that those wearing burqa, niqab or other full head covering, which obscures all round vision, should not be allowed to operate vehicles where they pose a danger to the public. This must also be true of operating certain kinds of machinery at the work place or of working in difficult terrain or challenging weather conditions. Again, the Police, the DVSA and employers will need legislative sanction if they are to enforce such bans.
It is true that some women choose to wear the burqa or niqab because they feel it makes them more observant Muslims although there doesn’t seem to be anything in the Qur’an or in Islamic law that requires this. It is also true, however, that the burqa or niqab is being weaponised by Islamists to impose what they consider to be ‘Islamic’ character on communities, neighbourhoods and even nations. Culture and custom can also be appealed to in persuading women to take the face veil. In Britain, this has serious implications for the freedom of women but it also has implications for integration and social cohesion. Where there is widespread use of the face veil, there will be greater isolation from one another and a sense of segregation will grow.
While Islamists have succeeded in introducing or re-introducing the veil in a number of countries, other countries, like Egypt, are resisting this trend. The highest Islamic authorities there have banned it in educational institutions and Parliament is considering legislation to ban it altogether. What is happening there has certainly influencedthe European debate and we also need to learn from Egypt and other countries about the social and health consequences of observing strict purdah or the seclusion of women, including the wearing of face veils.
Boris Johnson claims that banning the burqa would result in a general crackdown on wearing any religious symbols in public. The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, has said, similarly, that banning the burqa is like banning Christians from wearing the crucifix. Neither of these claims bear examination. A crucifix, or similar religious symbol, does not conceal anyone’s identity or expression nor can it be used to conceal a weapon which could be a danger to the public. When are we going to stop always seeking equivalences between Christianity and other religious beliefs? Christianity has given us our civilisation, our values and the dignity and freedom of the person. Let us celebrate that instead of always dragging it down to the lowest common denominator!
We need then, to uphold both personal freedom and regulation for the sake of the public good. For weighty reasons of security, safety on our roads, control of our borders and professional conduct, the wearing of full face veils can be and should be restricted in our society.
This article was first published in The Telegraph.