Friday, 26 August 2016

Beyond the Veil: Why it is Right to Ban the Burka but Unjust to Ban the Burkini

(An edited version of this article appeared here in the

I support both the liberal secular Muslim Maajid Nawaz and the ex-Muslim Sarah Haider in their opposition to the burkini ban that is being imposed in some parts of France. Firstly, I think it is motivated by a desire to punish innocent female Muslims for the crimes of violent Islamists and for that I think it is wrong.

However, where I divert in opinion from Maajid and Sarah is that there are some exceptions to the rule that that it is illiberal for the state to decide what people can or can not wear in public. One of those exceptions is the niqab and/or the burqa. The first reason these items should be banned is because it is anathema to the cultural norms of western societies to cover one's face when in public. No workplace would tolerate somebody in a Halloween mask or a balaclava, so why should a religious face covering be granted special status? There is also the issue of equality and reciprocity which are essential for establishing trust and ensuring social cohesion between individuals. Social cohesion is undermined when some individuals either chose or are forced by male relatives to put a barrier between themselves and other individuals in society.  There is no equality in the belief that only men can show their faces in public. How can we all claim to be individuals who are equal in the eyes of the law if the law can't actually see some of us? No other western state should mimic the ludicrous and unjust burkini ban in some parts of France, but we should all replicate the French state's ban on religiously motivated face coverings in the public sphere.

Another reason the niqab/burqa should be banned is because it seeks to subvert the values of liberal democracy and no liberal state should have to tolerate a cultural practice that symbolises opposition to the founding principles of liberal democracy. What I mean by this is that in a liberal democracy the primary unit of society is not the collective, but the individual and that the individual has certain rights that the collective can not suppress. The burka and the full face veil are mandated by a version of Islam that is extremely socially conservative and which subordinates individual rights, and female individual rights even more so, to the collective will of Islamic religious authorities.

I have already anticipated my growing number of critics who will state, "surely a liberal democracy telling a women who chooses to wear the veil that she can not is an act of the collective suppressing the rights of an individual woman?" However, even liberalism has it's limits and no liberal society has to tolerate the right of some individuals to practice aspects of an extreme version of Islam that opposes the very existence of liberal democracies and wishes to replace them with a global caliphate where all women will be told what to wear by male religious clerics. The late Austrian Philosopher Karl Popper summed up very well why liberalism can not tolerate values that seek to undermine it:

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them."

A true and robust form of  liberalism doesn't have to tolerate the intolerant and the Burka is the sartorial embodiment of an intolerance of feminine sexuality that obscures not only the face, but also erases the contours of the body, as if exposing the female form in public is something women should be ashamed of. It's purpose is to suppress and subordinate female bodily autonomy to that of male clerical authority and yet there are some western feminists that actually defend the right to wear a niqab or burqa. I have a strong suspicion that if it was a mandatory clothing requirement of the Catholic church they'd have very different feelings about it. Even if a woman claims that she chooses to wear the burqa there is no taking away from the fact that the burqa is illiberal and misogynistic in that it is inspired by a version of Islam that seeks to erase the very concept of female individuality and equality between the sexes.

Although the burkini also has its roots in a religious patriarchal desire to control how women dress I believe it is different from the burka in that the individuality of the women isn't obscured or suppressed because the woman's face isn't hidden. As I have stated before, as a liberal and secularist I support the right of people to have socially conservative views, I even have a few socially conservative views of my own. The only time I oppose socially conservative views is when if in practice they harm the rights of other individuals, or seek to undermine the liberal foundations of society, of which the Burqa is a clear example, even if the woman chooses to wear it, whilst the Burkini is not if the woman freely chooses to wear it.

Now, whilst I oppose the burkini ban I don't think it's the most pertinent issue affecting the lives of women within Muslim communities in the west, or in the wider Muslim world. Therefore, it amazes me that British feminists prioritise having marches and protests against so called 'Islamophobia'  when instead they could be uniting with British women from the Muslim community to highlight the prevalence of forced marriage in the UK. However, nothing surprises me these days with western, mostly middle class feminists who instead of focusing on helping women who live in real patriarchal communities or countries, would rather focus on imaginary issues like the now discredited gender pay gap or promulgate the myth of 'white male privilege.'

Many modern feminists claim to oppose patriarchy, but the truth is that plenty of feminists see it where it doesn't exist and defend it or downplay it's severity when it is staring out at them from behind a niqab.

1 comment:

  1. Well and cogently said. The burkini ban makes secularism into a laughing stock, the opposite of what we are. It is a sop to right wing popularism. But I also agree that the burka is something else entirely.

    I live in Indonesia. It is still a country which is relaxed about clothing. Some women wear western style dresses, others (an increasing number) wear the cloth helmet known as the hijab. No one is criticised for their choice and it is common for friends to walk and socialise together completely oblivious to the style they adopt. Women teachers take their pupils swimming wearing a variety of burkini. To me, the burkini and the hijab cloth helmet look somewhat ridiculous, but not much more so than early 20th century swimwear nor the hats and scarves that women used to wear when I was growing up in London.

    What does make me shudder, however, is to see some young girls being sexualised and made ashamed of their bodies by being enclosed in the same cloth helmets their mothers wear. They should be running free with the wind in their hair like all children. And yes, there should be laws preventing this sort of child abuse.

    What, however, is absolutely intolerable to see are the families, mainly associated with the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement who want to usurp civil government and replace it with a caliphate, who do dress their women in dustbin liners and also dress their young girls similarly. When I see them it is very difficult to restrain myself.

    Islam is what it says on the box, submission. It is as wrong as slavery was because it is exactly the same thing. We have to combat it, primarily by allowing free and safe spaces for people to be able to talk and gain courage to make the bid for freedom. I am increasingly convinced that it will be defeated by women empowering themselves. They truly have nothing to lose. When they make small steps to allow themselves to enjoy a beach, what right have we to attack them for doing so?

    If we want to abolish slavery we don't attack the scullery maid's uniform. What we attack are the shackles and chains. That is the difference between the burkini and the burka.