Burqa battles

Saturday 13 October, 17:3018:45, Free StageCountercultural concerns

Denmark has become the latest European country to ban the Islamic burqa and niqab by outlawing the wearing of face veils in public, joining Austria, France, Belgium and Bulgaria, which have similar laws. The justice minister, Søren Pape Poulsen, from the Danish Conservative Party, has argued: ‘It is incompatible with the values of Danish society or respect for the community to keep the face hidden when meeting each other in the public space.’

But despite insisting that the ban doesn’t target religious groups, the new law, which does not ban headscarves, turbans or the traditional Jewish skull cap, has been described as illiberal and Islamophobic. Human rights group Amnesty International has called the ban ‘discriminatory’. Amnesty’s Europe director, Gauri van Gulik, said: ‘All women should be free to dress as they please and to wear clothing that expresses their identity or beliefs… the law criminalises women for their choice of clothing and in so doing flies in the face of those freedoms Denmark purports to uphold.’ The same point was made by Britain’s former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, in his now infamous Telegraph article on the ban, which was predominantly a critique of Denmark for betraying its own ‘spirit of liberty’.

Although Johnson argued against the Danish ban, he went on to use colourful, gratuitously insulting language about why he disapproved of the wearing of burqas and niqabs, arguing that they are oppressive and make women look like ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter boxes’. Since the article hit the headlines and dominated news bulletins, there have been reports of rising incidents of Islamophobic abuse directed at veiled Muslim women in the UK. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, MCB spokesman Miqdaad Versi accused Johnson of ‘dehumanising Muslim women’.

However, opinion is split – even amongst Muslims. A senior British imam, Taj Hargey from the Oxford Islamic Congregation, backed Johnson, although said he ‘did not go far enough’. The imam branded the burqa a ‘hideous tribal ninja-like garment’ and said it has ‘no Koranic legitimacy’. He warned that the burqa has become fashionable among more militant Islamists, ‘a nefarious component of a trendy gateway theology for religious extremism and militant Islam’. Michael Nazir-Ali, the Pakistan-born former Bishop of Rochester, has similarly argued 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’. But is this interpretation itself a politicised response to what is in effect just a dress code of choice?

There were also disputes between differing feminist attitudes to the burqa. Some university-educated niqab-wearers explain that face-blocking veils are empowering as they prevent men from ogling their bodies. Conversely, others deride the garments as representing the treatment of women as second-class citizens, the property of their husbands, allowing only him to see his wife’s face and hair.

How should the UK respond to the growing number of European countries that are banning the wearing of certain religious garments, such as the burqa, in the name of integration? If society wants to create a sense of shared citizenry, how should we respond to those who seem to want to put up barriers, whose identity or religion demands they separate themselves off? Should the state have any right to force people to go against their conscience or lifestyle choice? Is the burqa an issue about women’s equality, social cohesion or religious freedom?