‘This is a garment that should have no place in British society. Both the burka and the niqab should be banned, as they have been in France, Belgium and elsewhere.’
So says Dr Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford. He was writing in the Daily Mail on the creeping Wahhabism of British Islam, with its intolerant creed and regressive customs. Integration is hopeless, because a weak and misguided establishment is hiding behind platitudes about multiculturalism and liberal values while failing to confront divisive forces in our towns and cities.
On moving to Whitechapel in the East End back in 1991, I was innocently excited by the exotic cultural atmosphere: signs in Urdu, the aroma from cheap curry houses on Commercial Road, bhangra blasting out from bashed Nissans, the early morning call from the mosque. From colourful nylon shirts and hijabs to squat people dressed in drab multiple layers for the climate of the Himalayan foothills. But one thing I found unwelcoming was a dark cloak worn by a minority of the local Somali women, covering all but a gauze-protected slit for the eyes. To me this was sinister. Imagine a sick child, already fearful, seeing such ghoulish figures in the corridors of Whitechapel’s Royal London Hospital (nowadays, an inquisitive child must be hushed by parents anxious not to appear racist).
When the burka is tentatively discussed by the commentariat, the focus tends to be on misogynist oppression. Many women may be forced by husbands or ‘community leaders’ to don an outfit originally designed for the Arabian desert. But there are also assertive adults who choose to wear it, and they challenge white do-gooders who want to empower them by taking away their liberty. This is a justifiable rebuttal of the wrong argument.
Middle-class liberals should stop infantilising female members of ethnic communities. Sometimes, hateful aggression lurks behind piety. Recently Channel Four news, in a feature promoting Muslim women who ‘reject stereotypes’, included Nadia Chan, who described herself as ‘an anti-colonial Islamist’. Chan was later found to have tweeted some gravely racist messages, such as calling for ‘honkies’ to be killed by any means necessary. In the Tower Hamlets childcare controversy, where the five-year-old daughter of a Christian mother was placed with an Arabic-speaking and burka-wearing foster carer, the latter allegedly denounced white women as stupid drunkards (although this is denied by the beleaguered council). Neither should we believe that all women of hardline Islam harbour such ill feeling, nor should we assume they are meek and vulnerable.
Instead of fussing over whether women are able to decide for themselves what they wear, the emphasis should shift to the rights of the majority. In society, choice is not simply made at individual level. Behaviour is regulated by social norms, rules of the house or the law of the land. Often restrictions exist for safety, such as use of seatbelts in cars, but they can also be for social reasons. Nudity won’t hurt anyone, but it offends decency. The niqab is the polar opposite: physically just a piece of cloth, but socially harmful in segregating, alienating and denying human interaction.
Cultural licence sometimes overrides social norms. This may be acceptable, and may genuinely contribute to multicultural enrichment. But the law should apply equally, as should policies in the workplace. There is a troubling power differential when the burka-clad can see you, but you can’t see her. And, as concerned former Labour minister Jack Straw at his constituency surgery in Blackburn, a masked woman may not be who she says she is, with potentially dire consequences. Furthermore, when a female student covers her face on a male student or lecturer entering the room, this is blatant sex discrimination. Feminists constantly complain of women being sexually objectified, but there is silence when men are at the receiving end.
Critics of the burka may be accused of prejudice if not petty fascism. If we’re honest, authoritarian and libertarian streaks co-exist in each of us. The younger generation and the liberal middle-class claim tolerance as a principal value, yet attitudes to freedom of speech and aspects of Christian faith betray their intolerance. We are selective in what we tolerate in others, and civil society is necessarily a compromise. Hijabs are fine by me, but the burka detracts from social cohesion, and with its increasing appearance we should consider the broader needs of society.
I’d prefer we banish rather than ban the burka. I hope, eventually, that it becomes socially unacceptable. But for now it should be forbidden in civic institutions such as schools, universities and courts of law. Hospitals already bar clinicians from wearing it, and this should go further. Supermarkets and other private service providers must be supported when they enforce a legitimate policy. And malevolent offence-seekers must not be encouraged to make spurious ‘hurt feelings’ claims against organisations or staff.
Certainly, the burka is not required by Islam. As Taj Hargey stated, it has already been proscribed in several countries of the supposedly progressive EU. Covering the face pronounces difference and division, and many Muslims dislike the practice. Wearing of the burka should be understood for what it is – a culturally hostile act.