Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Burka

To ban or not to ban that is the question. Debate has been vigorous in the last few days on the burka and whether we should ban it, in light of Damian Green's thoughts that such a ban would be “un-British”.

UKIP was the first UK national party to advocate such a ban, and I expressed my concerns about the policy here at the time. But clearly this is a debate which crosses party lines and is not going to go away any time soon.

Instinctively I largely agree with Damien Green. I hold the view that the less a government does or bans the better. Bans normally turn out to be counter-productive and are often enforced way beyond the original intentions. Obviously as part of attempts to make a safer society, then restrictions should apply in areas where facial covering is deemed unacceptable for security reasons, for example; banks, building societies and airports. Also private dwellings and businesses should have the right to refuse to serve anyone in a Burka. But a wholesale ban? No.

I do accept the genuine concerns that surround the donning of the burka. I believe it sets women apart from the rest of society, I’m uncomfortable seeing them in it, but I have no right not to feel like that. Often it is little more than a symbol of oppression of women rather than a fashion choice. Of course some women choose to wear the burka but there’s plenty of evidence that show many are forced to, despite that it isn’t a requirement of the religion. There’s little doubt that the burka is symptomatic of the misogynistic intolerance that Islam, particularly Islamic states, displays towards women.

Other commentators have pointed out that, aside from the sexual oppression and control, it is the perfect way to cover up domestic abuse:

But men can be bad. And fully veiled females cannot be protected from say, domestic violence - for the scars of that violence are never seen.

But would a ban achieve any progress on these issues? I don't think so. There’s, sadly, too much domestic abuse against women, many of whom don’t wear a burka. Last year the police received over 570,000 calls regarding domestic violence - the vast majority non-Muslims. There’s lots of 'ingenious' ways to cover up bruises without wearing a burka, or failing that make up excuses (I walked into a cupboard etc). Banning the burka will not curb domestic abuse.

Yes it's also true that too many Muslim women are forced to wear the veil, but how many women in non-Muslim relationships are forced to cover up their figures by possessive husbands or boyfriends? Such a law addresses a very limited symptom of important issues and one that focuses on clothing rather than on the real problems.

There are always going to be situations when an abusive or controlling partner will force his ideas on his wife or girlfriend. So should the state intervene there too? And this is always the trouble, where you do draw the line? If the burka, then why not the designer goggle jackets, the Guy Fawkes masks, or even the trying to keep out a biting wind by covering your face with a scarf?

And this neatly leads me onto my next point.

There’s a problem with drafting the law. What would be defined as a Burka? In order to be specific, there would have to be pages and pages of definition about what is allowed and what is not. This would inevitably lead to a cat and mouse game where burkas would be subsequently amended as not to fall foul of the law, the law is then amended again and then so is the burka ad infinitum.

To avoid this, the ban would have be couched in general terms in order to allow police to make a judgment. This is the more likely option as any law specifically targeting Muslims would probably be challenged under equality laws.

But this leads to another problem. Giving the law more scope for interpretation usually means that the Police would take the more robust stance allowed, rather than a more hands off approach, as anyone who has been stopped under section 60 (like I have) knows all too well. The RIP Act and Section 44 are other examples.

So expect plenty of Daily Mail type stories of children in clown costumes being arrested for covering their face in public. You don't believe me?

And then there's enforcement. Are the police really going to stop every woman wearing a burka? Are they going to force them to remove it in the middle of the street? That will help wonders with social cohesion I'm sure. What if 500 of them decided to make their feelings known, fully clad, on a protest down Whitehall?

Britain prides itself on being a tolerant society and rightly so. Yes this is sometimes abused - but that's the price you have to pay. To try to prove our tolerance and liberal attitudes by banning things has a fundamental contradiction at its heart.

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