Banning the Burqa

A YouGov poll, published on Thursday, indicates that 48% of Brits support a ban on the niqab and burqa face veils. The measure is particularly popular with Ukip voters (85%) and Conservative voters (63%), and appears to be more popular among older generations than younger ones (with just 26% of 18–24 year olds in favour, compared to 68% of over 65s). Otherwise, however, support for the policy is broadly consistent across the regions and social classes of the UK.

France, Belgium and the Netherlands already operate bans on Islamic face-coverings, and, just last week, Paul Nuttall announced that banning the burqa would be official Ukip policy for the forthcoming general election.

Nuttall seemingly has two motives for the policy.

The first is security: “We have a heightened security risk at the moment”, Nuttall argues, “and for CCTV to be effective you need to see people’s faces”.

The second motive for the policy is to improve integration. According to Nuttall, “integration is actually getting worse in Britain at the moment, not better”. He envisions a burqa ban as being an effective way of encouraging Muslim women to engage in the wider British community.

Neither of these reasons is Islamophobic, nor, perhaps, is the policy as a whole. Nonetheless, the widespread support for the idea is fascinating, and may be symbolic of a deepening distrust in Britain of the Muslim community.

“This isn’t an attack specifically on Muslims, it’s all about integration”
Paul Nuttall

To assess why the policy is so popular, as well as what a ban on the burqa may actually accomplish, it is necessary to first look at the reasons Muslim women choose to wear the burqa.

The first reason is cultural. The Quran does not explicitly stipulate that the face of a woman must be covered, and merely encourages that women act modestly. This has been interpreted differently by various Muslim Sheikhs, hence the widely differing face-coverings used within Britain’s Muslim community. In this instance, women choose to wear the burqa (or another face-covering) due to cultural interpretations of the Quran’s desire for modesty.

A second reason for the use of face-coverings — one that is perhaps less prominent but which Ukip voters are often more eager to share — is the patriarchal dominance present in some Muslim households. Women who may choose to wear only a hijab, or no face covering at all, are pressured into the use of a burqa by husbands and fathers.

Having established Ukip’s stated motives for a ban on the burqa (to increase security and improve integration), and having established the reasons for the prevalence of the burqa in British society (culture and, less commonly, patriarchal dominance), we ought to consider whether the ban would be successful in realising its objectives.

Nuttall: In an age of heightened terror, you need to see people’s faces”

While it may appear perfectly logical that banning the burqa would improve the effectiveness of CCTV, as well as security more generally, the reality is less clear. There is no evidence of burqas being used in the UK to assist in crime. People may feel safer with no one walking around in a burqa, but this feeling of safety would by no means translate to actual security improvements. Furthermore, banning the burqa may create greater resentment of the government in some sections of the Muslim community, damaging vital counter-terrorism efforts that rely on tip-offs from within the Muslim community.

Regarding the improvement of integration, the success of a burqa ban is even more doubtful. Agnes De Feo, a French sociologist who has examined the effects of the banning of Islamic facial-coverings in France, believes that the ban has isolated women further.

“The women wearing the niqab before the law now stay at home and now they never go outside.”
Agnes De Feo

In the UK, as in France, banning the burqa may well entrap Muslim women in their​ homes, denying them of the opportunity to engage in the wider world. For women who are pressured into wearing the burqa, the situation may well become worse rather than better.

Even for the women who do abandon the burqa, what does Nuttall actually mean by integration? All Muslim communities in the UK, even the most isolated, have the same access to British institutions, and the same opportunities, as non-Muslim communities, and are therefore integrated. What Nuttall is really referring to is assimilation. While integration refers to the granting of legal equality, assimilation refers to the process of communities coming “into conformity with the customs, attitudes, etc., of a… nation”. If Ukip’s aim is to forcefully assimilate the Muslim community, would a burqa ban be effective? British culture, unlike that of France, is not by its nature secular. 60% of Brits are Christian, and we seemingly hold the principle of freedom of religion more highly than the principle of freedom from religion. Unlike in France, a country which prides itself on secularism, Britain is a country that prides itself on the values of religious diversity and liberty. If these are the values to which Muslim women must assimilate, forbidding the wearing of the burqa will not aid assimilation, as it will stifle diversity rather than encourage it.

Nuttall claims that banning the burqa will deliver security and women’s liberation. It will achieve neither; rather than make our streets safer, it will create resentment, and rather than empowering women, it will restrict their freedom.

The real reason for the ban, therefore, is neither security nor support for women, but rather to embolden the conformity of Britain’s Muslim community with the (slightly differently clothed) majority. It will do this by stifling personal liberty, and, in practical terms, will bring no benefit to anyone in Britain.

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