Britain and the Burqa

Two weeks ago, when travelling on the tube in London, I saw a girl wearing a niqab (face covering veil) in person for the first time. (For the pictorial explanation of face-covering veils, such as the niqab and burqa, and headscarves, such as the hijab, the BBC has a great slideshow, linked in this article.) The girl was travelling in a group of three, with two young gentlemen, and they had clearly all been out shopping. They got on the tube and the boys indicated for the girl to sit down while they remained standing close by even though there were free seats on either side of her plus others in the tube car. They rode the tube for only a few stops and all got off together, carrying their high street shopping bags.

The issue of facial veiling has been a hot topic across Europe of late. The grounds for a ban range all the way from public security to women’s rights. France recently passed the first stages of legislation to ban face-covering attire in public, and there has been a pretty serious debate raging in Britain on the same topic. Various voices have called face covering “against the British way of life” while others have said banning face-covering would be “un-British”. Not being British, I have a hard time reading into the nuances of what “British” means in these competing contexts–clearly everyone wants things not to be “un-British” but people are having a hard time defining what exactly that means since the argument is being used on both sides of the debate.

David Mitchell published a rather screechy commentary on the topic today in the Observer. (Seriously, Mr. Mitchell, do you not have an editor there at ye olde Guardian corp. to fix errors of grammar like saying “I should not of done this!” when you mean “I should not have done this!”) His view seems to be that of the “banning the veil would be un-British” sort and he has some pretty harsh commentary for the large (his number) 67% of Brits that support such a ban.

Before I go any farther, let me first comment on the repeated statements from the Tory MP trying to forward veil-banning legislation, that people just don’t cover their faces in public in Britain because it affects their ability to communicate. Without coming down on either side of this debate, I could not help but giggle at the fact that face covering only seems to be extreme in Britain because the climate is so darned mild. Back in Minnesota, come January or thereabouts, all people male and female tend to cover their faces in public due to necessity:

I don’t know why the young dear is not wearing MITTENS, however–normally that would be a requirement when a face-scarf was also required!

Of course, people in Minnesota also routinely wear balaclavas (a.k.a. ski masks) for the same warmth-inducing purposes. And I’m just using Minnesota as an example, there are many other places around the world where people are accustomed to extremely cold weather and where the only exposed skin on display is right around the eyes.

My point overall (and I do have one) is that covering one’s face is not universally considered to be a threatening thing; there are many of us quite accustomed to only being able to see someone’s eyes when they are out and about. And yes, I recognize that it’s different talking about frostbite avoidance and religious modesty. So does the facial veil on a muslim woman make me uncomfortable? Yes, but only in the context of the way it is associated with the separateness of women, such as the episode I described at the beginning of this post, in which the girl was set apart from her male companions and left to sit alone while they chatted to each other. And in this context, just as in many other difficult debates, I think a ban would be too inflammatory, and is the wrong way to bring about positive social change. But it’s going to be an interesting few months watching this one play out here in the UK.

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7 responses to “Britain and the Burqa

  1. I too worry about the subjugation of these women. If they *choose* the veil, fair enough. If it is forced, then no.

  2. You make a really interesting point; I hadn’t considered this aspect of things before.

    I believe D Mitchell deliberately used bad grammar in the phrase, “I should not of done this!”, I think he’s trying to make a point that people with tattoos are stupid, in that they don’t use standard English. He’s also implying some sort of class issue, I think. He seems to feel tattoos are working class.

  3. My mother calls the Guardian the Groin-e-add due to its historically (or hysterically) bad spelling and grammer. She still has it delivered daily though!

    I think a part of the reason that Brits often find the face covering aspect of the niqab or burqa threatening because the IRA were always portrayed wearing balaclavas. People wearing black balaclavas cause my stomach to clench even now and it was fashionable for a time for people to wear them when I was a young child. Obviously this was done to avoid their personal identities being revealed and therefore facial coverings are currently linked with terrorist activity and fear, particularly in the English mind, and this fear has transferred into the wearing of the veil for muslim women.

    Personally I too worry about the possibly subjugation of women through this practice but it is also true that women choose to cover up and that is the crux of the matter. they should have that right to choose and a ban would, as you write, be too inflammatory.

  4. The primary reasons for the proposed ban are 1) the undeniable subjugation of women inherent in the culture (none of this is religiously-required, it is cultural- nor was it common before 1979 and Kohmeini); and 2) the security question- in certain situations, you need to be able to know that you can identify a person. The problem is when someone refuses to remove the veil in a security line or permit a passport or driver license photo to be taken sans covering.

    Go read Danielle Crittenden’s series at HuffPo on when she wore a burqua for a week- here is part 2 of 4 or 5, good place to start:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danielle-crittenden/islamic-like-me-does-this_b_75583.html

  5. My opinions is: What’s the big fuss? When it comes to security issues — of course I’m in favor of what is safe — but how often does that become necessary? The security line at the airport? There are many women who wear the full niqab here at my university. The first time I saw it — I must admit I did a double-glance, but mainly because it was ‘different.’ Since then, I’ve become accostomed to it. Something I’ve wondered and would love to ask a woman who wears one — do they afford the wearer a sense of anonymity that is freeing? When I wear sunglasses — I sometimes feel like I can escape from the lime light. I wonder if the niqab makes wearers feel more or less in the lime light here in the UK. Hmmm…

  6. Interesting point you make, about covering a face because of the weather. Yes, you’re right.

    I feel quite strongly about this issue. I think people should be allowed to dress as they wish, especially if it’s for religious reasons. I suppose you could say that when Westerners visit Muslim countries, they cover up, to respect the local sensibilities, and therefore people in Britain should respect the British way of dressing. But I’ve never quite bought that argument.

    I think the covering of a woman’s face makes people feel uneasy for all kinds of reasons totally unrelated to security. That’s just the story that is given (was going to say ‘the cover story’ but too cheesy). I don’t think any of the deeper issues will be sorted out by forcing people to dress in a different way, and actually, there is a risk that it will cause a lot of hostility and division, and do we need that?

    Interesting to read the comment about the IRA and balaclavas. Yes, that is a historical resonance for us, though I think the hostility to the Muslim veil is more about other things.

  7. Not about the burqa, but Sam Harris has written an excellent piece on the other issue in NYC : http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-08-13/ground-zero-mosque/full/

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