May 19 2010 –
When Jack Straw, a British Labour politician, said a few years ago that he would prefer Muslim women to uncover their faces during appointments with him, because he “felt uncomfortable about talking to someone ‘face-to-face’ who [he] could not see”, liberal opinion was scandalised. He had no more right to request this than he did to ask a teenager to take out a tongue-stud or anything else that might offend middle-aged men: indeed, arguably less because the covering was for reasons of faith, not fashion. Today, however, some European governments are going further than Mr Straw ever wanted to. Starting with Belgium and France, they plan to ban the face-covering niqab or burqa altogether.
Europeans’ hostility to the burqa is understandable. It doesn’t just deprive them of the beauty of women’s faces; it offends the secularism that goes deep in European—and especially French—culture. Its spread goes hand in hand with the growth of a fundamentalist version of Islam some of whose proponents have attacked the secular societies they live in; and, at a time when those societies feel under threat, the burqa makes it harder for police to identify security risks.
For people raised outside the Gulf or Afghanistan, dealing with somebody whose facial expressions are hidden is uncomfortable. Unlike the headscarf, the burqa appears, in itself, to be a restraint on female freedom, and also symbolises what many Europeans see as the repression that women can suffer in Islam. And although many, and probably most, Muslim women wear the headscarf out of choice, some tell the police that they were forced to wear the burqa against their will.
Nor do democracies give absolute rights to citizens to wear what they like. The consensus about what is tolerated and what deemed offensive or dangerous varies. People cannot, in most countries, walk the streets naked. And Europeans clearly favour a ban. A recent poll found that a majority backed one in France (70%), Spain (65%), Italy (63%), Britain (57%) and Germany (50%). In America, with its stronger culture of religious freedom, only a minority (33%) was in favour.
Tolerate the burqa with pride
Yet the very values which Europeans feel are threatened by the burqa demand that they oppose a ban. Liberal societies should let people wear what they want unless there is a strong argument otherwise. And, in this case, the three arguments for a ban—security, sexual equality and secularism—do not stand up. On security, women can be required to lift their veils if necessary. On sexual equality, women would be better protected by the enforcement of existing laws against domestic violence than by the enactment of new laws forcing them to dress in a way that may be against their will. On secularism, even if Europeans would prefer not to have others’ religiosity paraded on the streets, the tolerance that Westerners claim to value requires them to put up with it.
European governments are entitled to limit women’s rights to wear the burqa. In schools, for instance, pupils should be able to see teachers’ faces, as should judges and juries in court. But Europeans should accept that, however much they dislike the burqa, banning it altogether would be an infringement on the individual rights which their culture normally struggles to protect. The French, of all people, should know that. As Voltaire might have said, “I disapprove of your dress, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it.”