I made the mistake of watching Question Time last night. I say mistake, because it always is. For one thing, every time I bother to watch it, they’ve got Nigel Farage on, blathering away like the treasurer of some regional cricket club whose had one too many nutty brown ales in the clubhouse. This, despite the fact that his party still doesn’t have a single seat in parliament.
Last night they were talking about burqas. I can only assume this was thanks to the news that a terror suspect escaped police surveillance by donning a burqa. For some reason, the headlines were all “TERROR SUSPECT DODGED POLICE IN BURQA”, rather than “CROSS-DRESSING TERRORIST DODGES COPPERS”. But I guess that’s because the tabloids want us to take this one seriously.
(Observant readers will have noticed that the picture up top shows women wearing niqabs, rather than burqas. I’ve included it, because most of the time, when people are talking about burqas, they mean burqas and niqabs. Burqas are the full face covering, with a kind of lacy veil over the eyes; niqabs cover everything from the eyes down. Like Batman in reverse. For the purposes of clarity, whenever I say “burqas”, read it as “…and niqabs”.)
Now, whenever the burqa question comes up, there are four reactions. There are those on the right, who want them banned, because “something something Muslims something something refusing to integrate”. Then there are those on the left, who think the burqa is fine because “something something multiculturalism something something racism”, and besides which… it pisses off those on the right. Then there are those somewhere in between who think the burqa is bad because it denigrates women, and their (perfectly valid) argument often gets co-opted by those on the Right, because it sounds more palatable than “We hate people who are DIFFERENT to us”, while the Left’s “anyone who hates the burqa is racist” argument is often exploited by swivel-eyed hardliners who think women should be both unseen and unheard.
With all this hot-air being expelled into the atmosphere it’s easy to lose sight of just how simple the “Burqa Question” is. So here, in under 200 words, is how you resolve it:
- You don’t ban it because it’s a divisive religious garment. Banning items of clothing is both ridiculous and a little bit draconian. Besides, how do you define a burqa or niqab? Would you have to ban all face coverings? Would that include those who – like me – cover their lower face with a scarf during a cold spell? If not, what’s to stop some Muslim women from just covering their face with a scarf? Legislating against “face coverings” would get absurd.
- You don’t even ban it because it denigrates women. Yes, there’s something deeply unpleasant about a male-dominated culture dictating what women wear. I fail to see how the resolution for this is another male-dominated culture dictating what women wear.
- You allow employers, banks, post offices and shops the discretion to demand that face coverings are removed by staff and customers. This seems to be the main sticking point when it comes to burqas. Customers entering banks or post offices are asked to remove any garment that covers the face, and few shop assistants would get away with wearing a balaclava to work, but when it comes to the burqa, we get all sheepish. We shouldn’t.
And that’s it. You don’t need to pass any new laws, we only have to agree that showing one’s face is, in certain contexts, the “done thing”, both for security and out of good manners. Yes, it’s a cultural thing, but then so is the burqa.
Join me next week, when I’ll have worked out how we tackle voter apathy and reinvigorate our democratic process*.
*I won’t really.